The most critical skill?

large-iconI’m an avid reader. I tend to read a few books at a time (I read one depending on my ‘mood’ at the time).

The other day, I was scrolling through the various sections in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program and somehow ended up in the ‘self-help’ section.   Now, I’m not a fan of self-help books because they tend to try to tell people that they can follow a ‘recipe’ and then they’ll be ‘all better.’  Life doesn’t work this way…but self-help guru’s sure want readers to think that way.

While scrolling through the self-help section, I saw a ton of ‘learn to be wealthy…’, ‘love yourself…’, ‘follow these rules to be X..’ (substitute anything for X) and other ‘standard’ self-help books that, in my opinion, really won’t help many people.

In the middle of all these books, I found one that actually would help just about anyone that read it.   I don’t remember the actual title of the book but it was something like ‘critical thinking – the only skill you’ll ever need.’  If you (or anyone) only reads one self-help book, it should be one on how to think critically and apply the skill to your life.

I’ve written about critical thinking before. I believe its a skill that we all need to continually practice and apply to our lives and its a skill that is lacking these days.  Thinking critically can help anyone in any situation.

Need to get out of debt?  Sit down and think critically about why you are in debt and then come up with a plan to get out of it. Want to make more money?  Sit down and think critically about why you want to make more money and then come up with a plan to do it.  Maybe you won’t become a millionaire but you could get a second job to pay off that debt or send your kids to college.

Maybe you need to reorganize the entire IT group.  Do you go out and buy a book about how to organize an IT group or do you sit down and think critically (and impartially) about how your team needs to be organized to deliver the services that your organization needs?  I know some CIO’s do the former but most successful CIO’s take the latter approach.

Critical thinking is extremely important for a person and for an organization.  If you feel the need to buy a self-help book any time soon, try finding one on the topic of ‘critical thinking.’


Think Better

The last book from my ‘vacation reading list” is Think Better: An Innovator’s Guide to Productive Thinking by Tim Hurson. Some of you may remember a brief mention of this book in a post titled “Critical Thinking vs Creative Thinking“.

This is a very interesting book full of great information….kudos go to the author for writing in a style that is engaging and easy to read.

The premise of the book is to stop trying to think ‘creatively’ or ‘critically’….start thinking productively. The author introduces the “Productive Thinking Model” that helps to combine and balance both creative thinking and critical thinking.

This model is made up of six steps, which are outlined below.

Step 1: What’s going on?

In this step, you are encouraged to answer five questions to get a feel for what issue you are trying to resolve.  These questions are:

  • What’s the Itch? This question helps you determine what needs to be fixed or improved.
  • What’s the Impact? This question makes you think about how the issue is affecting you.
  • What’s the Information?This question forces you to examine the information that you have about the issue to determine if you have enough information to address the issue.
  • Who’s Involved? This question takes a look at the stakeholders and what might be at stake for each one.
  • What’s the Vision?This question helps you make the switch from ‘what is’ to ‘what might be’ by asking things like “What would the future look like if the issue is resolved?”

Step 2: What’s Success?

Using the Vision developed in Step 1, begin to think about the future if the issue is resolved.  Begin to imagine what life would be like with the problem solved.  Once you’ve got a good feel for how life might change, you would then create a list specific, measurable outcomes.

Step 3: What’s The Question?

In step 3, you begin to develop the questions that must be answered in order to reach the vision of success that you developed in Steps 1 & 2. During this step, you rephrase each issue/problem as a question to help your subconscious understand there is something ‘to work on’.  An example conversion given as the Problem Statement “We don’t have enough budget” can be converted to the Problem Question “How might we increase our budget?”. During this step, you would try to generate as many problem questions as possible….you want a long long list.  Once you’ve exhaustively listed your questions, you can then begin to narrow them down to the two key questions that would have the most impact on the issue.

Step 4: Generate Answers

This is where you generate the ideas to answer the questions created in step 3.  You again create a very long list of answers and then sift through them looking for the most ideal and promising answers.

Step 5: Forge the Solution

This step is where you take your most promising answers from step 4 and develop them into a robust solution.

Step 6: Align Resources

This final step requires you to identify the necessary steps and resources for implementing your solution. In addition, you ensure that all implementation steps are assigned to a designated resource who will be held accountable for their implementation.

With these six steps, the author has provided a framework for thinking more productively.    The key throughout all six steps is to keep an open mind at all times.  Do not criticize ideas.  Do not discard ideas.  By keeping an open mind, you’ll be amazed at how many ideas you are able to generate.

If you are the least bit interested in the topic of creative/critical thinking, go buy this book.

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Critical Thinking vs Creative Thinking

Think Better: An Innovator's Guide to Productive Thinking

I just started reading “Think Better: An Innovator’s Guide to Productive Thinking” by Tim Hurson.

I just started Chapter 3 and have become amazed that I hadn’t thought about the difference between Critical Thinking and Creative Thinking….even though I’ve blogged about the subject in the past (see The Problem(s) with Linear Thinking, Critical Thinking Definitions, and my review of Jack’s Notebook).

In Chapter 3 of this book, the author does a great job explaining that these are completely different thinking processes.  The author provides the following definitions:

  • Creative Thinking – generative, nonjudgmental and expansive. When you are thinking creatively, you are generating lists of new ideas.
  • Critical Thinking – analytical, judgmental and selective. When you are thinking critically, you are making choices.

I hadn’t thought about the differences between these two types of thinking…in fact, I’ve even used them as interchangeable terms for the same thing!

The author argues that using both thinking processes together creates a much more productive thinking process.  An interesting analogy that he uses in the book is:

Think of the thinking process as a kayak with 2 paddles. One paddle represents creative thinking while the other represents critical thinking.  If you were to only use one paddle (i.e., creative thinking), you’d end up going in circles.  To make the kayak move forward, you’ve got to alternate between paddles.

So far this is an interesting book…I plan to review it in more detail later this month.

Jack’s Notebook

Jack's Notebook: A business novel about creative problem solving

Jack’s Notebook, written by Gregg Fraley, is a business novel in the same vein as those by Patrick Lencioni and Eli Goldratt. This book uses a fictional story to relate the concepts of creativity and how to use brainstorming, lists, reframing and other methods for creative thinking.

The story follows the main character named “Jack” (surprised?) as he realizes that there is something more to life. Jack meets a mentor who explains the concepts of brainstorming and other creative thinking methods and helps Jack understand what it is that he wants to do in life. The major portion of the book follows a few different stories with the major plot finding Jack falling in love and then having to find ways to keep his new-found love alive (literally).

The book has an interesting plot that should keep the reader turning the pages through the book, especially through the first 100 pages. The last half of the book veers slightly off track from the Creative Problem Solving (CPS) process that Fraley is trying to describe, but it is still an interesting read.

I would recommend the book to anyone new to the creative thinking world since it brings the concepts of brainstorming and Creative Problem Solving to the reader in a manner that is easy to read and understand. I would tell people that have had some training in creative thinking to pass on the book if they were looking for deeper understanding of concepts. That said, even if you are knowledgeable in this area, you might still enjoy this book….it does provide a good fictional story that has some intelligence built in.

The Problem(s) with Linear Thinking

Question: Want to know one of my pet peeves (hint: re-read the title of this post)?

Answer: Linear Thinking (Books on Linear Thinking).

What is linear thinking? A very good description can be found at this website:

To continue to look at something from one point of view. To take information or observations from one situation, place this data in another situation (usually later), and make a conclusion in the later situation.

Linear thinking can doom an organization and/or a person. As an example, consider the organization that hires new employees who have backgrounds that match the employees that were hired in years past without any thought given to future needs and/or direction of the organization. Consider the following example:

You are a manager responsible for hiring a new Project Manager to manage consulting service delivery projects. You receive few resumes for the position and start to weed through them. While thinning out the resumes, you run across a resume from a candidate (#1) who has been a consultant and project manager for your closest competitor and another from a candidate (#2) who has been a consultant and project manager in various industries but little experience within your industry.

These two candidates have completely different backgrounds with candidate #1 having a BS in Business, an MBA, PMP certification and 10 years experience while candidate #2 has a BS in Computer Science and an MS in Marketing and 10 years experience. Which candidate would you choose?

I have a strong suspicion that many people would argue for hiring Candidate #1 since they have “industry experience” or because they have the PMP certification. Of course there isn’t a right or wrong answer to the above question since many factors would come into play (communication abilities, culture fit, salary requirements. etc) and a persons “gut feeling” about hiring will always make its way into the hiring decision.

The point of the example was to show an aspect of linear thinking that exists in organizations. As I mentioned, there really is no right or wrong answer to which candidate should be hired, but a person who is able to employ critical thinking abilities and think in a lateral manner just might have looked at the above candidates in a different light. Instead of hiring Candidate #1 who has similar experiences as other people within the organization, why not consider candidate #2 who might be able to bring a fresh outlook to the organization? Assuming that candidate #2 has the ability, shouldn’t they be considered just as much a fit as candidate #1? I think so.

I believe that linear thinking is an easy way out for organizations, hiring managers and recruiters. Its much easier to hire only those people that fit a narrowly defined job description than it is to open up the candidate search to people with a more diverse background. If the two candidates in the above example were both able to show demonstrable evidence of their ability to do the job, candidate #1 would still be the only candidate considered in most organizations because they ‘fit the mold’ that the hiring manager has created for the candidate search.

This might be a good time to bring in a quote from the person who inspired this entire post, Steve Neiderhauser. Steve discusses the the dangers of hiring non-linear employees when he writes:

In business, it’s important to hire ambidextrous employees — people who have business and technology skills. For they can imagine the future. If you don’t employ multi-talented professionals, you lose out on business opportunities that cannot be imagined by the linear worker.

Linear thinking is not just a challenge in hiring new employees. Linear thinking can cause “group think” and other dangerous mind-sets to develop within an organization and this type of thinking can absolutely kill innovation.

In addition, linear thinking can destroy projects. I haven’t run across any research on the topic, but I believe that part of the reason for the large failure rates within the project management community, especially within IT Project Management, is related to the inability to think in a lateral fashion. Project Managers have been trained in formal methodologies to use to manage projects and the strict adherence to these guidelines can cause a severe case of linear thinking. Again, Steve Neiderhauser puts it more eloquently (and succinctly) than I can when he writes:

Hypnotized by linear improvements, project management at many companies is stuck in a rut. Don’t let PM knowledge frame problems in a way that limits your ability to perform the unthinkable

How do we cure linear thinking within organizations and people? Not sure that I have the answer, although I’m still thinking about it. I do think that a healthy dose of creative and critical thinking would help, but how do you create a system to educate an organization on the dangers of linear thinking and/or the benefits of lateral thinking?. Interesting questions and something that I will be thinking about more in the coming weeks.

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