Critical thinking, systems thinking and pattern recognition are capabilities that involve developing the prefrontal cortex of the brain, often called the executive brain. Some business writers refer to ways of thinking as skills, but I believe they are deeper than skills. Having taught both systems thinking and critical thinking in a university Master’s of Organizational Leadership program, I know how difficult and time consuming it is for some to develop these types of thinking. Hence, I put them in the category of capabilities. Most of us are born with the capacity, but the capability needs to be nurtured and built.
As I mentioned in my previous blog post on curiosity, creativity, and courage, the technical skills needed to succeed are rapidly changing. They are easier to learn now but also faster to become obsolete. Conversely, critical thinking and systems thinking serve us in good stead forever, and underpin good judgement, successful strategy and competent leadership. They don’t take the place of more body-based and human capabilities such as resilience, empathy and courage, but ideally, they complement them.
Critical thinking is defined by The Foundation for Critical Thinking as “that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it.” It is often referred to as the essence of the scientific method. With it, we have the ability to test hypotheses.
Systems thinking is defined by Barry Richmond, who coined the term, as “the art and science of making reliable inferences about behavior by developing an increasingly deep understanding of underlying structure.” Another definition, found in the Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development, is “a way of helping a person to view systems from a broad perspective that includes seeing overall structures, patterns and cycles in systems, rather than seeing only specific events in the system.” In other words, being able to see the forest for the trees, to recognize patterns, trends and the big picture.
These capabilities of thought are essential for problem-solving within the complexity we face today. My blog posts recently have been on whole body-based capabilities needed for 2021 and beyond, like empathy, resilience, creativity, curiosity and courage. Capabilities relating to the executive brain will also serve you well.
You cannot solve a problem without understanding it. Critical thinking can help you define the problem. Systems thinking can help you identify its source. Skilled coaches help clients reframe issues and see bigger pictures which helps develop both creativity and the executive brain.