The life of a leader is hectic. Competing demands for time, complex business decisions to make, challenges that require immediate attention. With everything coming at them, leaders naturally look for the quickest way to solve problems. Unfortunately, in their haste to move on to the next thing, they sometimes solve the wrong problem. The consequences can be unnecessary confusion, lost time, and wasted resources. How to avoid this in your leadership life? Use critical thinking skills to slow down and make sure that you identify and solve the right problem.
Critical thinking is the process of independently and objectively analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information in order to form a judgment. Here are some elements of the critical thinking process and ways that leaders can use them to identify and solve the right problem:
Clarity – Before deciding how to solve a problem, be clear on what the problem is. Too often we make assumptions before we fully understand what’s happening and, in our haste to “do something”, we end up solving the wrong problem. While speed and decisiveness is certainly necessary in emergency situations, in most cases we have enough time to slow down, ask the right questions and challenge assumptions before proceeding.
Relevance – In the heat of battle, our vision sometimes narrows as we get singularly focused on problem-solving. As information comes at us, it is critically important to test how relevant the information is to the problem and how the anticipated solution will affect other aspects of the organization. This requires broadening our view to make sure that solving a problem here doesn’t create a problem elsewhere.
Depth and Breadth – The leader needs to decide how much information (depth) is necessary to make a sound decision and how widely (breadth) they need to look for it. While it is generally desirable to know more rather than less, there is a cost associated with gathering and analyzing data. So we need to weigh the cost of obtaining more information against the value it can provide us. It is also advisable to look at all sides of the problem to help minimize biases and root out false assumptions that can get in the way of making the best decision.
To illustrate critical thinking in action, a brief story. I once coached a mid-level leader in a large organization, “Bob”, whose boss wanted him to fix his “time management” problem. I could have provided him articles, books and videos on time management or perhaps shown him how to use alarms on his Outlook calendar to better manage his time. Instead, I had a hunch that time management was not Bob’s problem per se, but rather the outcome of something else going on. So I decided to use critical thinking to get clarity, test relevance, explore the depth and breadth of the situation, and ultimately help Bob solve the right problem.
The first step was to get clarity about what was going on. In our conversations I learned that one of Bob’s direct reports – “Charlie”—was a well-meaning, highly-knowledgeable perfectionist but also the least productive member of the team. This was relevant because Charlie’s teammates would often do a little extra to cover for his productivity shortfalls. Digging deeper, Bob admitted that when the team could not make up the difference, Bob himself would pick up the slack and thus find himself struggling to fulfill his supervisory duties. Bingo! There was Bob’s “time management” problem. It seems that Charlie had every good intention of being a great teammate but had a blind spot about how his behavior was affecting the team.
Now that Bob understood the real problem, we worked together to solve it. Bob decided the best approach was to give Charlie empathetic but frank feedback about his low productivity and what it was costing the team. The outcome of that conversation? Charlie was shocked to learn that his behavior was slowing down the team and causing extra work for others. As a result, he better managed his perfectionism and sped up his output. The bottom line? Everyone on the team regained their productivity, Bob had to pitch in less often, and Bob’s boss was pleased that he was finally able to solve his “time management” problem!
Legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, is often credited with saying: “Slow down in order to go faster.” Use critical thinking skills to help you slow down, analyze the situation, gather the right data, test your assumptions, identify and solve the right problems, and unleash your team and organization to go full speed ahead!
As Bob experienced, it's not always easy to correctly identify a problem and solution alone. Coaching helps us to critically think through powerful, challenging and supportive questions that open our mind to other possibilities. Has there been a time when slowing down and using critical thinking skills helped you solve a problem? Or has there been a time where the wrong problem was solved due to a lack of critical thinking? Please share your insights and experiences with us in the comments.