Critical Thinking Is About Asking Better Questions

At the heart of critical thinking is the ability to formulate deep, different, and effective questions. Here is a process for asking better, more effective questions.

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HBR Guide to Critical Thinking Paperback – January 31, 2023

Tackle complex situations with critical thinking.

You're facing a problem at work. There are many ways you can approach the situation, but each comes with its own pros and cons. How do you sort through all the information so that you know you're taking the right path?

The answer is in how you think. The HBR Guide to Critical Thinking will help you navigate your most challenging issues, from difficult problems to tough decisions to complex scenarios. By carefully observing the situation, gathering information, inviting other perspectives, and analyzing what's in front of you, you can move forward with confidence while building this crucial leadership skill.

You'll learn how to:

  • Question your assumptions
  • Keep an open mind to opposing viewpoints
  • Sidestep cognitive biases
  • Use data—when appropriate
  • Grow comfortable with ambiguity
  • Find innovative and creative solutions

Arm yourself with the advice you need to succeed on the job, with the most trusted brand in business. Packed with how-to essentials from leading experts, the HBR Guides provide smart answers to your most pressing work challenges.

  • Print length 256 pages
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  • Publisher Harvard Business Review Press
  • Publication date January 31, 2023
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  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Harvard Business Review Press (January 31, 2023)
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hbr critical thinking

The Path to Critical Thinking

by Stever Robbins

Can you write a refresher on critical thinking?

What's logic got to do with it? Nothing! We don't use logic to decide, or even to think. And a good thing, too, or the advertising industry would be dead in the water. Unfortunately, all of our decisions come from emotion. Emotional Intelligence guru Daniel Goleman explains that our brain's decision-making center is directly connected to emotions, then to logic. So, as any good salesman will tell you, we decide with emotion and justify (read: fool ourselves) with logic.

Purely emotional decision making is bad news. When insecurity, ego, and panic drive decisions, companies become toxic and may even die. Just look at all the corporate meltdowns over the last five years to quickly understand where emotional decision making can lead.

Critical thinking starts with logic. Logic is the unnatural act of knowing which facts you're putting together to reach your conclusions, and how. We're hard-wired to assume that if two things happen together, one causes the other. This lets us leap quickly to very wrong conclusions. Early studies showed that increasing light levels in factories increased productivity. Therefore, more light means more productivity? Wrong! The workers knew a study was being done, and they responded to any change by working harder, since they knew they were being measured—the Hawthorne Effect.

We also sloppily reverse cause and effect. We notice all our high performers have coffee at mid-morning, and conclude that coffee causes high performance. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe high performers work so late and are so sleep deprived that they need coffee to wake up. Unless you want a hyper-wired workforce, it's worth figuring out what really causes what.

There are many excellent books on logic. One of my favorites is the most-excellent and most-expensive Minto Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto. It's about logic in writing, but you can use it for any decision you want to think through in detail.

The trap of assuming You can think critically without knowing where the facts stop and your own neurotic assumptions begin. We aren't built to identify our own assumptions without lots of practice, yet the wrong assumptions are fatal.

When we don't know something, we assume. That's a fancy way of saying, "we make stuff up." And often, we don't realize we're doing it. When our best performers leave, our first (and perhaps only) response is to offer them more pay, without realizing that other motivations like job satisfaction or recognition for accomplishments might be more important.

Finding and busting "conventional wisdom" can be the key to an empire. For decades, the standard video rental store model assumed that people wanted instant gratification and, to get it, they were willing to drive to a store, pay a rental fee for a few days' access, and then drive back to the store in a few days to return the movie. Thousands of big and small video rental parlors popped up across the country using this model. But Reed Hastings challenged those assumptions. He calculated that people would trade instant gratification for delayed, and would pay a monthly fee if they could have movies mailed to them, which they could keep as long as they liked. The result? Netflix. Estimated 2005 revenue: $700 million.

Assumptions can also cripple us. A CEO confided that he never hires someone who backs into a parking space. His logic (and I use the term loosely): The person will use time at the start of the day so they can leave more quickly at the end of the day. He assumes face time equals results. In whose world? Many people tell me they get more done in an hour at home than in eight hours in an interruption-prone office. How many great employees will he miss because he's not examining his assumptions?

Some assumptions run so deep they're hard to question. Many managers can't imagine letting people work fewer hours for the same pay. "If they go home earlier, we have to pay them less." Why? "Hours = productivity" is true of assembly lines, but not knowledge work. Research shows that it's not how much you work, but the quality of the work time that drives results. 2 But in most workplaces, hours count as much as results.

Next time you're grappling with a problem, spend time brainstorming your assumptions. Get others involved—it's easier to uncover assumptions with an outside perspective. Then question the heck out of each one. You may find that one changed assumption is the difference between doing good and doing great.

The truth will set you free (statistics notwithstanding) Have you ever noticed how terrified we are of the truth? We're desperately afraid that the truth will reveal us as incompetent. Our situation really is hopeless. We really aren't as great as we pretend. So we cling to our beliefs no matter how hard the truth tries to break free.

Guess what, recording industry: Electronic downloads have changed the nature of your business. Start asking how you'll add value in a world where finding, packaging, and distributing sound is a commodity. Hey, ailing airlines: Oil's expensive, customers won't pay much, and you have huge capital costs. That hasn't stopped Southwest, Jet Blue, and others from making a fortune.

Nothing tells the truth like solid data and the guts to accept it. But it's difficult in practice. When was the last time you identified and collected data that contradicted your beliefs? If you found it, did you cheerfully change your belief, or did you explain away the data in a way that let you keep your comfortable pre-conceptions?

Here is a great exercise for your group or company. Have your general managers list your industry's Unquestioned Truths, which they then must prove with data. When a Fortune 500 CEO recently ran this exercise, Surprise! Some "absolute truths" were absolutely false. Now he can do business his competitors think is nuts. Analysts will say he's off his rocker, until his deeper knowledge of truth starts making a small fortune.

One caveat: Be picky about where you get your data. The Internet can be especially dangerous. The miracle of technology lets one bad piece of data spread far and wide, and eventually be accepted as truth.

Help! I've been framed! Not only may your data be disguised, but the whole problem itself may be disguised! It seems obvious: we're losing money, we need to cut costs. Not so fast! How you "frame" a situation—your explanation—has great power. Remember assumptions? Frames are big ol' collections of assumptions that you adopt lock, stock, and barrel. They become the map you use to explore a situation.

You're negotiating an acquisition. You're chomping at the bit. It's WAR!! Competition is all. The frame is combat!

Or, you're negotiating an acquisition. You're on a journey with the other party to find and split the value buried at the X. You still track your gains and gather intelligence, but the emphasis is on mutual outcomes, not "winning."

In a zero-sum one-time negotiation, a combat frame may be the best tool. But in a negotiation where you're free to develop creative solutions that can involve outside factors, the journey frame could work best. "Instead of $100K, why don't you pay $75K and let us share your booth at Comdex?"

Frames have great power! Presented with a potential solution to a problem and told, "This course of action has a 20 percent failure rate," few managers would approve. When that same solution is presented as having an 80 percent success rate, the same manager is going to consider it more deeply— even though a 20 percent failure rate means the same thing as an 80 percent success rate! The frame changes the decision.

Are you brave in the face of failure? Most people aren't. I recommend the responsibility frame: "What aren't we doing what we should?" The responsibility frame sends you searching for the elements of success.

The beauty is that no one frame is right, just different. The danger is when we adopt a frame without questioning it. You'll do best by trying several different frames for a situation and exploring each to extract the gems.

People are our greatest asset. Really Critical thinking isn't just about what happens in our own brains. When you're thinking critically in business, bring in other people! We don't consider the people impact in our decisions often enough. In fact, we pooh-pooh the "soft stuff." We feel safe with factors we can calculate on our HP-12B. But in truth, business is about people. Multibillion-dollar mergers fail due to culture clash.

Customers, suppliers, partners, employees. They're as much a part of your business as that sparkly new PC you use to play Solitaire. How will your decisions change their lives? Imagine being them and let your imagination change your decisions.

The Gallup organization estimates that 70 percent of America's workers are disengaged, and disengaged workers are dramatically less productive, creative, and committed than engaged workers. Yet few strategy meetings ask, "How can we engage our employees more?" It's as if we say people are our greatest asset—but we don't really believe it. If you want to improve your critical thinking, get other points of view.

A stitch in time saves nine Of course you know you should think about the consequences of your actions. But with information overload, quarterly earnings pressure, sixty-hour weeks…who has the time? We don't think much beyond the end of our nose.

But technology leverages the effects of our decisions throughout the organization and even across the globe. So good thinking demands that you consider consequences over many timeframes. Think out a month, a year, a decade, many decades. That tanning booth looks great when you consider how you'll look in a week, but is it worth looking like a leather overcoat ten years from now?

Long-term junkies like me are great at creating ten-year plans, but managing next month's cash flow? Not likely. Short-term junkies are more common; they're the ones who discount to make this quarter's numbers, while tanking the company in the process. You can do better by considering multiple timeframes.

I could go on, but there's plenty here to chew on. Think about a decision you're making, and pull in the rigor:

  • Make sure you understand the logic behind your decision.
  • Identify your assumptions and double-check them.
  • Collect the data that will support or disprove your assumptions.
  • Deliberately consider the situation from multiple frames.
  • Remember the people!
  • Think short and long term.

© 2005 by Stever Robbins. All rights reserved in all media.

Stever Robbins is founder and president of LeadershipDecisionworks, a consulting firm that helps companies develop leadership and organizational strategies to sustain growth and productivity over time. You can find more of his articles at http://LeadershipDecisionworks.com . He is the author of It Takes a Lot More than Attitude to Lead a Stellar Organization .

1. Yes, I know. I'm making a point. Congratulations; you got it. Color me subtle. Now go back and keep reading...

2. The Power of Full Engagement , by Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

HBR Guide to Critical Thinking by Harvard Business Review

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Introduction: What Is Critical Thinking?

Understanding its key elements.

SECTION ONE

Get in the Right Mindset

1. Improve Your Critical Thinking at Work

How to learn this essential skill.

AN INTERVIEW WITH HELEN LEE BOUYGUES BY CURT NICKISCH

2. Beware the Urgency Trap

Allow yourself time to think.

BY JESSE SOSTRIN

3. Act Like a Scientist

Be a knowledgeable skeptic.

BY STEFAN THOMKE AND GARY W. LOVEMAN

SECTION TWO

Observe the Situation

4. To Change the Way You Think, Change the Way You See

Defamiliarize yourself from what you know.

BY ADAM BRANDENBURGER

5. Are You Solving the Right Problems?

Reframe them to reveal unexpected solutions.

BY THOMAS WEDELL-WEDELLSBORG

6. Write a Better Problem Statement

Imprecise language can lead ...

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hbr critical thinking

How to master the skills needed for high-impact decision-making and problem-solving

As you no doubt know already, Harvard Business Review Press  publishes several series of anthologies of articles previous published in HBR . This book is one of the most popular volumes in a series that anthologizes what the editors of the Harvard Business Review consider to be “must reads” in a given business subject area. In this instance, critical thinking. Each of the selections is eminently deserving of inclusion.

If all of the 24 HBR articles were purchased separately as reprints, the total cost would be about $170 and the practical value of any one of them far exceeds that. Given the fact that Amazon US now sells a paperbound edition for only $2.10 that’s not a bargain. It’s a steal.

The same is true of volumes in other series such as  HBR Guide to …,  Harvard Business Review on …, and  Harvard Business Essentials . I also think there is great benefit derived from the convenience of having a variety of perspectives and insights readily available in a single volume, one that is potable.

Those who read HBR Guide to Critical Thinking   can develop the cutting-edge thinking needed to achieve a decisive competitive advantage.

More specifically, they will learn the dos and don’ts with regard to HOW TO question your assumptions; keep an open mind to opposing viewpoints; sidestep cognitive bias; use data — when appropriate; grow comfortable with ambiguity; and find innovative and creative solutions

Here’s a random selection of strategic objectives that contributors discuss with cutting-edge insights.

o Helen Lee Bouygues on improve critical thinking skills within a workplace environment o Jesse Sostrin on the importance of allowing yourself to think clearly without distractions o Adam Brandenburger on the need to “defamiliarize yourself from what you think you know” Note: Recognize and then eliminate all of your unknown unknowns (i.e. what you think you know/understand but don’t) o Rosabeth Moss Kanter on when — and on what — to focus and when to move on o John Coleman on training your curiosity to ask the right questions that produce the right answers o Tom Pohlmann and Neethi Mary Thomas on arriving at much sounder conclusions and avoid tedious rework

o Cheryl Strauss Einhorn on how to see past your blind spots o Francesca Gino on the need to engage and learn when viewpoints and opinions differ, and especially when they clash. o Walter Frick on three ways to improve decision-making skills: Be less certain, Ask “How often does that typically happen?”, Think Probabilistically — and Learn Some Realistic Probability o Roger L. Martin on developing the skills and mindset of an “integrative” thinker o James R. Bailey and Scheherazade Rehman on gaining insights when experiencing surprise, failure, and frustration o Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis on improving critical thinking skills with daily exercises

The HBR Editors have selected an abundance of material that, in their words, “will help you navigate your most challenging issues, from difficult problems to tough decisions to complex scenarios. By carefully observing the situation, gathering information, inviting other perspectives, and analyzing what’s in front of you, you can move forward with confidence while building this essential leadership skill.”

I wish you great success when attempting accelerate your personal growth and professional development.

I also presume to offer two suggestions when reading HBR Guide to Critical Thinking or any other of the invaluable resources published by Harvard Business Review Press: Highlight key passages, and, record your comments, questions, action steps (preferably with deadlines), and page references as well as your responses to questions posed in exercises and to lessons you have learned. (Pay close attention to introductory head notes and end-of-chapter reminders.) These two simple tactics — highlighting and documentating — will facilitate, indeed expedite  frequent reviews of key material later.

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    At the heart of critical thinking is the ability to formulate deep, different, and effective questions. Here is a process for asking better, more effective questions. ... Harvard Business Review; Harvard Business School; Scroll to top. We use cookies to understand how you use our site and to improve your experience.

  7. HBR Guide to Critical Thinking

    The HBR Guide to Critical Thinking will help you navigate your most challenging issues, from difficult problems to tough decisions to complex scenarios. By carefully observing the situation, gathering information, inviting other perspectives, and analyzing what's in front of you, you can move forward with confidence while building this crucial ...

  8. A Short Guide to Building Your Team's Critical Thinking Skills

    But it doesn't have to be this way. To demystify what critical thinking is and how it is developed, the author's team turned to three research-backed models: The Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment, Pearson's RED Critical Thinking Model, and Bloom's Taxonomy.

  9. HBR Guide to Critical Thinking

    The HBR Guide to Critical Thinking will help you navigate your most challenging issues, from difficult problems to tough decisions to complex scenarios. By carefully observing the situation, gathering information, inviting other perspectives, and analyzing what's in front of you, you can move forward with confidence while building this crucial ...

  10. Introduction: What Is Critical Thinking?

    HBR Guide to Critical Thinking by Harvard Business Review Get full access to HBR Guide to Critical Thinking and 60K+ other titles, with a free 10-day trial of O'Reilly. There are also live events, courses curated by job role, and more.

  11. HBR Guide to Critical Thinking by Harvard Business Review

    The HBR Guide to Critical Thinking will help you use reasoning and logic to navigate your most challenging issues, from complex problems to tough decisions to tricky situations. By carefully observing, gathering information, and analyzing what's in front of you, you can feel comfortable moving forward while building this crucial leadership ...

  12. Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills

    Third, seek out fresh perspectives. It's tempting to rely on your inner circle to help you think through these questions, but that won't be productive if they all look and think like you. Get ...

  13. The Path to Critical Thinking

    Really. Critical thinking isn't just about what happens in our own brains. When you're thinking critically in business, bring in other people! We don't consider the people impact in our decisions often enough. In fact, we pooh-pooh the "soft stuff." We feel safe with factors we can calculate on our HP-12B.

  14. HBR Guide to Critical Thinking|Paperback

    The HBR Guide to Critical Thinking will help you navigate your most challenging issues, from difficult problems to tough decisions to complex scenarios. By carefully observing the situation, gathering information, inviting other perspectives, and analyzing what's in front of you, you can move forward with confidence while building this crucial ...

  15. HBR Guide to Critical Thinking [Book]

    Title: HBR Guide to Critical Thinking. Author (s): Harvard Business Review. Release date: January 2023. Publisher (s): Harvard Business Review Press. ISBN: 9781647824471. Tackle complex situations with critical thinking. You're facing a problem at work. There are many ways you can approach the situation, but each comes with its own pros and ...

  16. Contents

    HBR Guide to Critical Thinking by Harvard Business Review Get full access to HBR Guide to Critical Thinking and 60K+ other titles, with a free 10-day trial of O'Reilly. There are also live events, courses curated by job role, and more.

  17. Improve Your Critical Thinking at Work

    Instead, leaders should deliberately approach each problem and devote time thinking through possible solutions. The good news, she says, is that critical thinking skills can developed and ...

  18. A Short Guide to Building Your Team's Critical Thinking Skills

    Critical thinking isn't an innate skill. It can be learned. Product #: Related Topics: Strategy formulation, Developing employees, ... HBR Series HBR Work Smart Series; HBR 10 Must Read Series; HBR 20-Minute Manager Series; HBR Emotional Intelligence Series; HBR Guide Series;

  19. HBR Guide to Critical Thinking: A Book Review by Bob Morris

    This book is one of the most popular volumes in a series that anthologizes what the editors of the Harvard Business Review consider to be "must reads" in a given business subject area. In this instance, critical thinking. Each of the selections is eminently deserving of inclusion. If all of the 24 HBR articles were purchased separately as ...

  20. How Leaders Should Think Critically

    How Leaders Should Think Critically. If you want to succeed in 21st Century business you need to become a critical thinker. Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Management figured this out a ...

  21. HBR Guide to Critical Thinking Toolkit

    The HBR Guide to Critical Thinking Toolkit provides actionable exercises and strategies to help you navigate your most challenging issues, from difficult problems to tough decisions to complex scenarios. Within, you'll find: An Ebook copy of the HBR Guide to Critical Thinking. A toolkit handbook with an overview of each tool and how to use it ...

  22. How to Evaluate a Job Candidate's Critical Thinking Skills in an Interview

    The oldest and still the most powerful tactic for fostering critical thinking is the Socratic method, developed over 2,400 years ago by Socrates, one of the founders of Western philosophy. The ...

  23. 3 Simple Habits to Improve Your Critical Thinking

    3 Simple Habits to Improve Your Critical Thinking. by Helen Lee Bouygues. $11.95. (USD) Format:

  24. Darius Rucker on Resilience and Reinvention

    A conversation with the pop and country music star on working hard for success. Darius Rucker has reached the top of the music charts in not just one but two genres: first as the lead singer of ...