Critical thinking is essential during execution

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.
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6 thoughts on “Critical thinking is essential during execution

  • Jim says:

    Greta post Brad. I agree with you and disagree wholeheartedly with your seminar participant. Having been in the military for ten years, I can tell you that critical thinking on your feet as the situation unfolds can make the difference in lives lost or saved. We all understand the mission but we must be able to react to the situation as it unfolds. Same in business, rarely does a plan unfold exactly as anticipated.

    October 16, 2009

  • Rhonda says:

    That was an interesting perspective from your participant. To Jim’s post on this blog about being able to react to the situation as it unfolds, I wholeheartedly agree. I have yet to be in a project where that wasn’t the case. It seems to me that the ability to think critically at those moments is the deal breaker for a successful outcome. I really enjoyed both of your posts.

    October 20, 2009

  • Anonymous says:

    Chief: Well, to be fair to the military dude, it’s true that under Papa Mussolini the trains ran on time in Italy, or so they say. So perhaps there is a danger to clueing the masses into critical thinking?

    Moreover, it seems to me that there’s a distinction, between being certain that you cultivate a well trained workforce that can respond with intelligence and resilience to new situations, and a workforce that implements critical thinking. These involve two different registers of meaning and two different ways of conceptualizing a workforce, in my view.

    Yet, your entry doesn’t define critical thinking. WTF Chief? Getting lazy on us? As someone who has spent years of his or her life navigating through the literature, I am crabby and impatient with facile corporate discourses that have appropriated a term dear to my heart and have corrupted it to such an extent that it basically means, as far as I can tell, acting with an obvious lack of idiocy. If that’s edgy in today’s corporate environment, we’re in a much sorrier state than I had thought.

    October 22, 2009

  • Brad says:

    Thanks for your comments – I was being lazy although not in the way you might have though. I was hoping to get a second post out of this where I defined critical thinking. But, since you busted me, here it goes.

    I am using the term “critical thinking” as proactively and purposely challenging the validity, biases, and assumptions inherent in the information that you receive and the conclusions that you draw from it.

    I know that’s not as sophisticated a view as you might have given your immersion in the subject. However, I do mean it to be more than just having the resilience to respond to new things. I think it’s actually possible to have that without thinking critically. Look at how the financial industry was able to respond to decreases in their traditional revenue streams. They were quite resilient (at least for a while) but they weren’t really thinking critically which is one of the reasons things crashed so badly. (I do realize that there were many other driving factors as well, but to some extent, people were not challenging the information and their conclusions).

    This also is meant to go beyond the mere avoidance of idiocy. Again, I think there are some very well run businesses that make “smart” decisions but don’t necessarily think critically about those decisions.
    While I think that critical thinking has always been important, I think its necessity in the workplace is increasing.

    Given the explosion of information and media and the extreme levels of interconnectedness between individuals, organizations, governments, and nations, people need to be looking at the world in ways that are more critical. Our decisions have greater and farther-reaching impacts that are often not readily seen in a superficial analysis of a situation.

    In addition, at least in the US, pressure on cost reduction that has driven standardization, scripting, and other tools that “remove” thinking are dangerous for organizational success.

    So, I know that I am falling well short of where you might define it, but I do think my intention was further along than my original post might have suggested.

    October 22, 2009

  • Anonymous says:

    Chief: Thank you for taking the time to clarify your terms! I appreciate it. Didn’t mean to bust your chops so vigorously. I know you have developed a sophisticated understanding of the “critical” in critical thinking, and that folks like me don’t hold the only valid license for using the term! Although my license has a cute picture of Herbert Marcuse on it, next to mine.

    At the same time I’m pushing you to acknowledge that while a dose of critical thinking, as you define it, may be a wonderful thing for your people to do, a workforce that consistently engages in such deconstructive thought processes is necessarily on its way to revolution, as in Viva La. . . ! So, how far do You People want to go with this?

    October 23, 2009

  • Brad says:

    I’d push the line pretty far on encouraging critical thinking in business. And, I’m not as worried about it escalating into a revolution for three reasons:

    1. As with any skill, you can teach people to use it responsibly. For example, my kids know how to use matches but I’m not concerned about them burning down the house. Similarly, I know leaders who are very good at developing their people. But, when push comes to shove and they need to get things done, they can do that as well.

    2. Part of critical thinking is your ability to think critically about your critical thinking. There are times when you can deconstruct to great lengths. There are other times that you deconstruct enough to ensure that you aren’t overlooking something important, but then move on. I think that is a mistake that many leaders make with the notion of “thinking”. They assume that encouraging people to think critically will take more time. I disagree. People are asking questions anyway so why not make them critical questions. It will take the same amount of time. And, for issues that are very complex, at some point the critical questions will have to be asked it’s just a matter of when. You can short cut your way to a solution up front but then you’ll find yourself doing the critical thinking after things start to fall apart. In that case, critical thinking would have reduced time.

    3. The odds are stacked against thinking. I’ve been in enough meetings where there are an overwhelming majority of people want to push past the thinking process and move into action. Given the extreme orientation that most organizations have against critical thinking, it will be a long time before it gets too out of control.

    October 25, 2009

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