The value of critical thinking

Human beings are beautifully imperfect creatures – that’s what makes us interesting and frustrating in equal measure. We have the ability to process the most complex information and draw sense and understanding from it. And at the same time, we have the ability to lose total sight of the information and arguments in a decision, because of the lens through which we personally see the world.

Sometimes that’s ok. You ask a room full of football supporters who the best team is and you’ll have numerous impassioned arguments. Most of them are probably factually incorrect, but it doesn’t really matter – the opinion, the belief, the fundamental and overwhelming support is the characteristic that we treasure. We could probably, factually, work out which is the best team – but what’s the fun in that?

Other times, it prevents us from running our businesses and our lives successfully. We eschew the opportunity to explore multiple perspectives, to recognise our own assumptions and we choose to make decisions based on a limited set of information – often because not doing so would directly challenge our status, our beliefs or our previous decisions.

It’s a curious one.

One of the nicest, simplest models I’ve seen for this is Pearson’s RED:

Recognise assumptions

  • How can you help separate opinion from fact?
  • What assumptions are you bringing in to the decision-making process?
  • What are the different view points that exist?
  • What data exists to help explore the question at hand?

Evaluate arguments

  • What are the pros and cons of different viewpoints?
  • Can you make the opposite argument to your natural positions?
  • How does the data stack up against the various perspectives?
  • What will be the impact and how do you know?

Draw conclusions

  • Given all the information and arguments, what’s the best way forward?
  • How do you know?
  • What data/information supports your decision?
  • Is there something that you don’t know that would be helpful?

There is and will always be room for impassioned arguments and beliefs in business as there is in life. Critical thinking is about curiosity, it is about wanting to explore difference, wanting to understand views, wanting to learn and inform – not beating everyone around the head with demands for rationality and data – that’s another type of closed mindedness.

Seeking first to understand and explore, checking ourselves for out own assumptions and weighing up possibilities can only help us to be both more confident of our views and more rational in our arguments and better in our conclusions. We should, after all, be interested in making the best decisions that we can.

The HR Tech bubble is ready to burst

I’ve just come back from the HR Technology Conference and Expo in Chicago. It was a brilliantly organised and put together conference, pulling a range of suppliers and practitioners from all over the globe, the big, the small and the start-up. I was particularly keen to go as a long-standing champion of good HR technology. We’ve been lucky to partner with people like HireVue, Crowdoscope and Thompsons to deliver exciting solutions and I wanted to figure out what was next.

Everywhere I went there was talking of the disruptive influence of technology in HR, with people writing and commenting on the power that this is having on the profession. I was curious to understand exactly what this might be. Sadly, after spending three days looking for it, I came away empty-handed.

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of good technology platforms out there (I particularly like CareerBuilder, HROnboard & CultureAmp amongst others), but I struggled to find anything I’d call disruptive. The vast majority are in the talent acquisition space where, as far as I can see, the aim has always been to find, select and hire a person. They help, support, systemise and facilitate this process, but I’m not entirely sure that falls into disruption.

Then there are the HRIS suppliers and we know disrupting paying people is only going to end in a world of pain. A group of platforms which term themselves “engagement” – which means anything from recognition, through communication to wellbeing. And finally analytics solutions – the new holy grail.

That’s all well and good. But disruptive? No.

The biggest disconnect I saw was between the problems practitioners need help with and the solutions being offered by the tech providers. One offering particularly stuck out for me, a service called InvestiPro, helping standardise and systemise the HR investigation process – something that would have been amazing during my time in retail, but also answered a real challenge that practitioners face.

Far too often, however, I was being told about a problem I needed to solve that I never realised I had. Maybe I’m just dumb and haven’t realised the multiple challenges yet to face me – or maybe they just don’t exist. In the same way we are constantly told we need to be fitter, healthier and more beautiful, the HR tech industry is trying to tell us that buying their own special serum will help solve all our HR woes.

There seems to be a huge amount of money and investment washing around the HR tech market, probably too much. The result is an over-supply of similar products, relying on brand to differentiate and a dearth of creative, innovative solutions that genuinely add value to employees, line managers or practitioners. Investors aren’t stupid, or known for their patience or sentimentality. On that basis, it can only be a matter of time before this particular bubble bursts.

And THAT will probably be the most disruptive thing to happen in HR Tech.

Get innovative, goddamit!

It is a common refrain from business leaders – the need to be more “creative”, more “innovative” and to look at opportunities that explore beyond the present. “If we do what we’ve always done, well get what we’ve always got” is the refrain that echoes around multiple boardrooms.

And of course, this is both true and false at the same time. The motivation for making the statement in the first place is that doing what has always been done is no longer providing what has always been got. Otherwise, why change? The very issue is that external factors are creating moments that the business can no longer navigate – hence the need to think again.

What’s tough in these circumstances is that often the organisation is so hard wired, that no matter how many times someone shouts “CREATIVITY” or “INNOVATION”, no matter how positive the intent, there is a seeming inability to deliver against that good intention.

What’s wrong? Do we need to get a new type of person? Bring in some really “BIG thinkers”?

What are the chances that you’ve hired an entire workforce that is unable to think differently? What are the chances that there is not a single innovative bone in the collective body? That you’re institutionally bereft of creativity?

My guess is, that in those very organisations you have artists, musicians, writers, dancers, poets and sculptures. My guess is that at the very moment they leave your organisation for the day, they’re starting to display the very traits that you as an organisation are yearning for.

So what are the chances, that you’re trying to tackle lies within the corporate form rather than in the employee body?

Much of how we’ve structured organisations is to develop conformity, replication and rule following. Some people portray this as a negative, it isn’t. It’s just a thing. So if we want to change the behaviour, we need to also change the rules of the game. If you’ve never asked for a creative idea, why do you think one will come just when you think it should? If you process employees and value conformity and obedience, why will people think and act differently?

Creating the environment for people to express and develop their ideas, means creating the environment, not just artificial moments. If we want to unlock the innate skills and abilities that exist within our businesses, we’ve got to ask ourselves what closed them off in the first place.

Organisational culture is complicated

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a definition of organisational culture that I agree with. It seems to almost through the act of definition we make compromises that detract from the complexity. We talk about culture as a collective phenomenon, yet in many ways it is a very individual experience.

And when we look to aggregate the individual experiences, we unwittingly homogenise the outcomes to the point of potential meaninglessness. In many ways, understanding that individual experience is the key.

A number of years ago I was trying to explain organisational culture to a group of business leaders and I drew this:


The specific words in the foundations and interventions boxes are irrelevant, purely to illustrate a point. Culture, for me, is the experience that results from the interactions and interventions that exist in a system.

Ultimately organisations want to try to create something cohesive and so, in order to do this you need to design the interventions against a set of consistent criteria (we often call them values), combined with leadership behaviours that are in tune with same criteria, that gives you the best chance of creating something that gives you your best chance.

Organisations often fall down because the experience of the interventions doesn’t match the foundations, (e.g. “we make things happen fast” but the reality is bureaucratic decision-making), leadership is inconsistent with the foundations and interventions, (“that’s fine but in this case we need to make an exception”), or they believe the end is somehow achievable by running some sort of culture survey, without doing the hard work.

Individuals will either like or not like a culture and that often leads us to talk about “fit” as if it is some sort of silver bullet. However, it is often the organisation determining whether the individual is a fit – which creates a whole other world of pain. I may have a favourite restaurant, it doesn’t mean I want to eat there all the time.

At the end of the day, it is complicated and we need to be ok with that as most important things are. Whilst at the same time, we probably need to worry less about the experience and more about the construct. If we’re making organisations consistent, cohesive and clear then maybe we should worry less about how we make people feel about our culture, and let them decide for themselves.