Boosting Brain Power – build critical thinking skills

Last week I presented at the Board of Trade conference; Learn. Create. Innovate. I shared ways to build the critical thinking skills of a workforce as a means to drive creativity and productivity and, since the presentation was so well received, I thought I’d share the tips here as well.

Firstly, what do we mean by critical thinking skills? Well, its a person’s ability to notice things, to gather and analyze information, to evaluate decisions and to reason the best course of action. Basically, critical thinking is about the quality of your thinking and decision making; being able to make decisions based on a clear evaluation of the pros and cons, not emotion or knee jerk reaction.

Sounds good right? Well, it gets even better. Building critical thinking skills drives significant organizational benefits. Firstly, there are clear links between critical thinking and creativity. Studies show that people with strong critical thinking skills are able to spot patterns and links between seemingly disparate things/information, which means they can take advantage of opportunities that others don’t even notice. Not only that, but people with strong critical thinking tend to improve their own performance. Think about it, if you’re good at identifying strengths and weaknesses then you’ll likely apply that thinking to yourself and identify what you need to work on yourself. AND, if all that wasn’t enough, people with strong critical thinking skills actually collaborate better with others. That might seem counter intuitive because you might think that someone who is good at making decisions may prefer to take unilateral action.. but the premise of critical thinking is that there is more than one possible solution to every problem, which promotes talking to others, finding out information, gathering insight etc. in order to generate options. So good critical thinkers are also good collaborators.

So with all those great reasons to build critical thinking skills, why on earth wouldn’t we? But how do we do it?

Well, to develop any skill in any person, we need to do the same things:

1. Set the expectation
If you don’t tell people you expect them to think about their role and how to improve it, then they wont know they should. So set the expectation that that is what you want them to do.

2. Create the environment
Once they are aware they should be critically thinking, then they need to want to. That means being in an environment where its not only okay, but encouraged to critically think, to challenge, to ask questions. The culture in your organization and your team needs to be one that supports critical thinking. So no blame, no permission culture. Think about how you can encourage that in your team (and we can help if you need it!)

3. Show what good looks like and provide frameworks to help.
So telling people to critically think and creating the environment is great, but that doesn’t means they know how to . Make sure you role model critical thinking (and point out that is what you are doing) and give them frameworks to help them. A simple framework is SBAR (for more on SBAR, google Cy Wakeman). SBAR stands for Situation, Background, Analysis, Recommendations. When people come to you with problems, they should be bringing solutions using the SBAR (or similar) framework. Ask questions to help them further think about what they are proposing.

4. Reward progress
When they do it, you need to recognize it. A simple well done can suffice. But what gets rewarded gets repeated so if you want them to keep building their thinking skills, you need to recognize and reward their effort in a way that works for them.

So that, in 4 steps is how to build the skills. If you’d like a copy of our presentation from the board of trade, or want to talk about how we can help build the critical thinking skills of your team get in touch at

You might also want to read the following other blog posts
Are you being strategic?
What are you thinking?

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