This article is a companion to my previous article about a Decision-Making Framework for Leaders and will refer to some of the concepts in that post. Today, I’m sharing some specific critical thinking tools you can use as a leader making decisions for your organisation or team.
What is Critical Thinking?
Critical thinking is the mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it.
It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcoming our biases.
Or, to put it another way – critical thinking is the art of thinking about our approach to thinking. It’s about gaining knowledge, comprehending it, applying that knowledge, analyzing and synthesizing.
Critical thinking can happen at any part of the decision making process. And the goal is to make sure we think deeply about our thinking and apply that thinking in different ways to come up with options and alternatives.
Think of it as a construct of moving through our thinking instead of just rushing through it.
Critical Thinking Is An Important Part of Decision-Making
It’s important to understand that critical thinking can sit outside of a specific decision-making process. And by the same token, decision making doesn’t always need to include critical thinking.
But for the purposes of this article, I’m addressing critical thinking within the problem and decision-making context.
And I’m sharing 9 critical thinking tools that are helpful for people at every stage of their leadership journey. There are so many tools out there and I’d love to hear from you if you have a favourite one that you’ve found useful.
So, whether you are:
- just beginning to flex your critical thinking and decision-making muscles
- or an experienced leader looking for tools to help you think more deeply about a problem
There is something here for you.
Let’s dive in.
9 Critical Thinking Tools For Leaders
- Decision Tree
- Changing Your Lens
- Active Listening & Socratic Method
- Decision Hygiene Checklist
- Where Accuracy Lives
- The 5 Whys
- RAID Log
- 7 So-Whats
- Overcoming Analysis Paralysis
Of course, there are many other tools available. But let’s look at how each of these can improve your decision-making and leadership skills.
1. Decision-Making Tree
The decision making tree can be useful before going into a decision-making meeting to determine how collaborative or inclusive you need to be and who should be included in the discussion on a particular issue.
This tree is a simple yes/no workflow in response to some specific questions that can guide you to identify if you need others to help you make a certain decision and if so, who you should include.
2. Changing Your Lens
Looking at problems through a different lens is about changing your point of view, changing the context, or changing the reality. Let’s go into each of those a little more.
Point of View
Ask yourself these questions as it relates to the problem at hand.
- Can you change your point of view?
- How is the problem defined from the perspective of the CEO, of the frontline staff, of customers, of adjacent groups? The goal is to look at the problem from the perspective of others within your specific organisation, so adjust these as needed.
They will all look at the problem in different ways as well as define it differently, depending upon their point of view. Understanding all of the viewpoints can give you a deeper understanding of all the ramifications of the problem at hand.
We tend to come at the problem from our own functional perspective. If I work in finance, well, it’s going to be a finance problem. If you ask someone who works in IT, they’ll likely look at the same thing and say, “It’s an IT problem.”
Can you change the context in terms of how you define the problem? Find someone from another area and ask them how they would define the problem. Use their perspective to generate that different point of view.
Change Your Reality
Ask yourself, “What if I …
- Removed some of these constraints?
- Had some of these resources?
- Was able to do X instead of Y?
By changing the reality, you may find a different way to define the problem that enables you to pursue different opportunities.
3. Active Listening & Socratic Method
This is pairing active listening with the Socratic method. Active listening is one of the core skills you’ll want to develop to get better at critical thinking. I also touched on active listening / deep listening in my article on difficult conversations.
Because you need to turn down the volume on your own beliefs and biases and listen to someone else. It’s about being present and staying focused.
Listening Skills include:
- Be present and stay focused
- Ask open-ended and probing questions
- Be aware of your biases
- Don’t interrupt or preempt
- Be curious and ask questions (80/20 talk time)
- Recap facts – repeat back what you heard using their language
- Allow the silence
- Move from Cosmetic>Conversational>Active>Deep Listening
When you are trying to find the problem, talk about what success looks like, and think about what the real question is, you have to be aware of your own biases. The things that resonate with you because it’s what you already believe.
Learn to ask questions and listen for insight.
When you’re trying to understand and gather information, it’s very easy to want to jump in to clarify your question when someone’s thinking.
But they’re actually thinking – so you need to sit back and allow it.
When you marry this type of active listening with some key questions that come from Socrates, it can help you understand problems at a deeper level.
To use this, just highlight one or two questions you’ve never used before to clarify, to understand the initial issue, or to bring up some assumptions. You can take just one question from each area to try out and listen for the answer.
As simple as this sounds, this is part of critical thinking. It’s about uncovering what’s actually going on to get to the root cause of a situation.
4. Decision Hygiene Checklist
When we think about active listening with great questions, we need to make sure that we are learning what someone else thinks without infecting them with what WE think.
That’s where the Decision Hygiene Checklist comes in. When we’re in this gathering and analysing data phase, you need to make sure you keep that analysis in a neutral environment. Don’t signal your conclusions.
You may want to quarantine people from past decisions, as well. Don’t bring up past decisions or outcomes because you want to get the information from them without it being polluted.
When you’re seeking feedback from others, exercise good decision hygiene in the following ways:
- Quarantine others from your opinions and beliefs when asking for feedback.
- Frame your request for feedback in a neutral fashion to keep from signalling your conclusions.
- Quarantine others from outcomes when asking about past decisions.
- Prior to being amid a decision, make a checklist of the fact and relevant information you would need to provide feedback for such a decision.
- Have the people seeking and giving feedback agree to be accountable to provide all the relevant information, ask for anything that’s not been provided, and refuse to give feedback if the person seeking feedback can’t provide relevant information.
When involved in a group setting, exercise these additional forms of decision hygiene:
- Solicit feedback independently, before a group discussion or before members express their views to one another.
- Anonymize the sources of the views and distribute a compilation to group members for review, in advance of group meetings or discussion.
5. Where Accuracy Lives
Remaining on the flavour of understanding that our own beliefs can compete or pollute reality and our decision making, another approach is to think about where accuracy lives.
The Inside View is from your own perspective, experiences, and beliefs. The Outside View is the way others see the world and the situation you’re in. And somewhere in the middle may be the reality.
This tool is quite simple. Start out with your inside view and describe the challenge from your perspective. Write down your understanding, your analysis, and maybe even your conclusions.
Then it’s almost like De Bono’s six hats where you take that hat off and you look at the outside view. Describe the situation from an outside view. Ask yourself if a co-worker had this problem, how would they view it? How might their perspective differ? What kind of solutions could they offer?
And then you marry those two narratives. One thing about the outside view is that you can get statistics around some of the information you’re looking at.
It can be quite helpful to get a base level of what is actually proven and true, statistically, that is not polluted by the inside view.
Once you’ve run through this process, ask yourself:
- Did this actually change my view?
- Can I see the biases that were sitting there?
- And if Yes, why?
6. The 5 Whys: Root Cause Analysis
This is a really simple tool that starts off by defining the problem or the defect and then continuing to ask why until you get to the 5th Why. This is is usually where you’ll start to discover a possible solution.
Here’s a simple example:
- Problem – I ran a red light.
- Well, why did it happen? I was late for an appointment.
- Why did that happen? Well, I woke up late.
- And why did that happen? My alarm didn’t go off on my phone.
- Why did that happen? I didn’t plug it into the charger.
- And why is that happening? It wasn’t plugged in. It’s because I forgot to plug it in.
So there’s the possible solution – I’ve got to set up a recurring alarm at 9pm to remind me to plug my phone in.
This is a tool perfect for junior members on your team, or ones that come to you with a barrage of questions on a problem. Have them take the 5 Whys template and think it through, ask themselves the 5 why’s.
7. RAID Log
RAID stands for
- Risks – write down the risks that will have an adverse impact on this?
- Assumptions – list out all the associated assumptions
- Issues – What are some of the issues that have already impacted or could impact the project?
- Dependencies – what are the dependencies
The RAID Log is often used when you’ve got multiple decisions about an ongoing project.
Whether you’ll be assessing your thinking by yourself, or with team members or customers, this is a great way to make sure you’re gathering all of the necessary information including the assumptions, any issues and dependencies.
8. 7 So-Whats: Consequences of Actions
All of the previous tools are designed to help you define what the problem is. But it’s also important to think about the consequences of actions.
As you grow as a leader, you’ll need to be comfortable understanding both big thinking and little thinking. Big picture and little details so you are confident in your decisions.
A big part of that is understanding the consequences of your actions and decisions. That’s what the 7 So-Whats tool is about.
The 7 So-Whats is similar to the 5 Whys in that you ask the same question repeatedly to get the answer. Start with your recommendation or possible solution and then ask “So, what will that mean” 7 times.
For example, if you need to hire a new sales rep, the first ‘So, what’ would be something like, “We’ll need to have the right job description and salary package for them, and let the team know they’re coming on.”
And then you work your way through the rest of the ‘So, Whats’ to detail out the results or consequences of the action you’re thinking about.
9. Overcoming Analysis Paralysis
A lot of people get caught up in analysis paralysis. I know I do. Whether it’s thinking about moving house or taking on a new hire, you get all the information but you still feel stuck.
What I find is that it’s usually because we are narrowing our focus too much, especially when it comes to advancement in your career or self-promotion.
So here are some questions to help you push through that analysis paralysis. Ask yourself:
- How would I make this decision if I was focused on opening up opportunities for myself / the situation?
- What would I advise my best friend to do? Or What would my successor do in this situation?
- Your caution may be the result of short-term fears, such as embarrassment, that aren’t important in the long run. Can you create a timeline or deadline to make the decision that will give you some mental distance?
Basically, you want to ask yourself what is holding you back. Is it fear? Fear of disappointment? Or that you don’t have enough information?
Perhaps you think you could get more information, but can you get more information in the time available? If not, then make the decision with what you have.
If you hold back from making your decision, what will the impact be for your stakeholders, your career, and how people view you?
The purpose of this tool is to separate yourself from the situation a little bit so you can look at it more subjectively as if you were advising a friend. And push through the paralysis to make the decision.
9 Critical Thinking Tools For Better Decision-Making
Taking time to think about how you think and using tools like these can be the difference between becoming a good leader and a great one.
Use these nine critical thinking tools to empower you to make better decisions for your business, organisation, and career – and feel confident doing so.
For personalised guidance on how best to use critical thinking skills for your business or organisation, drop us a line. We would be happy to partner with you to create a plan tailored to your needs.