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Critical thinking and strategic decision-making

Find out why it's important to work on your critical thinking and strategic decision-making skills early in your career.

The higher you progress up the career ladder, the more important the decisions you will be required to make. Such decisions become less about day-to-day activity and operations, and are closely linked to an organisation’s strategic direction and mission.

At this stage in your career this point may seem some way off, but developing your critical thinking and strategic decision-making skills sooner will help to mark you out and could put you in the frame for a promotion earlier than you think.

These skills can also be applied in a number of others areas including problem solving and can prove invaluable in project work.

“It will help you focus on what success and a desired outcome looks like,” says Lucy Gower, a trainer, coach and consultant, and author of the book The Innovation Workout.

“In a changing world and workplace, the ability to think strategically to solve problems is more valuable than anything else now and in future. Critical thinking will help you to be flexible to seize whatever opportunities the future brings. It also helps us make decisions about the things to stop [doing] or not do which can waste time and energy.”

What do you want to achieve?

Many individuals still rely too much on gut feeling and instinct when making decisions. While these, alongside intuition and personal judgment, all have a part to play, strategic decision-making involves thinking more consciously and critically about how you should act.

“It starts with identifying the outcome you want or what success looks like rather than responding ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to one particular situation,” says Gower, who cautions against cutting corners on this part of the process. “If you don’t get this bit right you could be solving the wrong problem. For example, why do you want a new job? Because you want more money and more interesting work, or because you hate your current boss? What you want might actually be a good relationship with your boss. So one option might be getting a new job but another could be to work to understand your boss.” 

Think options through

Critical thinking involves challenging assumptions, questioning why you are doing something, checking for any bias that may colour your judgement and removing any irrational thinking that might influence you and projecting ahead. Apply this level of thought and analysis when thinking through all of the possible solutions that will lead to your desired outcome. If necessary, ask for input from others who may have different expertise and knowledge. Undertake your own research if you believe evidence or findings related to a particular solution are questionable. Gower suggests that setting a criterion by which to judge each solution can help.

“A good question to sense check your decision is to ask yourself, ‘what will happen if I do this’ and ‘what will happen if I don’t’,” she adds.

Tools and techniques

There are a number of problem-solving tools and techniques that can improve your critical thinking and help with strategic decision-making. They include the 5WHYS, where you continually ask why something happened until you arrive at a root cause, the diagrammatic cause and effect analysis (also called the Fishbone diagram because it looks like one), a SWOT analysis, where the ‘strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats’ associated with a particular solution are explored and risk analysis where a solution’s susceptibility to risk at different points is analysed. Meanwhile, a decision matrix – also called a Pugh matrix or decision grid – will help you list and weigh up each solution according to different criteria. You can read up on these online or in many popular management books.

Review and learn

If it transpires that, even after this careful thought and analysis, you made the wrong decision, don’t be too disheartened but review what went wrong. Perhaps you overlooked a group of factors or specific set of circumstances or maybe something unexpected occurred. It is impossible to predict and control everything but as long as you can identify the point of failure, you can put it right next time.

Above all, learn from each experience and you will hone your critical thinking and strategic decision-making skills throughout your working life.

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