The Importance of Critical Thinking and Challenging Assumptions

There are many factors that are important to effectively practice the management improvement ideas I have discussed in this blog for over a decade. One of the most important is a culture that encourages critical thinking as well as challenging claims, decisions and assumptions.

I discussed this idea some in: Customers Are Often Irrational. There is a difference between saying people wish to have their desires met and people act in the manner to maximize the benefits they wish to receive.

It is important to study customer’s choice and learn from them. But being deceived by what their choice mean is easier than is usually appreciated. Often the decision made is contrary to the ideal choice based on their beliefs. It is often poor decision making not an indication that really they want a different result than they express (as revealed versus stated preference can show). People that ignore the evidence behind climate change and condemn coastal areas to severe consequences don’t necessarily prefer the consequences that their decision leads to. It may well be that decision to ignore the evidence is not based on a desire to suffer long term consequences in order to get short term benefits. It may well be just an inability to evaluate evidence in an effective way (fear of challenging ourselves to learn about matters we find difficult often provides a strong incentive to avoid doing so).

Knowing the difference between choosing short term benefits over long term consequences and a failure to comprehend the long term consequences is important. Just as in this example, many business decisions have at the root a desire to pretend we can ignore the consequences of our decisions and a desire to accept falsehoods that let us avoid trying to cope with the difficult problems.

photo of me with a blackboard in my father's office

Photo of me and my artwork in my father’s office by Bill Hunter

It is important to clearly articulate the details of the decision making process. We need to note the actual criticism (faulty logic, incorrect beliefs/assumptions…) that results in what some feel is a poor conclusion. But we seem to find shy away from questioning faulty claims (beliefs that are factually incorrect – that vaccines don’t save people from harm, for example) or lack of evidence (no data) or poor reasoning (drawing unsupported conclusions from a well defined set of facts).

Critical thinking is important to applying management improvement methods effectively. It is important to know when decisions are based on evidence and when decisions are not based on evidence. It can be fine to base some decisions on principles that are not subject to rational criticism. But it is important to understand the thought process that is taken to make each decision. If we are not clear on the basis (evidence or opinion regardless of evidence) we cannot be as effective in targeting our efforts to evaluate the results and continually improve the processes in our organizations.

Describing the decision as “irrational” is so imprecise that it isn’t easy to evaluate how much merit the criticism has. If specific facts are called into question or logical fallacies within the decision making process are explained it is much more effective at providing specific items to explore to evaluate whether the criticism has merit.

When specific criticisms are made clear then those supporting such a decision can respond to the specific issues raised. And in cases where the merits of one course of action cannot be agreed to then such critical thought can often be used to create measures to be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the decision based on the results. Far too often the results are not examined to determine if they actually achieved what was intended. And even less often is care taken to examine the unintended consequences of the actions that were taken.


Organizations that make decision on baseless claims and do not subject the decision making process to rational consideration of alternatives suffer the consequences of making poor decisions. They often attempt to use demagoguery, fear, criticism and repeating unsubstantiated claims over and over again to justify their desires. And without studying results to increase the understanding of the system and how changes impacted final results.

Often we have created cultural norms that make it difficult for people to ask for evidence of claims. And the culture in many organizations can make those that seek evidence for claims as being difficult or even personally attacking those that support a certain course of action. However this is a dangerous attitude and it is directly counter to the fundamental aspects of management improvement efforts (evidence decision making, continual improvement, etc.). But the reality is that many organizations such cultural norms (perhaps just norms that those with less status can’t question those with more or whatever the form it takes).

A management culture where the best defense against criticism of an idea is to make the claim that such a criticism is a personal attack and therefore doesn’t show “respect for people” is a poor culture. If you want to practice management improvement ideas the culture needs to emphasis that critical thinking about ideas and decisions is not the same as personal attacks. Actual personal attacks should not be tolerated. But I have seen the implication that criticism of ideas is a personal attack used far too frequently to stifle efforts to practice evidence based management concepts.

Changing the culture to one that values understanding and learning takes time. That process must be done with an understanding of psychology and the challenges of getting people to evaluate decisions. Creating a culture where it is expected that people think about the evidence and are comfortable explaining and defending the reasoning behind decisions is extremely important.

It can be frustrating to be questioned about the evidence and reasoning behind the proposed actions you support. But you really should be in the habit of doing this to yourself before you make a decision. If the organization adjusts expectations to make it clear that important decisions should be supported and presented along with the evidence used to make such a decision as well as with the thought process behind the decision the organization will be much better off. And then in most cases a PDSA process can be used to confirm what is believed and learn from the experiment before proposals are widely adopted.

Related: Why Do People so Often Fail to Adopt Better Management Methods?Building a Great Software Development TeamActing Without Theory Often Results in Wasted EffortExperience Teaches Nothing Without TheoryRiding a Bike and the Theory of Knowledge

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