6 Exercises to Strengthen Your Critical Thinking Skills

Chalkboard with two words: Problems and Solutions. Problems is crossed out.
Getty Images/Claire Cordier

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

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

Know Your 4-Core Professional Skills

  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 we develop and draw upon in our professional lives, these 4 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. 

Our focus in this first post in the series on strengthening your core leadership skills is on critical thinking. 

6 Practical Exercises to Strengthen Your Critical Thinking Skills

  1. Read about other leaders and the challenges they faced and how they solved them. I love the book, "Strategy Rules: 5 Timeless Lessons from Bill Gates, Andy Grove and Steve Jobs," by Yoffie and Cusumano, as a way to jump-start your thinking. While I have a long list of reading suggestions, for business professionals, this one provides some great insights and lessons from three of the individuals most responsible for creating our technology-driven world. For those whose preferences run to history, try "Winston Churchill: Memoirs of the Second World War," where you get an up close and personal look at the nation and world-changing problems encountered by this war-time leader. If you don't like my suggestions, find subjects and authors who expose you to new ideas and challenge you to think differently. I encourage my coaching clients to read thought-provoking content for at least 20-minutes every day. 
  1. Exercise your critical thinking skills by analyzing your competitors. Study your   and attempt to distill and describe their strategies and more importantly, how and where they make money. Strive to understand the customer groups they focus on and how and why they win and lose. Do the same for your own firm and identify opportunities for your firm to beat the 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. 
  2. Find an orphan problem and adopt it! In every organization, there are annoying problems no one claims as their own. 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. In addition to gaining visibility as a leader and problem-solver, you will be exercising all 4 of your core professional skill sets with this activity!
  3. Figure out what keeps executives in your firm awake at night. 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. 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. 
  1. Put a team on it. 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. 
  2. Start and maintain a journal to chart your successes and mistakes. I encourage all of my coaching clients to log key decisions and expected outcomes and to reference these entries over time. 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.  

    The Bottom-line for Now

    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!