I have the incredible privilege of giving a session with Mary Lee Kennedy and Deb Wallace of Harvard Business School on critical thinking at SLA 2009 tomorrow.  Unfortunately, Mary Lee won’t be there in person, but she certainly will be there in content and in spirit.  Mary Lee embodies critical thinking — viewing “what is” and asking “why” and then doing something about it.  Just ask anyone that’s worked with her at Harvard, or, before that, Microsoft and, before that, Digital Equipment.  I’d ask “huh?” but Mary Lee would definitely ask “how can we frame this?”

The presentation is up here, but, in a nutshell critical thinking is really about unveiling and questioning assumptions and information that may not be valid.  Sounds easy, right? sounds reasonable.  Especially since so many decisions and problems we face are complex.  There’s often no obvious or even one right decision or solution.

BUT, it’s not easy or even reasonable in many circumstances to keep raising questions about people’s base “starting points” as they discuss potential options.  It can be downright risky to suggest to those making decisions that they “re-frame” how they see the situation, or that they set the “sunk costs” of a service or project aside as they examine options.  After all, very often we continue to ‘sink costs’ into a service/project even though it’s obviously past its prime or no longer working.  As Warren Buffet said, “When you find yourself in a hole, the best thing you can do is stop digging.”  So why do we continue to put money into non-strategic services? or why are we reluctant to identify our underlying assumptions? or keep asking what the REAL issue is that we’re facing? Among the many reasons are that we don’t want to risk that past decisions will be seen as “mistakes” or we don’t want to be perceived as “not knowing”, or we want to avoid conflict.

But the benefit of critical thinking is a productive dialogue that results in much more valid decisions that, yes, have been thought through and examined from new perspectives.  As Colin Powell kept saying in his speech to SLA last night, “it’s not the same.”  It’s not the same, so we’d better stop making decisions in the same way.

The other, I guess, “side-benefit” of critical thinking is that we can engage those who have been educated during the past 10-20 years – labelled gen xers or yers or digital natives – in this productive dialogue.  Why? because they’ve been educated to think critically — to question the assumptions — to look at situations & ask “why”.  Quite frankly, those of us over 45 (stop laughing – ok, over 50) weren’t even allowed to ask “why” until university, and then when we entered the work force we expected to  do what we were told.  Many of our generation (not all!) don’t know how to question or re-frame issues. Students are now educated to question the status quo and to look at information and say “oh yeah? says who?”  That’s what critical thinking is all about.  It’s about getting the perspective of those not involved in the situation and making sure the right solution is chosen because it’s right, not because it’s safe.

If you want to know more about critical thinking – or productive dialogue (since it is about discussion, discernment & getting to action) – check out The Critical Thinking Community or “The Hidden Traps in Decision Making” in Harvard Business Review January 2006 by John Hammond et al.  AND, most importantly, either engage those younger employees in the process, or get them to guide you through how to question the current thinking.