Five Steps to More Critical Thinking

Easy exercises to get your mind in gear.

The memoir of John Lennon's first wife, Cynthia, tells how the Beatles -- ready for new ways of thinking -- visited the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Ringo ran out of the canned food he had brought along and went home after two weeks. Paul left a few days later but became a lifelong vegetarian. John and George stayed two months. John wrote a nasty song about the Maharishi, and George integrated the teachings into his daily life.

Twice a year, Bill Gates spends seven thoughtful days in retreat. He reads, reportedly with a self-enforced rule: No e-mail or phone calls. He's been doing it since the 1980s, at first while visiting his grandmother, and in recent years, at a secluded waterfront cottage in the Pacific Northwest. Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that after requesting papers from Microsoft Corp. employees, Gates started reading on subjects like computing trends, education product strategy at Microsoft, Virtual Earth, Internet worms, speech synthesis, and office and video-game product strategies.

Not every CIO can arrange a retreat as exotic as the Beatles' or as practical as that of Gates. But there are things you can do during the course of a day to keep your mind sharp and your thinking critical and fresh. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Learn something new. "It's hard to find the time, [but you must] keep putting yourself in situations where you learn things," says Lisa Hooks, deputy director of IT services at the Library of Congress. She's making sure that happens by pursuing a certificate in advanced project management from Stanford University, but you can also do it by walking into another department and watching people work.

2. Change your focus. For a fresh view of a business problem, Gregg Levoy, author of Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life (Three Rivers Press, 1998), says to step back and think about a nonwork passion at which you are successful. What does that activity demand? What challenges have you faced, and what have you achieved? Then see if you can find a way to relate that to your current work issue.

3. Get off script. "Scripted thinking" serves us well 80% to 90% of the time, says Dennis Heindl. For the rest of the time, he advocates what he calls "hard thinking." Scripted thinking is like being on autopilot; hard thinking is like flying through a storm, says Heindl, who was an IT manager for the Bell System for years and is now president of Greendale, Wis.-based Nth Degree Software Inc. It's the kind of thinking used in goal setting, making tough decisions and being innovative.

To help facilitate hard thinking, Heindl has come up with exercises he calls "thinklets." "They alter scripted thinking patterns," he says. "They are designed as small bursts of mental stimuli that can be as simple as one question."

"Thinklets can be viewed as 'thought switches' that activate patterns that are not commonly used, leading to new associations, relationships and ultimately new ways of thinking," Heindl says.

A simple example: Heindl tells of working with an IT manager who couldn't decide between two final candidates for a job. Heindl told him to flip a coin. When the manager saw the outcome, he said, "How about two out of three?" He had already made his decision; he just didn't know it yet.

4. Question assumptions. Peter Stockhausen sharpens his critical thinking with a decision-making tool called sensitivity analysis. It's an exercise that looks at a proposal with the assumption that the actual cost or time will overrun to a certain degree. "It's a way to take a look at what that does to the benefits," says the former CIO of Manpower Inc., who is currently a principal at Wauwatosa, Wis.-based Silver Bullet Consultants LLC.

"How sensitive is the decision to all the parameters that were put into it?" he asks. "Adjust each of those and make them worse by 20%." If the benefits remain, then you probably have a winning idea, he says.

5. See yourself as others see you. "There were times when I didn't necessarily understand enough about myself," says Ed Goldman, vice president of enterprise operations at Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott International Inc. He recalls an experience during an MBA course that revealed this and led him to a new way of thinking. After a role-playing exercise, two classmates evaluated Goldman's performance, and their comments surprised him. "It's amazing how your perceptions about what you're like can be changed when you see what somebody else thinks about you," he says.

An everyday way to work on self-knowledge, Levoy suggests, is to keep a personal journal. This may not only help you know yourself better - it may raise red flags about issues before they become crises.

However you choose to stay sharp, don't leave it to chance. Find a tool that works for you and apply it. As Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is said to have counseled, "Whatever we put our attention on will grow stronger in our life."

Shea is a freelance writer in Bayside, Wis. Contact him at garytshea@att.net.

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