Exercises to Strengthen Your Critical Thinking Skills

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Any fitness trainer will tell you how critical it is for you to develop and maintain a strong core. The core muscle groups in your body provide the foundational strength and stability that propel you through your daily life.

Much like your physical core, leaders and managers have their own core—comprised not of muscles—but of skills and behaviors essential for leading, managing and helping their firms and teams successfully navigate the challenges of the workplace and marketplace.

Know Your Core Professional Skills

No matter which career, professionals generally need a core set of skills to succeed in the workplace. Here are four types you will need to develop to get ahead:

  1. Critical Thinking Skills: Your ability to navigate and translate ambiguous or complex circumstances or seemingly random noise into meaningful patterns and insights.
  2. Operational Skills: Your ability to understand how the firm makes money and to translate resources into programs, revenues and profits as efficiently as possible.
  3. Leadership Skills: Your ability in this era of uncertainty and ambiguity to foster an environment that allows individuals to offer their best in terms of creativity and energy in pursuit of your team’s/firm’s cause.
  4. Connecting and Relating Skills: Your ability to foster effective internal and external relationships and to engage effectively with different audiences at all levels of your firm.

While there are many more skills that you develop and draw upon in your professional life, these four reign supreme. They are foundational to your ability to engage others, problem-solve, guide, motivate, and navigate in organizational settings. And like everything else in life, mastery requires hard work and ample practice. 

The focus here is on strengthening your critical thinking skills. 

Why Critical Thinking Skills Are Important

While there are many more professional skills that you develop and draw upon in your professional life, critical thinking skills are foundational to your ability to engage others, problem-solve, guide, motivate, and navigate in organizational settings. And, like everything else in life, mastery of critical thinking skills requires hard work and ample practice. 

Specifically, an individual who exhibits strong critical thinking skills would do activities such as the following well.

  • Problem solve and identify patterns
  • Perform effective data analysis
  • Communicate opinions, ideas, and concerns
  • Synthesize and conceptualize data and make connections
  • Regard information inclusively and objectively
  • Reason logically

Practical Exercises to Strengthen Critical Thinking Skills

Professional skills are very much a career-long commitment. These exercises below will help you build up and strengthen your critical thinking.

1. Read about how leaders face and resolve challenges

Why this works: You want to expose yourself to new ideas and new experiences. You can gain insight into different leaders’ successes and their failures—both of which are important. You’re encouraged to read at least 20 minutes of thought-provoking, new material every day. This will help expand your knowledge base and your mind.

Suggested Books

"Strategy Rules: Five Timeless Lessons from Bill Gates, Andy Grove, and Steve Jobs," by Yoffie and Cusumano, is a great way to jump-start your thinking. This title provides some terrific insights and lessons for business professionals from three of the individuals most responsible for creating our technology-driven world.

"Winston Churchill: Memoirs of the Second World War" provides an up close and personal look at the nation and world-changing problems encountered by this war-time leader. If these suggestions don't appeal to you, find subjects and authors who expose you to new ideas and challenge you to think differently.”

"Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence" by Amy Alkon gives you a science-based look about how to change your life and the way you approach issues and other things even if you’re scared.

2. Exercise critical thinking skills by analyzing competitors

Why this works: This not only expands your mind but helps you build opportunities for your firm to beat the competitors.

How to do this: Study your competitors and attempt to distill and describe their strategies and more importantly, how and where they make money. As you strive to understand the customer groups they focus on and how and why they win and lose, you’ll learn how to do the same for your own firm. In doing this, you'll also identify opportunities for your firm to beat your competitors.

Engage your customer-facing colleagues in this exercise to gain their insights on competitor strategies and opportunities. This type of intelligence gathering and analysis is an excellent exercise for your entire team. ​​

3. Find an orphan problem and adopt it 

Why this works: In every organization, there are annoying problems that no one claims as their own problem to solve. If you can figure out how to solve this problem you’ll expand your critical thinking skills.

How to do this: Identify an orphan problem and ask for your boss's support in tackling it. For issues that cross functions, you'll need to pull together a team. Guide your team through the process of analyzing the problem, interviewing key stakeholders and developing potential solutions. You will gain visibility as a leader and problem-solver. Additionally, you will be exercising all four of your core professional skill sets with this activity.

4. Figure out what keeps executives in your firm awake at night 

Why this works: You will gain invaluable insight into the big issues surrounding the firm's future and you will walk away with a better understanding of the complex challenges senior leaders grapple with on a daily basis.

How to do this: Invite your boss or an executive to lunch and ask questions about the strategy and direction of the firm. Strive to understand the big challenges they see for the firm and ask for their views on the ideal strategy and key actions.

5. Put a team on the issue or problem

Why this works: Forming and utilizing a team helps you gain multiple viewpoints and allows you to learn to reframe issues and problems and to develop multiple solution sets. It is a powerful use of your critical thinking skills.

How to do this: Guide your team through structured problem-solution development activities. Work with your team to assess problems from multiple viewpoints and develop alternative solutions. For example, a competitor’s announcement might be viewed as a threat. While you should guide the team through data gathering, analysis and countermeasure development, try also framing the situation as an opportunity.

By launching a new offering, your competitor is investing resources in one area. Does this mean they will be saying no to other segments or stretched thin to defend their legacy offerings? Learning to reframe issues and problems and to develop multiple solution sets depending upon the frame, is a powerful use of your critical thinking skills. 

6. Start and maintain a journal to chart successes and mistakes 

Why this works: By examining your assumptions and logic and comparing expected to actual outcomes, you gain insight into your own decision-making and critical thinking strengths and weaknesses.

How to do this: Log key decisions and expected outcomes and reference these entries over time. This will help you determine the efficacy of your decision making as a result of the exercise of your critical thinking skills. 

The Bottom Line

Much like spending a few days in the gym won’t transform your body, developing your core professional skill sets is a career-long activity. Strengthening your critical thinking skills involves exercising your ability to assess situations, gather and analyze data and develop coherent, actionable plans, often in conjunction with the input from others.

Seek out daily opportunities to exercise these skills and commit to a program of continuous improvement and learning. An active, fit brain will serve you well as a manager, professional, or individual contributor.