Why Critical Thinking is Key for Shaping the Future

The factors that created success yesterday don’t necessarily create success today

October 5, 2017, Willow Pryor

We’ve heard it time and time again, we are dealing with unprecedented times of change. The factors that created success yesterday don’t necessarily create success today. Business as usual does not suffice. Richard Foster of Yale University says that “In the next 10 years, 40% of the Fortune 500 Companies will be gone”. So, the biggest risk then is not a downturn in loss of profits for the quarter, its non-existence altogether. It is no wonder then that critical thinking, that challenges the status quo, is a core skill for leaders and our future workforce.

So, what exactly is the problem? The problem is we don’t know what we don’t know! We have worldviews and mindsets that prevent us from seeing the full realm of possibilities that lie in front of us. Ash Buchanan, in his article ‘the nature of mindsets’ eloquently describes the impact of mindsets in this way “mindsets act like a puppet master, pulling the strings of our future possibilities.” So in this way, it is our deeply held beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions that underpin our worldview and mindset that can both create our preferred future or de-rail it. It is our worldview and mindsets that can enable us to see new opportunities where they didn’t exist.

To ensure that opportunities are not overlooked and risks are identified it is essential to challenge our assumptions and beliefs regularly. It has become even more imperative as the economic, technological, political, environmental, and social landscapes, among others, around us continue to morph and change rapidly.

There are two types of assumptions, the ones we consciously choose to make and then the unconscious ones, the ones hidden a bit deeper in our psyche. These are the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

While both can be dangerous in an uncertain, rapidly changing world, it is the unchallenged assumptions, predominantly the ones we don’t know we don’t know, that can really trip us up the most. They can be underpinned by obsolete data, outdated cultural traditions, or misinformation. And, they form the foundations of our worldviews and mindsets, which in turn create the world we live in, both individually and collectively.

Challenging your used future can be an important step in helping you identify the assumptions that you hold about the future. Tuomo Kuosa can help you explore different lenses through which the future gets formed in his article here.

In addition to our assumptions, there are several biases that can influence what we believe and how we stay relevant in a changing world. Understanding and challenging your confirmation bias that pulls to information and ideas that confirm your existing beliefs is a key step towards becoming more resilient and agile. For instance, with social media, we are increasingly seeing people living in an echo chamber that is constantly reinforcing their prevailing attitudes and judgments. Overconfidence bias is another trap in a fast-paced world with information overload where we may be drawn to act without taking the time to stop and reflect appropriately. This can lead to decisions made without appropriate due diligence and short term gain yet longer-term loss.

In 2012, Suncorp Group's CEO Michael Cameron said in The Australian: “The best way to understand what is happening inside your sector is to spend some time outside of it.” While I believe this statement still rings true, I’d like to build on this further and say that one of the best ways to understand what is happening in your sector is to spend some time challenging bias and assumptions, both inside and outside of your own sector.

The next step from there is to challenge the worldviews and mindsets that underpin the systems in place. The futures tool CLA, developed by Professor Sohail Inayatullah, provides a powerful framework for doing so. Once multiple stakeholders' worldviews have been uncovered it is also then possible to explore the shift in worldviews and mindsets that need to take place to create new systems and measurements that help shape your preferred future, not yesterdays.


Here are 5 key ways you can start to implement more critical thinking in your leadership practice and organization today:


1. Question, question, question

The power of questions to disrupt the status quo can never be underestimated. Nor can the richness that comes with understanding and including multiple worldviews in your awareness. Some powerful questions that can challenge the norm, invite inclusion and a diversity of voices in the conversation are: who wins? Who loses? Whose voice is missing?


2. Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Don’t underestimate the power of culture in your organization. If you are to become an agile organization, it is important to create a culture that is open to challenging the status quo and ‘the way things are done around here.’ There are no stupid ideas.


3. Become a learning organization

Inertia is death. The leader and organization that survives today and into the future is the leader and organization that is open to being challenged and being a lifelong learner.


4. The power of humility and openness

Staying humble and open are vital traits as we move into uncertain and complex times. Staying open is about being willing to be vulnerable and not know,  and it is in the space of not knowing that something new and novel can emerge. As Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”.


5. The path of reflection

Take the time to stop and reflect. Although very counter-intuitive in today’s fast-paced world, taking the time to reflect and learn are critical steps towards labeling and identifying assumptions and biases that prevent us from shaping our preferred future.

Willow Pryor, MSF (strat for), is a professional futurist with a focus on consulting, facilitation of futures thinking workshops, speaking and teaching strategic foresight to enable the creation of alternative futures. Willow has worked with a range of public, private and for-purpose organizations. She believes to create more equitable and sustainable futures our leaders, young and old, need to think like futurists. To get in contact with Willow email her at willow@facilitatingfutures.com. You can also find her on LinkedIn.

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