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It's a Matter of Mindset: Ten Principles for Unleashing Critical Thinking

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"To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science." -- Albert Einstein

Recently a product manager at a leading financial services company organized a team meeting to talk about a product launched over two years ago, whose sales fell significantly short of initial projections.

Comments about the shortfall from the product team members in the meeting ranged from saying the initial sales projections were set too high (even though the product team had been involved in setting those goals and projections), the market for this product just wasn't there, we have done everything we can to sell the product, to why aren't there higher goals for other products that the organization carries, and we simply can't meet the goals set.

Other company staff attending the meeting and who weren't part of the product team saw a complete lack of critical thinking on the part of the product team on how to increase sales or even frame the problem. The product team offered no data that indicated the market had vanished for the product or that the initial sales forecasts were inaccurate. Worse, they summarily dismissed suggestions for improvement by others.

Rather than approaching the failure to meet sales goals as a "challenge" to solve, the product team resigned itself to sub-par sales because of alleged factors beyond its control and hoped the rest of the organization would carry the load. They refused to think differently about the problem, their approach to sales, and changes they needed to make immediately to try to bolster sales.

In short, the product team did not have a critical thinking mindset for solving a significant problem.

It Requires Skill And Mindset
In 2011, the business world is changing at an astonishing and complex pace. Companies need critical thinking skills to not only thrive but also survive in this environment. High performance firms require people that capture opportunities, make sound decisions, create new revenue streams, expand their customer base, and create strength for the future.

While much has been written about how to develop employees' skills around critical thinking that include diagnosing and defining problems, gathering data, testing assumptions, infusing creativity, and generating solutions - the real key to success is to have a critical thinking mindset or attitude as a foundation.

It's simply not enough to have the critical thinking skills. A critical thinking mindset is required - it is a way of doing business, an attitude, a behavior, an approach, an inclination, a disposition, a confidence, a frame of mind, the drive, or motivation to solving big problems.
Individuals with a critical thinking mindset believe they can solve any problem and no challenge is too great. They approach problems with the attitude of optimism, persistence, confidence, and resolution to improve the situation.

This is in sharp contrast to a defeatist attitude, which accepts status quo or failure as a natural consequence of the situation or of others and believes that not much can be done to improve the situation.

Bill Gates is the epitome of a leader with a critical thinking mindset both in the workplace and in solving the world's big challenges. In 2005, Gates said, "I've always been an optimist and I suppose that is rooted in my belief that the power of creativity and intelligence can make the world a better place. For as long as I can remember, I've loved learning new things and solving problems. I believe that progress on even the world's toughest problems is possible -- and it's happening every day. We're seeing new drugs for deadly diseases, new diagnostic tools, and new attention paid to the health problems in the developing world. I'm excited by the possibilities I see for medicine, for education and, of course, for technology. And I believe that through our natural inventiveness, creativity, and willingness to solve tough problems, we're going to make some amazing achievements in all these areas in my lifetime."

Ten Principles Underlying a Critical Thinking Mindset

There are at the very least ten fundamental principles underlying a critical thinking mindset.
1. View problems as an exciting challenge. The willingness to solve tough problems is at the very core of a critical thinking mindset. People with a critical thinking mindset respond to new demands and challenges by maintaining a constructive, positive outlook about change. New challenges and problems excite them. In fact, they thrive on tackling problems. When presented with organizational change, they see an opportunity not a threat. Seemingly unsolvable problems thrill them, and they find the time and energy to solve the big issues of the day. Author, inventor, and entrepreneur Jock Brandis is such a person. On a 2001 trip to Mali, West Africa to fix a water treatment plant, Brandis noticed women shelling peanuts by hand - a very slow process. Before he left, he promised to send them back a peanut sheller but found upon returning to the U.S. that no such thing existed. So he invented one, now called the Universal Peanut Sheller. One sheller can serve 5,600 people or 731 homes. Brandis is now a part of the non-profit group, the Full Belly Project, exploring other technologies to help improve living conditions in some of the most poverty-stricken areas of the world. As quoted in an interview, Brandis said, "there are many problems that can be solved with an oil drum and a few spare parts."

2. Act courageously and take risks. Fear of risk or failure inhibits a critical thinking mindset. Additionally, many people fear pointing out new ways of doing things or flaws in current methods for fear of retribution or being thought of as someone who "rocks the boat" rather than a "team player." Nevertheless, it's imperative to gauge when to speak up, suggest creative new ideas, or take on a risk. LivingSocial is a company formed in 2007, offering daily deals at restaurants, and other enterprises, using social media to tap into local business advertising. During an interview (2011), CEO Tim O'Shaughnessy stated that part of the company's culture is to take risks. "One of the things I like to say around the office is, if you're not making at least one decision a month where you are genuinely nervous about it, you're probably not trying hard enough," he says. Asked for an example, O'Shaughnessy says, "We actually started to go and advertise, and promote our service, in markets that we weren't 'live' in." The gamble paid off -- LivingSocial quickly added markets and signed up more members. And the company's fast growth attracted more venture capital, to help level out its balance sheet. "We took our [cash] burn rate from about a 12-month time frame to about a month-and-a-half time frame -- in the span of about a week," O'Shaughnessy says. These courageous and risk taking tactics worked well for the young company that now employs hundreds of people and is in more than 100 cities. Amazon also just invested a cool $175 million in the company in December 2010.

3. Don't use excuses. How much easier is it for people to use excuses for lack of success or results and blame factors such as market, inadequate resources, organizational barriers, or other people rather than working to figure out ways to solve problems? Companies and people embracing a critical thinking mindset learn from failure and mistakes, with the ability to rebound from setbacks and/or changes. And when things do not go well, they work to make them better. Case in point: many financial investment firms find that they are transforming themselves through extensive changes due to failures. Late in 2010, Marsico Capital Management, LLC Denver restructured $2.7 billion in debt as they now fight for their company survival. In November 2010, assets were 54% of the high value base - losses had been significant over the last year or so. Currently analysts from S&P and Moody's remain skeptical about the survival of Marsico Capital. Marsico company executives aren't providing excuses, but solutions and a concrete game plan. With a steadfast commitment to maintaining a strong investment process and commitment to clients, they work to move forward and build back their asset base. While problems at Marsico mirror those of other boutique equity firms, the executives at Marsico have a strong reputation for their creativity and critical thinking mindset and some analysts believe they will rebound and thrive.

4. Blink. Many times inadequate information exists or there is a lack of awareness of what is really happening in the environment to identify problems, much less solve them. In these situations, executives must act with incomplete knowledge. If they wait until the information is complete, they could miss key windows of opportunity. In some cases, executives must learn to use their hunches, gut reactions, and intuition because they don't have access to complete information. They have to simply make a decision and move forward. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, makes the case for times when using "thin-slicing" or just a few pieces of critical information suffice to make fast decisions. As Gladwell notes, sometimes it is essential that we pay attention to those short moments of first reactions, impressions, and conclusions when we confront complex situations and problems.

5. Learn and question. Individuals with a critical thinking mindset often frame difficult challenges as learning opportunities, with an innate concern to know the business and stay well informed, to gain clarity in questions, to seek relevant information and to be open to learning about new ideas. As an example, the onslaught of social media tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter among others, creates opportunities and challenges for companies and employees to learn new ways of marketing, think differently about their products, and interact with consumers. Those with a critical thinking mindset open themselves to new ideas; new ways of viewing issues, and constantly ask relevant questions.

6. Think at the organization-environment level. Organizations need people whom are "active stewards" and think of ways to help the organization achieve its overall goals. This contrasts sharply a mindset that focuses solely on oneself or one's unit. While understandable, viewing an organization's needs through the lens of a particular unit or oneself often hinders critical thinking. Defensive and protective thinking is probably one of the biggest disasters with internal organizational interactions, and unfortunately, it is part of a normal thought pattern that exists within many organizations. People sometimes spend way too much precious psychic energy endlessly guarding their own ego or their own area, and it's especially easy to fall into this type of mindset while under pressure. Yet, organizations need executives who put their own feelings and needs aside to think about issues from an organizational perspective towards accomplishing the greater goal.

7. Push through roadblocks. Too often people hit a roadblock and simply stop trying to develop a new idea or new way of conducting business. A research development executive at Microsoft shared that often as he pushes out a new idea at first, he is thought of as crazy for a few months, then he becomes a hero as the idea gains acceptance, and then goes back to being a nobody as the product takes traction. And so the cycle goes - generation of idea, perseverance through roadblocks to gain buy-in, to implementation - to final results. In contrast, I often see executives suggest great ideas in meetings, but if not acknowledged by others, they withdraw from the conversation, never to mention the idea again. People with critical thinking mindsets continue to think of new ways to communicate, gain buy-in for ideas and push through the roadblocks. As noted by Warren Bennis, "innovation-- any new idea--by definition will not be accepted at first. It takes repeated attempts, endless demonstrations, monotonous rehearsals before innovation can be accepted and internalized by an organization. This requires courageous patience."

8. Be open to new __________ (fill in the blank). Often, problems require a paradigm shift - a new way of thinking about the business. Many people can't conceptualize a new paradigm for their business or industry. What we often don't hear in solving problems is a critical reframing of the questions to address root causes. Individuals and companies with a critical thinking mindset open themselves to new ways of doing business, new ways of thinking about product lines and customers, and to business model paradigm shifts. Questions such as, "if you could start with the blank sheet of paper, how would you design the solution to your business problems" must be asked. Pay attention to the directions that the trends and data suggest. Starbucks recently launched a new instant coffee product called Via. CEO Howard Shultz was criticized by others saying that the launch of Via was an act of desperation and that Starbucks was driving sales simply through promotions. However, sales reached $100 million in just 10 months and Starbucks just launched another flavor of the instant coffee mirroring its most popular brewed product. As Howard Shultz noted in an interview, "it wasn't a desperate move. It was really finding an opportunity that we could create, and bring something to the market that our customers would embrace. We have created a business that will exceed $100 million in its first year. That category of instant coffee has not had any innovation over 50 years, and we're going to build a major business."

9. Be optimistic. When thinking about significant issues, it is important to be realistically optimistic and anticipate positive outcomes. Martin Seligman's research on learned optimism demonstrates that optimism allows a person to be proactive and productive in the face of the possibility of failure, to lead and encourage others. Optimism inspires and inspiration is often needed for success.

10. Create an environment that supports it. Executives should create an environment conducive to a critical thinking mindset. Often the size of the organization can influence the development of a positive mindset. Large organizations may have more difficulty being nimble and flexible around their thinking due to complexity and communication. In organizations with a deep history and culture of maintaining the status quo and not promoting innovative thought, it is much more difficult to move quickly to a critical thinking culture. Lack of rewards within the organization limits how much people engage in a critical thinking mindset. If critical thinking is not rewarded within the organization through praise, promotions, merit increases, it simply won't happen as often. 3M is a corporation highly regarded for its innovation. In Century of Innovation, a 3M book about its history, it points to "four key ingredients that foster a culture of innovation at 3M: attracting and retaining imaginative and productive people; creating a challenging environment; designing an organization that doesn't get in people's way; and offering rewards that nourish both self-esteem and personal bank accounts."

Unleashing a Critical Thinking Mindset

To succeed in our rapidly changing business environment, leaders, employees, and organizations must place a critical thinking mindset on the top of the agenda. The big issues facing organizations today require dramatic change that is bold, optimistic, innovative, and courageous.

Leaders need to approach all sectors with a critical thinking mindset, not just those traditionally known for innovation such as technology, biotech, and space science. Energy, health care, transportation, education, financial markets, non-profits, among many others are going to need to take on the next decade with a new lens... an attitude and persistence to solve the big problems and move forward in bold, courageous, and new ways.

In the words of Albert Einstein, "we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."