Business leaders can easily fail to carefully evaluate issues before making a decision. Often it’s easier to jump to a conclusion or to choose evidence that supports a prior belief.
The key to avoiding these traps is to develop the skill of critical thinking. This involves thinking about the thinking process itself.
Here are three habits that can help you improve your critical thinking skills.
1. Question assumptions
Nearly every decision we make starts from some basic assumptions. For example, a retailer may presume that its customers have more disposable income than they really have. If the company prices its products on this faulty assumption, they may overprice its items and miss out on sales.
So a good starting point when making important decisions is to identify and question the assumptions involved.
First ask yourself, are any supposed facts underpinning the assumption still true? Now challenge the assumption itself by imagining if an alternative, or even the opposite, were actually true.
Another powerful tool is to ask open-ended questions that challenge current thinking. Here are some examples:
- “What led you to that conclusion?”
- “Why do you think it will happen that way?”
- “What if you tried another approach?”
- “What makes you think that?”
Get others involved—it's easier to uncover assumptions with an outside perspective.
You may well find that one changed assumption is the difference between poor and successful outcomes.
2. Reason through logic
Assumptions and faulty reasoning can also be corrected by applying logic, the science of reaching sound conclusions based on accurate information.
For example, a company may modify an advertising campaign to highlight a product’s user-friendly qualities after receiving feedback from customers indicating that ease of use was the primary reason that they had purchased the product.
The company’s change in approach was logical because it was based on reliable evidence—customer feedback.
So improve your critical thinking by paying close attention to the “chain” of logic constructed by a particular argument.
For example, ask yourself: Is the argument supported at every point by evidence? Do all the pieces of evidence build on each other to produce sound conclusion?
Being aware of common fallacies can also allow you to think more logically.
For instance, people often engage in what’s known as “post hoc” thinking. In this fallacy, people believe that “because event B followed event A, event B must have been caused by event A.”
The way to challenge this faulty assumption is to identify what, if any, data supports it.
Following the data wherever it leads will help you make more logical decisions.
3. Diversify thought
It’s natural for people to group themselves together with people who think or act like them. This is a problem.
If all of your business contacts think as you do, you can easily become more polarised in your views, and less likely to change your beliefs on the basis of new information.
This process is often called “groupthink.”
Groupthink specifically refers to the tendency for a group to make bad or poorly thought-out decisions because its members aligned themselves with one other, insulating themselves from outside opinion and reinforcing viewpoints they already share.
Because groupthink manifests itself in most groups, consensus forms quickly—meaning that the first reasonable idea usually becomes the universally accepted one, and alternative ideas stop coming to the surface.
A classic example involves the collapse of Swissair—an airline considered so financially solvent it was called the "Flying Bank." Swissair management began to believe they were invulnerable and as a result of failing to question poor decisions and gross mismanagement, the airline eventually went bankrupt.
You can counter groupthink by actively exposing yourself to different personalities and viewpoints.
If you work in accounting, make friends with people in marketing. If you always go to lunch with senior staff, make time to eat with your junior colleagues. Training yourself this way will help you escape your usual thinking and gain richer insights.
In team settings, give people the chance to give their opinions independently without the influence of the group. When you ask for advice, for instance, you could ask team members to email you their opinions before you indicate your own initial thinking.
Too many organisations don’t take the time to engage in robust forms of reasoning. But the important work of critical thinking pays off.
The most important business victories are achieved through thinking smart.
Anyone can improve their critical thinking by questioning their assumptions, reasoning through logic, and diversifying their thought.