Thinking About Critical Thinking

Engineers use critical thinking.  The fundamentals of critical thinking – applying logical principles and rigorous standards of evidence; determining the significance of what’s observed; analyzing, interpreting and evaluating results – are drummed into our heads from the moment we enter university, through our initial experience building years in private practice or government service, and in the preparation for our registration examinations.  As professionals, we know it’s an imperative that we have well-developed cognitive skills so that our engineering judgement will protect the safety, health and welfare of the public we serve.

Leaders also use critical thinking.  In fact, it’s a pre-requisite for effective, strong, and successful leadership of oneself and others.  The good thing is that the same, well-developed critical thinking skills developed in our engineering education and experience will also serve us well in our leadership roles.

There are tens of standard definitions of critical thinking and over 5,000 entries on Amazon for books on the subject.  I like this definition, which is simple and which I came across on the Trinity College web site: A complex set of cognitive skills employed in problem-solving and intellectual consideration and innovation. Critical thinking requires mental agility and thoughtful consideration.

This is a simple definition for a mental process that’s quite complex.  As with leadership, critical thinking can be developed over time with conscious effort.  Here are three points on critical thinking worth contemplating:

Make the choice to apply critical thinking.  Critical thinking is focused thought.  We don’t use it all the time and in fact, 80% or more of our daily thinking is running on automatic mode.  In this mode, our mind runs scripts that allow us to react in the same fashion to what we define as repetitive tasks or decisions.  Otherwise, getting ready for work in the morning every day could be the equivalent of a detailed structural frame analysis.  You need to consciously choose to apply critical thinking to an issue.

Critical thinking is not linear….in fact, it’s a bit chaotic.  Beyond mere mental agility, critical thinking requires the near simultaneous processing and analyzing of what’s being observed in order to make connections between data points and what might be random pieces of information.  There are various methodologies/models for defining what’s involved here, but I like the one posited by Colonel Stephen Gerras in a paper he published in 2006.  Gerras’ model included these elements, each occurring near simultaneously:

Clarifying Concern
Establishing the Point of View
Identifying Assumptions
Identifying Inferences
Evaluating Information
Evaluating Implications

Watch-out for barriers to critical thinking. Engineers and leaders both need to stand sentry duty to spot barriers to critical thinking.  These include egocentric tendencies (e.g. forgetting information that doesn’t support our thinking or not noticing facts that contradict our beliefs); social conditioning; arrogance; schedule pressures; or group think.  As engineer-leaders, we are well-aware of the dangers of group think – both Space Shuttle disaster investigations cited “group think” as the leading cause of each disaster.  We are also well-aware of the negative effects of schedule pressure on making sound decisions.  When stress goes up from a pending deadline, critical thinking skills-use goes down and we begin to default to the automatic mode of thought.  This is a dangerous situation for engineer-leaders, because this is exactly the time that critical thinking can play an important role.

The engineer-leader needs to be aware of their thinking mode at all times.  I challenge you to try it for a day.  Begin first by looking at your scheduled/planned events and writing next to each if the event will require critical thinking or automatic thought mode.  Next, as issues pop-up during the day, make the mental effort to consciously choose which mode you’ll apply.  This isn’t easy at the start, however, as you use this skill, the conscious selection of thought mode will become almost, dare I say it, transparent.  You’ll immediately make the decision.  And in so doing, be thinking about critical thinking.

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Christian J. Knutson, P.E., PMP
The Engineering Career Coach