Critical thinking skills – how are they applied to see a benefit?

Sara Penrose

8th October 2022

‘Freddie Star ate my hamster’

Ok, perhaps that is not entirely true. It was probably a gerbil. What am I saying? This is all wrong. It was actually Russ Abbott and err a guinea pig. Before somebody, quite rightly contacts the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA) no mammals were eaten or hurt in the composition of this post. Fortunately, the late Freddie Star did not eat a hamster but it was a very popular headline from that red top stalwart tabloid newspaper The Sun in 1986.

Did people believe the story? It is hard to say. Perhaps some people did, others may have thought it ridiculous and moved on. In the end it turned out to be a bizarre stunt by the disgraced publicist Max Clifford to attempt to revive a flagging career. Did it work? It certainly grabbed the attention at the time and is still remembered. So, to some extent yes. (1)

The World Economic Forum indicates that critical thinking skills consistently appear in surveys from employers as vital future skills. (2) But you can’t help thinking, so what? How do critical thinking skills actually apply to the thousands of businesses struggling to make ends meet? What is their relevance?

Back to Frederick. Ok the story is in the extreme. But it raises an important point. How do we know if the information we are presented with or can find is accurate? If we are reading a news article or a report, how can we ensure we have the facts and are able to process and make reasoned decisions. In recent years there has been a debate about the impact of social media and fake news on this subject. How do we assess what is the fact from the fiction.

The ability to do this forms the foundation of what critical thinking is all about. It is the ability to

·       Take an uncertain set of information and assess its value and importance.

·       To be able to evaluate how accurate it is and what it can be used for

·       Strip it back to first principles, take apart if necessary and put back together again. Incidentally the word analysis is Greek origin in origin and literally means ‘loosening throughout.’ (3)

·       Make reasoned decisions based upon fact and logic.

·       Ability to select a course of action and considered alternatives

This all sounds a bit like common sense, but if that is the case why does the following happen?

·       Hewlett Packard (HP) purchased Cambridge based Autonomy for £8.3bn) in 2011. It subsequently was proved in a court that this value was over-inflated when the deal took place. How were the false valuations presented and why did the buyers not notice? (4)

·       In 2022 P&O sacked it’s ferry workers on the spot and replaced with agency workers sparking a media, public and government outcry. In the days leading up to the event how good was the intelligence on the potential impact of such a decision? The action nearly closed the business, was this predicted and costed for based upon the information in front of decision makers? (5)

Improving critical thinking skills makes it more far more likely that these sort of issues are highlighted and actioned. The reader can assess and evaluate to get to a genuine picture which reflects the true status. If this was all common sense as some would advocate why does they still happen. Pick up any financial journal and it is littered with such examples? Maybe because critical thinking skills need to be continually tested and practiced. An elite athlete does not only turn up for a race without training beforehand.

This feels a bit well big and that get us to the heart of this article. How do we break these skills down further, so we actually see their value? Let’s take an example. A company has the business objective of growth, and it wants to achieve this by devising a business strategy. The first stage involves carrying out a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Weaknesses). But we need to actually populate the SWOT. This where critical thinking skills come in, namely.

·       Ability to question and challenge convention to gain facts and unbiased information.

·       Examination of information to quantify and qualify.

·       Sense check of outputs, tracking of progress and measuring of success.

How do we know what a business’s strengths or weaknesses are if we haven’t asked probing questions? We can fall into the trap of making too many assumptions and not really getting an unbiased view, based upon facts. If we don’t know what our weaknesses are, how are we going to implement a strategy?

This could include asking

·       What do a customer’s think of our service?

·       Do we really know where the greatest number of client queries are?

·       What do we get right?

·       What do we get wrong?

Information is power and this theme continues with entering a new market.

·       Do we understand it’s features?

·       What is required to be delivered?

·       Have we got the expertise?

·       How long could it take to get them?

Companies that rush without this knowledge all too well frequently rush out again. This can be disastrous for the business objective of growth. Bunnings purchase of Homebase is perhaps a good example.

They key to this success involves

·       Searching for accurate information with a healthy degree of scepticism.

·       Assumptions needed to be tested and qualified

·       Avoiding taking things at face value

·       Translating the crude information into easier bite sized pieces

·       Clear communication to stakeholders, ensuring that that the receive has understood.

Critical thinking sounds like it is a tool used only for huge corporations on complex projects or strategic stuff. Let’s cut the waffle. If a business decision needs to be made based upon information received then critical thinking skills apply. Whether this be a sole trader or a Vice President – Europe sales. The more we practice and develop the better the outcomes will be. The HP example provides us with a concerning alternative.

1.      Did Freddie Starr really eat a hamster? Late comedian’s photographer on THAT infamous headline  – The Manchester Evening News – 10th May 2019

2.      What are the top 10 job skills for the future? – World Economic Forum – 2020

3.      Wikipedia

4.      Hewlett Packard wins multibillion-dollar fraud case over acquisition of Cambridge firm Autonomy – Cambridge Independent – 28th January 2022

5.      Outrage and no ferries after P&O sackings – BBC News – 18th March 2022

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