I recently gave a talk on critical thinking. One audience member firmly asserted that critical thinking is fine during planning when you have time. However, he said, it has no place during execution. His case in point, the Army. You can’t have soldiers thinking about their mission. They just need to execute their orders. I hear this quite often. There is a strong belief that thinking is for planning, not execution. I couldn’t disagree more.
Critical thinking needs to be happening all the time. It matters most during execution. After all, that is the only point at which your actions have consequence. Look at the most critical or devastating execution mistakes in your business. I would bet that many are not due to failed execution of the plan or policy. Often it is because they executed it too well.
The June, 2005 issue of Technology Review had an article by David Talbot titled Preventing Fratricide. Talbot cites a case of a U.S. and a British fighter plane were shot down during the second Gulf War. Planes get shot down during war, that wasn’t his issue. The issue was that U.S. Patriot Missiles shot them down. Talbot provides several reasons for the errors including critical thinking. One of the biggest culprits was that the people who deployed the Patriots had a flawed assumption in their strategy. They assumed that Saddam Hussein was going to have a heavy, on-going barrage of missiles. Unfortunately, they didn’t plan (or at least communicate a plan) for the alternative. According to Talbot, “The operating protocol was largely automatic, and the operators were trained to trust the system’s software…a design that would be needed for heavy missile attacks, the task force wrote.” In other words, part of the plan was that the operators shouldn’t think but should rely on the system. Unfortunately, the intelligence was wrong and the missiles were few and far between. The systems weren’t set up for that. The people deploying the Patriot batteries followed the plan perfectly. As a result, they watched as the missiles shot down their allies.
Sentinel events in hospitals, airline crashes, military errors, or even mundane day to day problems such as poor customer service or shop floor inefficiencies often stem from a lack of critical thinking during execution. Research shows that as stress and time pressures increase, critical thinking tends to decrease, just at the time you need it most. Believing that critical thinking is a luxury that can only be had during planning is itself a major thinking error.
As a leader, your job is to ensure that you create an environment where people think about what they do. The days of command and control decision making are over. This does not mean that people should sit around all day pondering every decision – that’s not critical thinking anyway. It does mean that your people should have enough information and empowerment to challenge flawed or no longer relevant assumptions. Everyone in your organization should be thinking critically – especially those who are making the real decisions that ultimately affect your customer, your product, and your future.
A few tips for enabling critical thinking in your organization:
- Reward critical thinking – don’t squelch people who oppose the status quo. Reward those people who can look at a situation differently.
- Assign people the role of thinking critically – One CEO would assign a different person in each meeting to play “devil’s advocate”. The CEO based that person’s performance in the meeting solely on his or her ability to raise tough issues.
- Provide context – Don’t just provide answers and orders. People can’t think critically about what they are doing unless they understand the assumptions and thought process that went into coming up with the answer.
- Communicate both the consensus and the dissention – The Supreme Court publishes both the final ruling of a case as well as the dissenting opinion. This is to support future thinking and decisions.