A Critical Thinking Framework For Objective Decision-Making

“Great can come from anywhere” – Jimmy Iovine

Since childhood, I’ve always been very aware that great ideas and improvements can come from anywhere: we built Up Learn based on feedback from 16-year-olds; I’ve been outsmarted countless times by my own students; and yesterday I had my Spanish corrected by a drunk Russian girl.

Being open-minded is necessary to take advantage of this phenomenon: if you ignore or can’t respect ideas from different sources, you’re guaranteed to miss out on a few great ones.

But there’s an important caveat here: you’re guaranteed to miss out on a few great ones…most of the ideas you’ll hear will (probably) suck.

So once you’ve opened yourself up to ideas from all directions, how do you filter through to the ideas that are the best?

Personally, I use a critical-thinking framework, whenever trying to search objectively for the best solution to a problem.

It’s really just a formalisation of my co-founder’s thought process. When we first started working together, I was impressed by how consistently and effectively he cut through bullshit and found the a priori best solution idea from first principles – I’d never seen anything like it. But over time, as I watched his process again and again, I realized he was just intuitively running through the same four steps each time:

1. Ask yourselves, what are the objectives? What is the end goal you are trying to achieve here?

Once you are clear and agreed on what you are ultimately trying to achieve, you can discuss the ‘how’:

2. What are the possible methods to achieve this?

Once you’ve got all the possible methods planned out, you can evaluate the pros and cons:

3. What are the pros and cons of each of these methods? Keep in mind your objectives when listing these out.

Now with these pros and cons laid out, it’s tempting to just choose the method that maximises Net Pros = ΣPros -ΣCons. But before deciding, ask:

4. Can we improve the pros or limit the cons of any of these methods by compromising/augmenting?

When presented with options A and B, there’s often a superior option C that exists but hasn’t been considered – thinking about compromise/augmentation can reveal this superior option C. And then you can decide on the method that maximises Net Pros = ΣPros -ΣCons, for the a priori best option!

So it’s really nothing grand or special, a lot of these steps will feel like common sense, but executing on the framework will be a game-changer for your decision-making, especially team decision-making.

Step 1 is particularly helpful because, so often, we charge into discussion without having first defined our objectives, and then we end up in confused, heated disagreement because our objectives aren’t aligned. Step 1 makes sure we first agree on our objectives – from here, bias-free discussion follows with much less resistance, because we’re all working towards the same objectives.

If Stick disagrees with Dick, instead of “Dick, your idea sucks”, he can say “Dick, your idea sucks because it doesn’t meet our first objective.”

And then, instead of Dick getting angry and retorting back with “No Stick, you suck”, he can reply with “Actually, I think it does meet the first objective because of …” or “Fair enough, you’re right it doesn’t meet that objective so it’s not defensible – let’s discard my idea and concentrate on the others.”

Try it out for yourselves and feel free to let me know your own experiences putting the framework into practice – I’m sure there are still huge improvements to be made and great ideas can come from anywhere.

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