Critical thinking


M Ziauddin

Nations not given to critical thinking usually suffer from policy failures, like Pakistan is doing since its very birth. And even if they had succeeded in formulating the best of policies such nations invariably fail to implement these policies the way they should be. Critical thinking means making reasoned judgments that are logical and well-thought out. It is a way of thinking in which you don’t simply accept all arguments and conclusions you are exposed to but rather have an attitude involving questioning such arguments and conclusions like most developed and emerging nations do. It is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. Nations with critical thinking skills are able to understand the logical connections between ideas.
The skills that are needed to be able to think critically are varied and include observation, analysis, interpretation, reflection, evaluation, inference, explanation, problem solving, and decision making. Part of critical thinking is the ability to carefully examine something, whether it is a problem, a set of data, or a text. It is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. Most successful nations do possess a critical mass of their respective populations endowed with critical thinking. And this critical mass is normally made up of individuals either with innate gift or with skills learned through training and experience.
Most of these individuals get trained in critical thinking at the educational institutions they attend starting from the primary to the highest academic levels. Matt Plummer in his article (A Short Guide to Building Your Team’s Critical Thinking Skills) published in Harvard Business Review on October 11, 2019 shows how to assess the critical thinking skills of each individual, how to help those who are struggling, and how to know when an individual has mastered one phase and is ready for the next.
If individuals are just starting a new role or have never been pushed to think for themselves, they will likely be in the execution phase. In this phase, individuals simply do what they are asked to do. This may seem basic and even pre-critical thinking, but converting instructions into action requires several of the skill: verbal reasoning, decision-making, and problem-solving. You know an individual is getting it when you can answer “yes” to these 3 questions: Does he complete all parts of his assignments? Does he complete them on time? Does he complete them at or close to your standard of quality?
If an individual is struggling here, make sure he understands your instructions by asking him to rearticulate each assignment before he begins. Start by giving him smaller assignments with more immediate deadlines. Once he has begun the work, ask him to explain what he did, how he did it, and why he did it that way. Once the individual is making suggestions for how to improve his work, you know he is ready for the next phase. In the second phase, the individual learns to sort through a range of information and figures out what is important. For example, he can summarize the key takeaways after an important meeting. Here, you want to be able to answer “yes” to these questions: Can he identify all the important insights? Does he exclude all unimportant insights? Does he accurately assess the relative importance of the important insights? Can he communicate the important insights clearly and succinctly?
Synthesising is a skill that, like any other, grows with practice. Try to give the individual if he is getting stuck here as many chances to synthesise as possible. Ask him to share takeaways after a call with a client, for example, or after an important meeting. When you check in with him, make him share the insights first and in a succinct manner. If he is still struggling to identify what is important, try leading him through resource-constrained thought experiments that force him to isolate the most important information (e.g., what if you could only share one insight, what if you only had 5 minutes, what if we only had a thousand dollars). You know the individual is ready for Phase 3 when he can provide a summary of the important insights and implications for future work on the spot without preparation.
In the third phase, the individual moves from identifying what is important to determining what should be done. The primary goal is for him to consistently make recommendations that are well-founded — even if the recommendations don’t align with your opinion. Here’s how you can assess his progress: Does he always provide a recommendation when asking you questions instead of relying on you to come up with answers? Does he demonstrate appreciation for the potential downsides of his recommendation? Does he consider alternatives before landing on a recommendation? Are his recommendations backed by strong, sensible reasoning? When an individual enters this phase, start by requiring him to make recommendations before you share your opinion. Once he is, ask him to share his rationale, the alternatives he considered, and the downsides of his recommendations. This pushes him to do more than share the first idea that comes into his mind. He is ready to move to Phase 4 when he makes reasonable recommendations that reflect sound business judgment on work that is not his own.
To operate in the 4th phase of thinking, the individual must be able to create something out of nothing. For example, he is told there is a need to improve the training program for new hires and he develop a project to do it. In this phase, he becomes adept at translating the vision in others’ heads (and his own) into projects that can be executed. Assess his progress with these questions: Does he propose high-value work that doesn’t follow logically from work he is already doing? Can he convert your and others’ visions into feasible plans for realizing those visions? Can he figure out how to answer questions you have but don’t know how to answer?
To help the individual move into this phase, you will often have to model this thinking for him. Invite him to observe and participate in your own generative process. Many people don’t make it to this phase because they don’t give themselves permission to do the kind of open-ended thinking required. By inviting them to attend your brainstorming session, you show them it is not only okay to spend time thinking, but it is required. You can also ask them to keep a list of their ideas for improving the project, department, or organization. Invite them to share those ideas with you regularly. Then, seriously vet the ideas with them to show them the exercise was more than a practice activity.
Meanwhile, if we need to grow at an accelerated rate we need to bridge the existing talent gap in Pakistan as fast as we could. The talent gap is visible in the trades, middle-skilled jobs and high-skilled science, technology, engineering and math’s (STEM) jobs plus data analysis and medical sciences; and trade skills such as carpentry, plumbing, welding and machining. To address the skills shortage, we need a world-class, highly skilled workforce. This will require training workers, collaborating with educational institutions to improve graduate employability, and competing globally for top talent. Foreign-born talent is a necessary complement to the workforce as businesses become increasingly interconnected globally.
— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.

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