Review any list of sought-after skills for leaders today, and you’re certain to find a range of advanced thinking skills, including critical thinking and strategic thinking, among them.
Given the current state of business and work, this makes sense. Jobs are becoming increasingly complex and functions more interconnected, meaning decisions or solutions in one area can have broad impact in others. Good decision making and the ability to craft solutions to complex problems are what move an organization forward. As a result, organizations routinely look for these skills when making hiring decisions. Terms like analyze, innovate, reason, ideate, evaluate, decision making, and problem solving are common on job postings and among core competencies. The higher someone moves in the organization, the more critical such skills become.
It’s no wonder, then, that our clients are consistently looking to build these skills among their leadership teams. Most often, they summarize these needs as either critical thinking or strategic thinking. The ability of leaders to do both can greatly affect business outcomes. When decisions are based upon erroneous, partially false, or incomplete information and when leaders fail to think clearly about the full implications of their actions, the consequences can be dire for employees, customers, stakeholders, organizations, and even communities. The need to develop these skills, then, is a given.
“Knowing how to think empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think.” —Neil deGrasse Tyson
One thing we’ve discovered is that our clients often use these terms interchangeably, or they refer to one when they may mean the other. In fact, in researching the content for our Critical Thinking and Strategic Thinking courses, I found that happens a lot, depending on the source. Indeed, there is overlap, but the distinction is important for us to make sure we’re addressing the intended learning needs.
According to Richard W. Paul, founder of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, “Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better.” In other words, it’s an active, continuous process of gathering, synthesizing, and analyzing data to inform decisions and solutions. The “thinking about your thinking” part, as Paul puts it, is about identifying biases and testing assumptions that can muck up the works. Critical thinking focuses on identifying root causes of problems, considering alternative perspectives, weighing possibilities, and coming to a conclusion or choice. Leaders use critical thinking to navigate all manner of routine and high-stakes challenges and opportunities.
Critical thinking, then, can be considered a tool that enables strategic thinking. Strategic thinking is future-oriented and typically applied in the context of planning how best to achieve a specific goal or outcome. Critical thinking practices of gathering and analyzing data to inform choices and conclusions apply, but typically in the consideration of a long-term prospect. Thus, strategic thinking’s purview considers not just the next move but also the one after that, and the one after that, and so on. Pros versus cons, strengths versus weaknesses, risks versus opportunities, and what-ifs and contingencies are usually part of the process. Leaders use strategic thinking when plotting the “how” of an initiative or goal.
Of course, both of these are essential to a leader’s success. Talking clients through our approach to each of these skills, how they’re related, and how we’ve distinguished them from a learning perspective helps us ensure we’re offering solutions that are the right fit for their needs. In other words, we inform and support the critical thinking process that helps them think strategically about how to invest their learning resources to achieve optimal results—how meta!
Developing and honing the ability to think critically and strategically takes time. Leaders committed to “knowing how to think” and “thinking about [their] thinking while [they’re] thinking” (as the two of top thinkers I quoted earlier implied) will make a big impact on their personal and organization success.