A roadmap for building critical thinking skills

I first read this HBR article about a year ago and just keep coming back to it — both for myself and to recommend to colleagues. Critical thinking is such an important capability to develop, especially in a world where information and ideas are in abundance, so being able to look at things with a different perspective and question why something is being said or done is vital for making positive progress.

What I love about this roadmap is that is breaks critical thinking down into different levels and helps you think about the things you need to be doing to get to the next level. Ideally you want to consistently be at the Generate level, where you are offering maximum value, but I think our levels of critical thinking tend to fluctuate based on changing situations and levels of practice i.e. sometimes you are on fire and other times you might get a bit sloppy and need a little pro-active reboot to maintain high levels of critical thinking again.

The following is an extract from the HBR article, written by Matt Plummer, who is the founder of Zarvana. I recommend reading the article to get the full context to this framework:


Phase 1: Execute

If team members are just starting a new role or have never been pushed to think for themselves, they will likely be in the execution phase. In this phase, team members simply do what they are asked to do. This may seem basic and even pre-critical thinking, but converting instructions into action requires several of the skills Halpern describes as critical thinking: verbal reasoning, decision-making, and problem-solving. You know your employee is getting it when you can answer “yes” to these 3 questions:

  • Do they complete all parts of their assignments?
  • Do they complete them on time?
  • Do they complete them at or close to your standard of quality?

If a team member is struggling here, make sure they understand your instructions by asking them to rearticulate each assignment before they begin. Start by giving them smaller assignments with more immediate deadlines. Once they’ve begun the work, ask them to explain what they did, how they did it, and why they did it that way. Once team members are making suggestions for how to improve their work, you know they’re ready for the next phase.

Phase 2: Synthesize

In this phase, team members learn to sort through a range of information and figure out what is important. For example, they can summarize the key takeaways after an important meeting. Here, you want to be able to answer “yes” to these questions:

  • Can they identify all the important insights?
  • Do they exclude all unimportant insights?
  • Do they accurately assess the relative importance of the important insights?
  • Can they communicate the important insights clearly and succinctly?

Synthesis is a skill that, like any other, grows with practice. Try to give team members who are getting stuck here as many chances to synthesize as possible. You could ask them to share takeaways after a call with a client, for example, or after an important meeting. When you check in with them, make them share the insights first and in a succinct manner. If they are still struggling to identify what is important, try leading them through resource-constrained thought experiments that force them to isolate the most important information (e.g., what if you could only share one insight, what if you only had 5 minutes, what if we only had a thousand dollars). You know team members are ready for Phase 3 when they can provide a summary of the important insights and implications for future work on the spot without preparation.

Phase 3: Recommend

In this phase, team members move from identifying what is important to determining what should be done. The primary goal is for team members to consistently make recommendations that are well-founded — even if their recommendations don’t align with your opinion. Here’s how you can assess their progress:

  • Do they always provide a recommendation when asking you questions instead of relying on you to come up with answers?
  • Do they demonstrate appreciation for the potential downsides of their recommendation?
  • Do they consider alternatives before landing on a recommendation?
  • Are their recommendations backed by strong, sensible reasoning?

When team members enter this phase, start by requiring them to make recommendations before you share your opinion. Once they are, ask them to share their rationale, the alternatives they considered, and the downsides of their recommendations. This pushes them to do more than share the first idea that comes into their minds. Team members are ready to move to Phase 4 when they make reasonable recommendations that reflect sound business judgment on work that is not their own.

Phase 4: Generate

To operate in this phase of thinking, team members must be able to create something out of nothing. For example, they are told there is a need to improve the training program for new hires and they develop a project to do it. In this phase, they become adept at translating the vision in others’ heads (and their own) into projects that can be executed. Assess their progress with these questions:

  • Do they propose high-value work that doesn’t follow logically from work they are already doing?
  • Can they convert your and others’ visions into feasible plans for realizing those visions?
  • Can they figure out how to answer questions you have but don’t know how to answer?

You can also access further tools and resources for building critical skills at Zarvana.

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