By Jonathan Kirschner, Psy.D. • February 8, 2011

What's the whole Hoopla about Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking has emerged as one of the most desired competencies among today's talent management leaders. Is it a fad? Perhaps we have exhausted our discourse on "soft skills" and emotional intelligence and need something new. A more reasonable way of understanding how critical thinking has become so mission critical is by reflecting on today's business landscape, and in particular, three prominent trends: Globalization, diminished predictability in the marketplace, and the flattening of organizational hierarchies.

1. Globalization: Leaders can no longer view themselves and their business within the context of their local markets only. For many, to be in business is to be be global, and to be global entails a whole new set of demands, an exponential increase in information, and the need to tackle novel leadership challenges. To the extant that these challenges present new situations and change, cognitive flexibility and critical thinking skills will be vital to navigating the ambiguity inherent in the unknown.

2. Diminished Predictability and data overload: The rapid pace of technology innovation and fiercely competitive markets have increasingly made traditional, longitudinal forecasting a guessing game. In a recent HBR interview with Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey, he is asked what will the company look like 30 years from now. Mackey candidly replies,

I don’t play that game any longer...nobody Googled anything 13 years ago because Google didn’t exist. Nobody had an iPod nine years ago, and nobody had an iPhone five years ago, and nobody was on Facebook seven years ago.

Without being able to make 10 year forecasts based on reliable assumptions, executives find themselves continuously shortening the cycle to evaluate evidence for their business decisions. Though the cycle continues to shorten, the data to make decisions seems to be constantly expanding. As a result, there is a clear need to be less reliant on traditional models and assumptions and instead, learn to be more agile and analytical in making decisions. As a case example, we need look no further than the former global leader of mobile handsets- Nokia. In a nutshell, Nokia recently woke up to the realization that while their models may have predicted a longstanding and sustainable leadership position, their models were unable to account for the fact that no one actually wants a Nokia phone if they're given the choice between this and iphone and/or Android.

Critical thinking facilitates a competitive advantage, even in the face of disruptive forces (i.e. iphone and Android), because the critical thinker is constantly evaluating data, the power of an argument, and never making assumptions.

3. The flattening of Organizational hierarchies: Unprecedented collaborative working environments and the flattening of organizations has distributed decision making powers throughout the organization- well beyond the C-Suite. As a result, the comand-chain has been disrupted and all of the sudden someone right out of their MBA is weighing in on a decision that would, 15 years ago, be discussed in a C-Suite boardroom meeting. As a result, strong critical thinking is not only necessary at the top, where it has traditionally resided, but also in deeper levels of management.

The confluence of these three business factors make measuring and developing critical thinking essential for success in todays business environment and more important than ever.

Dr. Jonathan Kirschner
CEO, AIIR Consulting