19 Mar 2008 @ 10:11 PM 

When I checked out my Google Analytics page recently, I discovered that someone had found their way to the site by means of the following search: “explain how a small business owner might apply critical thinking skills to a non-legal problem.” I have no idea what particular non-legal problem that reader was wrestling with. Frankly, I was pretty amazed by the number of words that Google search contained! That reader probably didn’t find what they were looking for here (yet!), and probably won’t find their way back. However, it gives me an interesting subject on which to opine for a couple of lines, so here we go.

Now, let’s start off on the right foot. The word critic has been defined as: “one who expresses a reasoned opinion on any matter especially involving a judgment of its value, truth, righteousness, beauty, or technique” and comes from the Latin criticus, or Greek kritikos, meaning “able to discern or judge.” The first step in successfully implementing critical thought in your small business is learning to think critically about it. It is important here not to fall into the trap of thinking of criticism as principally negative – it is never helpful or productive to think negatively about your business, hence the definition given above. The key is reasoning, discernment and making correct judgments – those are all positive things and best done in a positive mindset.

In a previous post, I summarized a presentation I gave to some law students at BYU. One piece of advice I gave them was that a Juris Doctor degree is very versatile because in addition to the valuable subject matter, law students more importantly learn to think critically about actions and transactions. In first year law classes this takes the shape of learning to interpret the law from court decisions. Ultimately, people expect lawyers to be able to anticipate what the likely outcome will be of a dispute under the law and given their particular circumstances. To begin to do this, law students have to learn to identify the key principles in a published legal decision so that, when faced with a similar but different fact scenario, they can reliably determine how the judge is likely to apply the law. A deep familiarity with the published text of the law is helpful, but unless a lawyer has a strong ability to think critically about that text and relate it to the facts, he or she is not going to be able to discern what the outcome of the case should be, which is the lawyer’s role.

I think a neat little summary for effective critical thinking is the following: think broadly, think deeply, but don’t forget to act. 

Think broadly 

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of thinking critically about a problem, legal or non-legal, is being aware of one’s surroundings, or thinking broadly. Much like players on a sports team need to be aware of the location and actions of their fellow players, lawyers and managers need to be sure to actively account for peripheral issues when thinking about a challenge their business is facing. A common temptation for law students, especially in this age of digital search tools, is to go right to the sought-after word or reference in a decision, read the text there, and base their assumptions on that excerpt. The danger in this approach is that, although it saves time and will often give you some reliable direction, there are often many other factors that may affect the importance or interpretation of that principle in the final decision.

By the same token, successful managers and critical thinkers keep their eyes open for peripheral issues that may affect the outcome of what they are trying to achieve, even though the relationship between the two may not be readily apparent at the outset. Many times, significant opportunities and threats for an organization lurk in this periphery. The tech giants have certainly shown that they know how to do this as they seem to have expanded in every direction along the value chain. Thomas Friedman, in The World is Flat, describes how UPS has thought broadly about its business opportunities and has gotten involved much more deeply in its clients’ operations than merely delivering packages. It has developed facilities where it repairs electronics; stores, selects and ships warehoused goods; and operates branded delivery trucks for its clients. Even when successful businesses do not engage in activities from the periphery of their industry, their broad perspectives make them acutely aware of what is going on around them and how they will be affected.

So, how can you widen your perspective? Look through trade magazines from related industries (start with your suppliers, customers and competitors) keeping an eye out for synergies and conflicts. Join a trade association for your industry. Go out for lunch for a change, and take someone with you, such as your primary outside lawyer, accountant, business consultant, or a client or supplier. For the price of a meal and with a few appropriately inquisitive questions, you can often get valuable insights into what issues are on the minds of others in your field (for more on this, check out this post).

Critical thinking does not preclude the ability to act on on intangible evidence, such as a “gut feeling” about a decision. Such intuitive impulses may be instinctual or may in fact be the result of alot of “behind the scenes” analysis your subconscious has conducted based on your perceptions. In fact, such intangibles are very valuable and such innate skills are often possessed by great managers. However, good critical thinkers know how to put that intuition in its proper perspective, consider it in light of the other facts they have gathered and make a reasoned decision – resisting the temptation to simply always follow one’s gut feeling because it is easier. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of effective critical thought is the ability to properly gauge the importance and relevance of each factor affecting a decision.

Think deeply

Chess, at least with the rules one typically plays with in the US and Western Europe, has been around since the 1500s, and some others have been around much longer. One reason this pastime is so persistent is that it helps teach and train the mind in thinking deeply. In chess, success depends on much more than your familiarity with the rules of the game and the ability to perceive what your opponents are doing with their current actions. Players will very quickly and consistently end up in check and mate if they only focus on the present state of the game. The essence of chess is to play the game out in your mind far in advance, looking for trends in your opponent’s movements that will give you the chance to think many moves ahead, which is the key to winning. Chess master Garry Kasparov is reported to have said that chess champions generally think 5 or more moves ahead in the game, and are capable of much deeper thought than that.

Thinking deeply about business problems should be approached in much the same way. We ought to pause just a second before making decisions in our business relationships. Leaning on the wider perspective you have developed by thinking broadly, think through your action. How will your clients perceive this action? Your suppliers and competitors? How are they likely to react? What impact will their reaction have on you, your industry, or other you do business with? You also need to look at such questions over the short, medium and long term. What will be the short vs. long term effects of your decision? If the short term is positive, but the long term potentially negative, are there additional actions you can take to minimize the negative impact so that you can preserve the benefit you get in the short term?

This kind of thought, practiced regularly, leads to the development of a master plan for your small business. It will become less of a “I wonder what will happen today” and more of a “I’m on schedule to realize my goals and desires” type of venture. Of course, you cannot predict every twist and turn in the development of your business, but thinking deeply about it and charting its course out several steps ahead gives you a map to follow. Much as a ship on the sea can be blown off course by strong winds and find its way again with the aid of a map and navigational tools, you will be better prepared to re-orient your business processes in the facing of a changing, industry, economy or regulatory environment if you have thought through a path to where you want to go. On a smaller scale, you will also be able to more easily handle more limited issues, such as simple conversations that could become confrontations, if you think through the conversation beforehand for a few minutes, try to anticipate the reaction of the other person, and plan your questions and comments accordingly. Much of the most painful regret felt in this world could have certainly have been avoided if one or more of the persons involved would have thought things through more thoroughly.

Don’t forget to act 

But won’t all this thought and analysis paralyze my business decision making? Aren’t complicated decision-making processes one of the factors that tend to slow down big organizations and make them less nimble? And won’t that tend to keep an enterprise from being able to effectively seize the advantage of being a first-mover in an industry? These are all valid concerns, and my final thought on critical thinking is to remember that it is but one part of your business process. As too much of any good thing can be unhealthy when it precludes you from taking part in other good things, it is often very easy to fall in the trap of over-analyzing issues. This over-concentration leads to paralysis and indecision. As with all parts of our lives, we have to learn to find the approprate balance for our organizations between analysis and action.

The first key is to remember that we generally cannot and will not uncover all relevant factors to our business decisions. This is a limitation in such wonderful and time-tested concepts as the scientific method. It is impossible for us to anticipate or perceive all relevant factors, and the law of diminishing returns teaches us that, at any rate, after a certain point it becomes less worthwhile to continue looking for hidden factors and risks. So, we have to develop a sense of when we have sufficiently “done our homework” so that we can feel confident that we are getting the big picture. Experience will help you develop a sense for this, as a function of your industry, your company’s culture and your own skill set. You may also continue your analysis while taking primary steps in the direction you think is right to test the waters.

Another reason to remember to act is that things can change, and quickly, especially with today’s technology and global economy. If you try to analyze until you are certain you have examined every possible new development, you may find yourself mapping sand dunes in the desert, with the landscape constantly shifting as the wind blows. In such situations, you may need to select the issues you think are most important, take some probing steps to test your initial reactions, or a combination of these or some other actions and then just roll with the punches that still com through as best you can. What is certain is that you will nonetheless be better off than if you had not made a full effort to analyze the situation in the first place. By the same token, being human, we can also misperceive threats and opportunities. Some of our fears or envisioned roadblocks may never materialize.

Mostly, acting engenders energy, passion and impetus which can often help compensate in overcoming inevitable or unforeseeable obstacles. With the combination of broad perspective and deep analysis, and balancing planning with the need to act, you will soon find greater comfort in your decisions and greater success in your ventures.

Posted By: TJ
Last Edit: 19 Mar 2008 @ 10:13 PM



Responses to this post » (3 Total)

  1. Jason Elder says:

    Excellent Blog. I’ve been reading along and just wanted to say hi. I will be reading more of your posts in the future.

    – Jason.

  2. TJ says:

    Jason, Thanks for reading and checking in. I’m still really feeling my way around in this, trying to define the scope of this thing. I assume that http://www.bankruptcylawyerarticles.com/ is your blog. It looks great, and it appears that you have become pretty prolific in your content generation. Then again, lawyers generally don’t have too much difficulty finding things to write about!

  3. Bret Fund says:

    Hey T. Love the post and couldn’t agree more. I hope the small business owner finds his way back or else his competition might :-) Now that I can breathe a bit more I will be following your site more closely. Looking forward to the next set of insights to come!

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