Title art by TZA.
There are many important characteristics and skills a critical thinker and problem solver must possess to be successful. Upon reflection of these, I found myself coming back to a quote by Joel Barker:
Vision without action is merely a dream.
Action without vision merely passes the time.
Vision with action can change the world.
Examining this quote, I feel that two of the most important characteristics are intuition and the right degree aggressiveness. However, thirdly, a positive attitude is the glue that will bring all the characteristics together to “change the world.”
To me, the characteristic of intuition is paramount to any problem solver. Nothing can begin without the spark that a gut-feeling can provide. Listed in the text as the first characteristic of a Paradigm Pioneer — those people who are able to escape paradigm paralysis, break the rules, and venture in to the unknown — intuition is necessary to begin the process. Being intuitive is not just important when identifying problems, it’s crucial when you are identifying solutions. Many solutions will present themselves and the relationship between your intuition and your heuristics will help guide you in your decision making process. However, if your intuition is all that guides you, regardless of the data presented, you may create greater problems down the line that will become far more difficult to solve and will prevent further progress. If you trust your intuition but don’t allow it to blind you from the information provided, it will soon develop into vision.
Following the initial spark of intuition, you need the right degree of aggressiveness in your approach to tackling the problem that lies before you. I prefer the term assertive because it carries a less negative connotation. Approaching problems in an aggressive manner is a characteristic of a great problem solver and is the best way to prevent against a poor quality outcome, inefficiencies during the process, team floundering, and a potential failure. Inevitably, roadblocks will occur and if you or your team approaches these problems with a lackadaisical attitude, they will slow you down. Being aggressive (read: assertive) can help ensure that your end goal will be met in a timely manner. As with anything, however, moderation is the key. Over-aggressiveness can lead to a rush job that can also lead to poor quality and a failure of the solution.
Especially when implementing a solution with a team, positivity is necessary for success. Even with all the right amounts of intuition and aggressiveness, setbacks and interpersonal conflicts will inevitably lower morale among you and your team. When morale lowers, so does the quality of the outcome. To avoid this, positivity can help you identify win-win scenarios that will provide morale boosts to your team members. Another side-effect low morale contributes to is the reluctance of some team members. Positivity can encourage these members to engage more with the team and provide unique insights that otherwise would have been stifled due to negativity.
Personality traits aren’t just the only tools needed for success. You can be the most intuitive, aggressive (assertive), and positive person on the team, but if you don’t possess certain critical thinking skills, you are setting yourself up for failure. The three skills every problem solver needs are structured critical reasoning, Socratic questioning, and critical thinking actions. These three skills will help prevent you and your team from misperceiving problems, implementing illogical solutions, and following an incorrect path.
Structured Critical Reasoning is an algorithm that helps you analyze the conclusions, and assumptions of an argument. Especially for large projects, information can be presented in a convoluted and biased manner. The Structured Critical Reasoning Algorithm will help you filter out the misleading information, the biases, and the fallacies. To do this properly you first need to identify the main conclusion of the argument. After you identify the conclusion, you need to locate what evidence is and is not presented. When the evidence is found you need to ask, “what assumptions were made to create the evidence” fourthly, are these strong or weak assumptions? When you identify the weak assumptions you will find the logical fallacies.
Often times, discovering a solution is as simple as asking the right questions. Socratic questioning will help with that. After you locate the logical fallacies, you’ll begin to have an idea of what the right questions are. There are six types of questions you can ask:
- Questions about the problem statement
- Questions for clarification
- Questions that probe assumptions
- Questions that probe reasons & evidence
- Questions that probe perspective
- Questions that probe consequences
Asking these questions will help you identify the root of the problem — not just the perceived one — and help ensure the best possible solution is well thought through and implemented effectively.
Successful critical thinking, and thus successful problem solving, is still more than understanding the argument and asking the proper questions, it requires action. There are seven actions that a critical thinker takes when developing solutions, evaluating those alternatives, and determine which solution is optimal. The first is prediction. At the beginning, even with many of your questions answered, you still need to predict the outcome of the proposed solution; there is no guaranteed ending. This means looking at both the positive and negative consequences of the actions you are about to take. The next step is analyzation. You need to break down the potential solutions into more manageable parts. This is how you learn the relationships each part of the process will have with the other. Thirdly, you need to gather data. Have similar solutions been implemented before? If so, what was the outcome? What do the researchers in this field say? The fourth action is application of standards. This is crucial to measuring your success. Before moving forward, you need to apply your own goals, rules, and criteria for the solutions you are evaluating for implementation. Discrimination is the fifth critical thinking action to take. This action is how you identify the similarities and differences between the data you are receiving. To successfully do this you need to create logical groups for how your information will be categorized. Some potential categories may be geography, demographics, or source of data. Transforming your knowledge is the next action. This is where you take knowledge gained from previous experiences and apply it within the new context. Taking the similar projects, identifying those shortcomings and successes will help you achieve similar success while avoiding the same pitfalls. Finally, the last Critical Thinking Action is logical reasoning — inferring conclusions from the evidence provided. All of the above actions are continually happening by good critical thinkers at all stages of the problem-definition, solution discovery, and solution implementation phases.
The three skills of Structured Critical Reasoning, Socratic Questioning, and Critical Thinking Actions can help reach a successful solution to a problem. Those in conjunction with the three characteristics of intuition, aggressiveness (assertiveness), and positivity can help guide the thinking process to reach the best possible solution available.