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A Critical Thinking Mindset

Oct 16, 2022

Critical thinking is a key skill for board directors. But does that mean a director is expected to be constantly negative, cynical, and hyper-critical?

Not at all.

Critical thinking isn’t about criticizing. It’s about how you approach problems, issues, and arguments. It’s about asking questions like ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’ or ‘What happens if?’ It’s about objectivity, having an open mind, and relying on evidence to understand what’s really going on.

And when your understanding is deeper, your contribution to the board’s decision-making can be that much more valuable.

That’s why, as a savvy director, it’s important to bring a critical thinking mindset to your board work. 

“Critical thinking is skeptical without being cynical. It is open-minded without being wishy-washy. It is analytical without being nitpicky.” – Peter Facione, Researcher and consultant

 

Critical Thinking in the Boardroom

What is critical thinking? There are some complicated, academic definitions out there. But, put simply, critical thinking is the kind of thinking where you objectively analyze events, information, and arguments, approach an issue from different sides, and form conclusions based on your analysis.

Critical thinkers are able to:

  • Clearly formulate important questions and problems.
  • Gather, interpret, and analyze relevant information.
  • Think open mindedly.
  • Recognize and evaluate assumptions, implications, and consequences.
  • Come to well-reasoned conclusions.
  • Communicate effectively to figure out solutions to complex problems.

As directors, we need to do more than just read a package of material before a board meeting. We should inform ourselves about anything we’re not sure of and spend time reflecting on our own thoughts. We might even start to form an opinion at this stage, while still leaving ourselves open to other points of view that might emerge at the board meeting.

You might be considering a management proposal as part of your meeting PREP. One thing to look for is evidence that they didn’t jump directly from problem to solution, that they followed a critical thinking process to come to a sound solution.

Our job as directors includes questioning the relevance, reliability, authority, and purpose of what we read, see, and hear – to seek the truth, rather than accepting things without questioning.

Let’s imagine that your board package includes a proposal for a large capital project, such as a new IT system. You should expect to see a logical process much like this one:

  1. Problem. Foundational questions such as, ‘Exactly what is the problem?’, ‘Why do we need to solve it?’ and ‘What’s the goal?’  have been answered.
  2. Facts. Sufficient relevant data has been collected. The data sources are credible and accurate, and there’s no obvious missing information.
  3. Analysis. The facts have been examined in detail and properly interpreted. The significance of the information has been presented and explained.
  4. Synthesis. The facts tie together in a coherent way that tells a story. The analysis logically supports the proposal.
  5. Argument. The proposal is clear. It’s obvious exactly what management wants to do, and why.
  6. Conclusion. Considering the evidence – for and against - and the arguments that were made, the whole thing make sense.

 

Applying a Critical Thinking Mindset to Board Work 

“Critical thinking is certainly a skill but when possessed as a mindset – a playful and humble willingness – it shifts from a labor to an art. It asks, ‘Is this true? By what standard?’” – Terry Heick, founder of TeachThought

Applying a critical thinking mindset to your board work means you’re willing to examine the facts, educate yourself about gaps in your understanding, and attempt an unbiased analysis of the information - all in a rational, clear-headed manner.

Being able to actually make use of that mindset in an effective way requires certain thinking skills - interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-regulation.

Interpretation skills. Being able to categorize, decode significance, clarify, and comprehend the meaning of experiences, situations, or data. For example, paraphrasing someone else’s idea to bring more clarity to a discussion.

Analytical skills. Being able to examine ideas and information, consider all aspects of a problem, and make connections between ideas. For example, identifying the unstated assumptions in an argument.

Evaluation skills. Being able to assess the credibility of claims, the quality of arguments, and the strength of the relationship among them. For example, judging if a particular argument is relevant to the situation.

Inference skills. Being able to question the evidence, come up with alternatives, draw valid conclusions, and form hypotheses. For example, predicting what could happen next based on current facts.

Explanation skills. Being able to state results, justify reasoning, and present cogent arguments. For example, clearly stating the factors you used to judge the quality of a presentation.

Self-regulation skills. Being able to monitor your own thinking with a view to questioning, confirming, or correcting your reasoning or conclusions. For example, examining your own views on an issue to look for personal bias or self-interest.

In the boardroom, the best way to apply these critical thinking skills is with questions like these:

  • Interpretation Questions: What does this mean? What was intended by saying that?
  • Analysis Questions: What are your arguments pro and con? What assumptions must we make to accept that conclusion?
  • Evaluation Questions: Why do we think this source is trustworthy? How confident can we be in our conclusions, given what we now know?
  • Inference Questions: If we abandoned that assumption, how would things change? What are the consequences of doing things that way?
  • Explanation Questions: Please tell us how you conducted that analysis. How would you explain why this particular decision was made?
  • Self-Regulation Questions: OK, before we commit, what are we missing? Can we revisit these factors before making a final decision?

 

Are there critical thinkers on your board? Are you one of them?

If you’re not sure, consider this list.

  • Do you access, then assess, relevant information?
  • Do you connect the dots between seemingly unrelated information?
  • Do you raise meaningful questions?
  • Do you articulate ideas with clarity and precision?
  • Are you aware of your own biases and take steps to neutralize them?
  • Do you recognize and challenge assumptions?
  • Do you engage with others to find solutions?
  • Do you communicate well-reasoned and practical conclusions?
  • Do you continue to test conclusions against new information?

 

How to Develop Your Critical Thinking Skills

If you’re not happy with your current skills, or you feel that you’re not applying them consistently, you’re not alone. One reason we need to consciously improve our critical thinking is simply the way our brains work – we’re all prone to mental shortcuts and flawed reasoning at times. Another reason is that we’re constantly bombarded by huge amounts of information – and it gets hard to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.

The good news is that your critical thinking can be strengthened through self-discipline and practice. We all have lots of opportunity to practice these behaviors in our personal life. Doing so will make it easier to bring a critical thinking mindset to our boardrooms.

Vet Information – Use skepticism when reviewing information from news stories, articles, and social media.

  • Look at where the facts, figures, images, and quotes came from. Are they trustworthy?
  • Ask questions like ‘Is this information complete?’ ‘What evidence supports this argument?’ and ‘Whose voice is missing?’
  • Ask about the motivation. Is it trying to sell you something or get you to do something?
  • Ask yourself, ‘Is there more to this topic?’ Do your own research to see the full picture.
  • Check the publication date. Events may have moved on since then.
  • Look at the language, emotion, and tone. Is it deliberately trying to make you feel a certain way?

Ask Questions - Channel your inner child and ask lots of ‘who,’ ‘what,’ and ‘why’ questions.

  • Leave your questions open-ended to encourage critical thinking and allow people to expand on their viewpoints.
  • Ask follow-up questions. Questions that enable critical thinking are often delivered in chains of deeper and deeper inquiry.
  • Consider the counterintuitive. Pose a question that challenges conventional thinking.

Listen Actively - Deep listening is a way of opening ourselves to a wide array of potential solutions.

  • Practice active listening - understanding what others are saying while showing them you are engaged and interested.
  • Listen more than you talk. Active listening allows you to fully grasp an argument, making it easier to evaluate.
  • Listen carefully to others to build a clear picture of their perspective.
  • Listen without judgment. Critical thinking requires keeping an open mind.

Seek Diversity - The more we listen only to the people who share our views, the more polarized our views become.

  • Consider more than one point of view.
  • When presented with information, consider whether there are other sides to the story.
  • Get outside your personal bubble to escape your usual thinking and gain insights.
  • Give people the chance to voice their opinions independently.

Let it Soak - A thoughtful conclusion or question needs time.

  • Get a good night’s rest. Sleep helps your brain assimilate a problem and see it more clearly.
  • Map a process that allows you to solve a problem over several days.
  • Resist unnecessary urgency.

 

Your takeaways:

  • Critical thinking isn’t about being negative. It’s about approaching problems with an open mind and relying on evidence and robust analysis.
  • When management makes a proposal, look for evidence that a logical process was followed.
  • A critical thinking mindset relies on skills in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-reflection.
  • You can strengthen your critical thinking skills by practicing them in your personal life.

 

Resources:

 

Thank you.

Scott

Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help directors prepare for their board role.

 

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