We all remember that genius classmate in our undergrad years who seemed to consume knowledge and give out ideas and insights like they were Neil Degrasse Tyson. Or maybe you have a mysterious coworker who habitually poses questions in meetings that change the entire premise of the discussion.
Most of us think of this ability as a genetic gift we may or may not have, but what if that’s not entirely true?
The reality is, this all comes down to a must-have skill: critical thinking. And as with any skill, with enough time and dedication, you too can be the person that people remember.
In this article, you’ll learn what critical thinking is, what goes into it, and how you can practice it within your role as a product manager.
Critical thinking is a disciplined way of understanding, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information from various sources to make informed judgments. It optimizes problem-solving and crushes confusion.
At its core, critical thinking is more about understanding the reality of the question than reaching for the solutions. This requires extensive use of analytical thinking like inference and deduction to form well-founded judgments based on evidence-backed information.
Critical thinking requires you to be mindful of irrational emotions and cognitive biases that can get in the way of your judgment.
When you first hear about the concept of critical thinking, your gut response might be to think, where can I even begin? Although it can seem daunting, you can break it down into two key components: asking the right questions and interrogating what presents itself as the truth.
When it comes to critical thinking, it’s important that you first listen to what other people are saying so that you understand the problem at hand. While doing this, you want to avoid biases as much as possible and try to identify patterns that you notice in the discussion. The goal is to be as impartial as possible.
For instance, say that a number of team members are using a term that they seem to assume everyone already knows. By asking them to define it, you can provide clarity for members who might not have had a firm understanding, as well as confirm that those using it are doing so properly.
Questions force individuals to confront what they might otherwise take for granted. Many times the solution lies within a problem itself, so when you identify a potential hole, try to follow-up until you examine every possible angle. At the very least, this can lead to an action plan of things to pursue in the near future.
Critical thinking also requires you to adopt some degree of skepticism. Sometimes something might be true in the moment, but then the later effects turn into a drastically different outcome.
For instance, you might want to vote for the new candidate running for president, who promised to lower gas prices. They might actually lower gas prices, but a lower gas price means more cars on the road than ever. This would then lead to a drastic increase in the emission of greenhouse gasses.
While lowering gas prices seems like a good thing, you have to be cognizant of the ripple effects that such a decision would cause and then make an informed decision on what makes the most sense for you. It’s rare that a solution comes with no potential downsides, so it’s important to weigh the pros and cons.
Besides developing a critical thinking mindset, there are also behaviors that you can practice to help you better analyze situations. These will complement the components of the prior section and help you work towards implementing critical thinking in your daily role.
Reflective thinking involves honestly interpreting your experiences and understanding the implications of your actions. This doesn’t mean you need to resent your past, but you should work towards seeing the big picture of how your past informs your present.
This will help you differentiate between your wants and needs, which often results in better expenditure, a healthier lifestyle, and stronger relationships.
The easiest way to gain new knowledge is to be curious about the world around you. Try to push yourself out of your comfort zone by trying to learn about things you know nothing about. In time, this will change the way that you approach problems by enabling you to see more possibilities.
On the more tangible front, chess is one of the best ways to enhance your strategic planning skills, fluid intelligence, and pattern recognition, which are the exact elements of critical thinking. It tests your wits to their limits, which increases your appetite for intellectual challenges.
Logic puzzles like the ones on TED Ed’s channel directly test your critical thinking. Since there are no open-ended questions and only one or two precise solutions, working on logic puzzles or riddles teaches you the value of determination to overcome intellectual challenges.
Writing forces you to bring ideas in your head into tangible concepts, and unlike a regular discussion, it gives you time to choose the right words. It’s the best tool for self-reflection and letting go of wrong beliefs and assumptions.
Keeping a journal and a to-do list can put you ahead of 90 percent of the competition out there.
Being narrow-minded can make you less intelligent. However, active listening can broaden your perspective. By listening to others and considering alternating viewpoints, you will get to have key insights that you could never have had on your own.
Being broad-minded also enables you to integrate healthy aspects of others’ mental models into your own.
When presented with a complex problem or idea, ask yourself questions like, what are we trying to achieve here?
This approach lets you redefine the problem statement in your mind and serves as a perfect starting point. Try to identify independent or partially dependent parts of the problem and observe how they contribute to the big picture.
Now that we’ve covered the key concepts and strategies for developing critical thinking, let’s take a look at some of the things that can get in the way. The biggest hurdle one faces when it comes to critical thinking is biases, however there are a few different types. Knowing what they are will help you avoid them within your product team.
Cognitive biases occur when you use mental shortcuts and let irrational and impulsive emotions get in the way of critical thinking. They keep you from critically thinking through your problems.
You might have a relative or friend who just can’t seem to let go of their childhood favorite political figure. You’ll notice that such people happily accept evidence that aligns with their beliefs and discard the rest.
This is quite natural because our core beliefs and convictions are highly valuable to us and they’re something we live by.
One of the most dangerous mind traps is getting used to the same type of information. People tend to give more weightage to the information that they always hear.
For instance, overly exaggerated and frequently reported events are perceived to be more common than they actually are.
Lies travel faster than the truth, and in today’s age of information, there are a lot of opinions and data available to us. We have evolved to pay more attention to negativity, whether it be in the news, on social media, or in the workplace.
Real life is not a logic puzzle and it’s important to acquire the ability to think in shades of gray rather than black and white.
Critical thinking is a difficult task, but that doesn’t mean that you should avoid it. The good news is that you don’t need to accomplish it overnight. It’ll be much easier to adopt critical thinking if you make small, tangible changes to the way you perform your daily tasks. For instance, think about aspects of your routine that you perform without question. Are there ways to improve any of them?
You can lean on the concepts and strategies in this article to work towards improving your critical thinking. Just remember to consider the role of biases and actively work towards removing them so that your decision-making doesn’t become clouded. Good luck!
Featured image source: IconScout
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