• Ryan Panzer

Critical thinking, part four: What critical thinking really looks like

Our present-day, project-based work culture is predicated on hustle and hurry.

In this project-based workplace, our sense of value (as understood by oneself and one's employers) is increasingly determined by task completion. The most highly-regarded team members are those who get the most done: the reps that close the most deals, the agents that take the most tickets, the engineers who complete the most tasks (eg, cards) in a time period known as a "sprint."

The indicators of hustle and hurry are widespread, particularly in the words we use to describe our work. Much of the business blogosphere is dedicated to improving efficiency and helping employees to work faster. Much, if not all rhetoric from business leaders is focused on increasing velocity. We use terms like "accelerator" to describe organizations that help firms get their start, and adjectives like "rapid" are used to define everything from prototyping to feedback.

But there's a problem with the need for speed.

Speed and efficiency come at the expense of our ability to think critically. When we are moving fast, we are unable to systematically sort through evidence and data and to make well-reasoned decisions.

When we are moving fast, we are depending on System I mental processes related to intuition, assumption, and emotion. Meanwhile, we are suppressing the System 2 processes defined by logic and problem-solving. Daniel Kahneman, in his best-seller Thinking Fast and Slow, describes our aptitudes for reason and logic as strong, yet somewhat lazy. Most of the time, our mind is content to trust the rapidity of System 1, and to let System 2 lie dormant in a state of blissful slumber. And the consequences of this can be severe: we make mistakes in planning, we are overly-beholden to initially positive impressions, we make decisions to mitigate loss but not to actualize gains, we are beholden to unconscious bias.

In the automation-driven workplace, AI has eliminated mindlessly transactional jobs. If the demands of the workplace are indeed shifting from that which requires the rote and repetitive towards that which requires the complex and consultative, we don't need more speed. What we need is the space to think critically about the depth of change around us.

And that is the most visible indicator of a workplace that thinks critically.

If we truly coach our teams to be critical thinkers, we will know it not through improved speed and efficiency. Our decision-making will be slower. Our execution may become less efficient. Time to project completion will increase.

But there's a tradeoff. We'll make fewer errors in planning and forecasting. We'll act less frequently out of inference, and ensure our behavior is consistent with the data. We'll make fewer mistakes, we'll engage more contributors in the collaborative process, and we'll continuously evaluate the efficacy of our processes. Each of these takes time and energy - but each is worth pursuing in and of itself. Each is necessary as our careers require more complex problem solving, and less button-pushing.

If you want your workplace to be more adept at critical thinking, you might take three specific actions. These actions may not gain you friends, followers, or a seat on the hot-shot panel at an upcoming conference. But they will defend your team's capacity to think critically against the ever-encroaching bias towards velocity. These three actions are:

  1. Gently challenging leaders who demand increased speed. When a leader states that something must become faster, ask them to describe the costs of greater velocity. What may we fail to consider? What assumptions might grip us? What biases may become more pervasive? By asking this question, you aren't advocating for lethargy: you are promoting critical thinking about the trade-offs between speed and quality.

  2. Encouraging your highest performers to slow down. Often, the most productive performers on the team move the fastest. Give them permission to pause, reflect, and do some critical thinking of their own. Encourage them to consider what they might gain by being more deliberate, analytical, and intentional - and how they could share those gains with the greater team.

  3. Setting an example by narrowing your priorities. Critical thinking is essentially an exercise in elimination. We can't think critically about an endless to-do list. In the AI-disrupted workplace, we must learn to ruthlessly prioritize those tasks that will have the most benefit for our stakeholders: our colleagues, our team members, our communities.

Critical-thinking is becoming ever-more important. But our preference for speed is inhibiting our ability to pivot from task execution towards creative problem-solving. If a leader is really successful in building a culture of critical thinking, they'll know it by one visible indicator: their organization will be slower.

And that will make all the difference.

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Leadership developer for digital culture. Author of "Grace and Gigabytes," now available wherever books are sold.

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