‘It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’ – Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
There are many skills needed to lead a team and manage a business – from business acumen and financial awareness to the interpersonal skills that keep people happy and motivated. However, as the wise Professor Dumbledore explained above, it’s most important to have the courage and assertiveness to make difficult decisions.
We’ve often written about the benefits of creating agile teams that can adapt to change, act on feedback and move with the latest trends, but speed should always be secondary to careful and sensible judgements. Critical thinking helps you to analyse a situation and find the best path forward, basing decisions on logic, information gathering and weighing up all the options.
The RED model1 outlines three simple, yet highly effective, steps for critical thinking and decision making:
Assumptions are statements you believe despite a lack of proof or evidence. These are always dangerous when critically analysing a situation and problem solving. Every belief should be questioned and conclusions have to be made on clear facts and evidence. No matter how much you trust your gut or have faith in something, if there’s no tangible way to back up a claim, it has no place in critical thinking. You must always remain impartial.
One of the best ways to separate fact from opinion is to ask questions about the situation and the information you’ve got. We’re going to go through some of the key questions to ask, and show you how they help.
1. What’s the real issue?
In any situation where you need to make a choice, the first thing to do is to understand what you’re actually dealing with. For example, issues of team morale may often boil down to time constraints, and financial problems might require better resource management. Of course, not everything can be so easily simplified, but taking the time to find the root causes, will help you find the best solution.
2. What information do you need to make an informed judgement?
Once you’ve identified the real issue, you can begin to consider what information you need to solve it. You should know the key factors that will impact the final choice – such as budget, time or other people’s buy-in. This gives you a clear starting point and lets you plan what you need and where you can find it.
Aim to be realistic about what information you’ll have access to and what you won’t. This can guide the rest of your decision-making process, allowing you to prioritise, establish a timeline and set expectations right from the beginning.
3. What ideas and assumptions do you have about the situation?
While critical thinking is based on being entirely neutral and unbiased, it would be naïve to think that we don’t all start with pre-existing thoughts and feelings about a situation. By asking yourself what you think about the issues and potential solutions, you can be aware of this and ensure your final decision isn’t swayed by emotion.
We all have our own unconscious biases and recognising what they are allows us to move beyond them to make the right decisions based on facts.
4. Who has the opposite view to you?
It should go without saying that you aren’t going to be the only person with feelings on the situation. Whether consciously or unconsciously, other people you speak to will be influencing you to make one decision or another. While information gathering, you need to either find entirely neutral sources (e.g. raw data) or try to recognise how others might feel and whether it’s coming across in what they tell you. On the other hand, if you’re finding it difficult to take your own emotions out of your decision-making, speaking to someone with the opposing view may help you discover a balanced middle ground.
5. Who are the main people that will be affected by the decision? What do they think?
This is really two questions in one, but they come together and are equally important. Understanding who will be affected by your decision, and how, can be helpful in weighing up different potential choices. Firstly, knowing who is going to be affected may give you new avenues of research to look into and can help you identify the impacts of each choice.
Secondly, what may seem the most logical answer to you, might have a flaw that’s easier to spot by the people closest to the issues. While you should always remain on the lookout for biases, it’s always a good idea to listen to the wisdom and experience of those who know the situation best.
6. What are the pros and cons of all the possible solutions?
Now you’ve gathered and analysed all the necessary information, it’s time to evaluate the arguments and decide what you’re doing to do. Does one solution obviously outweigh the others? By what criteria are you judging the ‘best’ option?
There may be no easy choice, forcing you to balance the pros and cons of each viable option. Consider whether there are any major negatives to what would otherwise be a good solution, or the overall financial impact of a choice. Would the ‘best’ one take too long to implement? Alternatively, is the end result worth the extra time? By logically evaluating all the options, you can be confident that you’ll ultimately reach the best judgement based on the information available.
7. What evidence is driving your conclusion?
Like you were taught in school – after coming up with an answer, the final stage should always be to check your work. Think back over your choice: make sure it’s fully justified by evidence and facts and that you haven’t been influenced by your own, or anyone else’s, personal opinions.
Be ready to explain your decision-making process and how you came to your conclusion. If it was a particularly important or controversial choice you had to make, then it’s even more important to be able to justify it to others. You don’t want to leave yourself open to scrutiny. Even if it’s a relatively small decision you had to make, it’s still good practice to follow process and make a fair and logical judgement.
Whether you’re a manager, business leader or simply trying to become more confident making difficult decisions, by asking these questions of yourself, you can rest assured that you’ll make the best choice possible.
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