Thursday, October 09, 2014

Leaders and Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is possibly the most important faculty a leader must master, must excel in it. And nowadays it’s more important than ever.
The advancements in technology produced many tools. Tools like the internet, web browsers, search engines, and processing and presentation software. To name a few. With that it became a child’s play for anyone to, for instance, find statistics, studies, reports, and any kind of information. And it became also easy to rip stuff out of context, copy and paste it into a new paper, creating a ‘new piece of information’ and call it study. Or research. And some aren’t even flinching from creating doctorate theses that way.

What you are up against as a leader

As a leader you are flooded by ‘new information’ on a daily basis. Much more than a human being could hope to be able to cope with. And I am not even talking about ‘Big Data’ yet. Your own teams, your own people are generating countless new presentations. Preferably with the infamous Powerpoint. And there's more. Third party ‘service providers’ or ‘consulting companies’ are adding their ‘findings’ and their ‘insights’ to the picture. With ever more complicated approaches framed in ‘scientific lingo’. Designed to impress and unsettle you.
People have some natural tendencies. They want attention and feeling important. More than anything else. And they love to meet with other people, love socializing. Not all, but most. These two tendencies combined can become a hazardous mix. An incubator for speed breeding of buzzword impregnated pseudo scientific ‘methods and procedures’. Or ‘Frameworks’ and other irrelevant ‘confused by the facts’ sort of information. Relentlessly created by like-minded people hyping each other up. Mind you, when emotion goes up, intelligence goes down.
An enormous amount of time is wasted every day. Which adds up to an equally enormous amount of money wasted. And it gets harder by the minute to find that one signal within all that mounting noise. Because there are only a few diamonds out there. But cutting through all this bullshit you must. That’s your responsibility.

What you can and must do as a leader

You must think critically and think for yourself. Don’t let yourself being sucked in by appearances and nice words catering to your ego. It helps knowing and understanding the scientific method.
As Richard Feynman pointed it out: “If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong.”
This one statement alone will identify most of what is presented to you as ‘Cargo Cult Science’, a term coined by Richard Feynman. Or, in other words, as noise. And as waste of time and money. Don’t allow that to happen.
Most often new ‘methods, procedures, and processes’ are introduced to you. Stuff, you are told, that will blow your mind away. Don’t lose it, You might need it later and intact. So be careful and don't let that happen. Use it to keep them in check.
Sometimes internal people, but more often external consulting companies will attempt to sell you their stuff no matter what. Have that checked thoroughly. Questions, for instance, you should ask are:
  • Is there at all a problem?
  • Did the presenter test his / her proposal based on the scientific method?
  • Are they themselves using their stuff in their company with measurable success?
  • Is it transferable?
  • Is it repeatable?
  • Does it deliver consistently the claimed result?
  • Are they using the right data?
  • Did they interpret the data correctly?
  • Do they have enough data to validate their conclusion?
  • Is it at all applicable?
  • Does it solve a problem?
  • Or, does it create an even bigger one?
  • What’s the impact on other processes?
  • Does the presenter know and understand your business?
  • How does the presenter benefit from it?
Those are but a few of the questions you must ask. Questions triggering your critical thinking. Don’t just believe the shiny presentations and the even shinier presenters. Keep in mind that whoever is presenting has an agenda of his / her own. It’s about them and the advantage they want to have. It’s never just about ‘helping’ you. Don’t be naive.


Critical thinking is powerful. It keeps you from just believing and it forces you to check the data. Forces you to think for yourself. Once you have the data you can analyze and understand it. That can remove your biases, the biases we all have. Data speaks loud and clear. As Richard Feynman advised: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Critical thinking keeps you from just believing because you liked what / who you saw. It reduces the room for error significantly. Hence, critical thinking is essential for leaders.

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