Mastery at Work – Critical Thinking

Very few people are aware of Visvesvaraya, one of the greatest civil engineers India has produced. What set Visvesvaraya apart was is ability to think critically and devise solutions for mammoth problems. He was requested by Nizam of Hyderabad to advise and assist in the reconstruction of Hyderabad city after it was devastated by flood in Musi river. After in-depth study he submitted plan to save the city from floods in the future.

What sets these critical thinkers apart from others? To understand the same, we need to understand what critical thinking is. The process of actively gathering, analysing and evaluating data or information to logically infer and form a judgement is called as critical thinking.

It is the ability to reflect, reason, focus and logically connect our thoughts to reach a conclusion.

In today’s age of information and technology, we are overloaded with information and knowledge from various sources.  It is extremely important to be able to accumulate information, analyze information and deduce logical conclusions or decisions based on this information. Our ability to solve problems is based on all of the above. 

No wonder critical thinking is the second most wanted skill as per the latest skill surveys done on fortune 500 companies.

How does critical thinking work in real life situations? Think of any situation which requires you to provide a solution. In short you need to solve a problem.  In this case, a problem is defined as a question or situation that calls for a solution.

How do you think critically in these situations? In any situation which requires critical thinking, try and do the following:

  • Recognize and define problems
  • Make relevant observations
  • Ask the right questions to the concerned people, always be curious
  • Note down beliefs, assumptions, opinions of people involved.
  • Examine beliefs, assumptions, opinions and feel free to challenge them against facts you have been observing and noting.
  • Analyse the facts available to assess the validity of statements and arguments
  • Evaluate all the information available, understand logically to make wise decisions
  • Synthesize the information to find valid solutions

The following habits will help you in increasing Critical Thinking:

  • Focused Observation: Learn to pay focused attention to what is going around you. Increase awareness of your surroundings and situations and do it as effectively as possible. There are 3 steps to the same:
    • Using your own observations.
    • Collecting information from others
    • Personally, gathering information

Tip for you: While you are practicing focused observation, remember to do the following when you encounter a problem. Pay undivided attention to the problem, look at the context in whole and not in parts and be thorough in your observations.         

  • Collecting Information: Collecting detailed information on possible causes or reasons for the problem. This could include online research, reading books, consulting experts etc.  You need to remember that your solutions are going to be as good as the research you do at this stage.
  • Evaluating Facts: Remember the difference between facts and opinions. Anything which can be verified is a fact while opinions are subjective statements based on personal beliefs. We need to evaluate all the information we have collected by checking the accuracy of the information. The accuracy of the information can be checked by source of the information, credibility of the source and also checking if the information is available anywhere else.
  • Evaluating Data: Particularly for complex problems, evaluating data is extremely critical to reach the right conclusions. In order to collect the data correctly, we need to ensure the following:
    • Use appropriate sample population
    • Collect adequate amount of data
    • Check the degree of accuracy of the data

There are many more precautions to be taken while observing data which will be discussed in due course.

  • Using Graphics: Organize all the information you have collected in a graphic manner. The tools which can be helpful in the same include Fishbone diagrams, concept maps, mind maps, webbing, Venn diagrams, charts etc. We will be doing the same in details in the part II of our series on critical thinking. Graphic organizing tools help us in splicing our thoughts and putting them in specific buckets where we can evaluate each item in its context.
  • Reasoning: Is either based on premises which are in turn based on validity of data or based on past experiences and common sense.

Interesting Fact: Greatest achievement of Visvesvaraya was building the Krishnaraja Sagar Dam across Cauvery river. It was the largest reservoir built in India until then. It stores 48,000 million cubic feet of water for purpose of irrigating thousands of acres of land. M.V as he was also known, tried and involved as many intellectuals as possible in the major issues that he resolved. This shows that he used expert opinions to gather both information on the problems he was facing and also took their opinions to resolve the issues.

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