Importance of Critical Thinking to Innovation

Importance of Critical Thinking to InnovationThe more I hear from innovators (some successful and others not-so successful) on the importance of being able to make snap decisions based on intuition alone during critical stages of the innovation process, the more I’m convinced that perhaps, just the opposite may be true. Maybe, what really matters in determining success of the innovation effort is not so much intuition skills but rather, having a more systematic approach–something that resembles classic critical thinking skills. What I’m talking about here is a systematic approach to critical thinking made popular in the 1960s and 70s by researchers such as Charles Kepner and Benjamin Tregoe (just to name a few). These classic methods that link problem solving and decision making have been all but discarded by innovators today because of being deemed too cumbersome, laborious and certainly not suited to rapid demands of the innovation world of today.

Yet Kepner and Tregoe would today argue that the pitfalls of relying on intuition for problem analysis and decision making are significantly increased during today’s typical fast-paced, high pressure innovative environment. It’s when time is short and the stakes are high, that the innovator desperately needs an efficient method to successfully and consistently solve problems.

According to Kepner and Tregoe,

“The manager has to know, specifically, what the problem is, and then proceed to trace down the cause. Not until he (or she) has verified the cause can the decision be made on what is the best action to correct the problem–for “best” implies getting the job done most efficiently. In the sequence from problem to cause to decision, the work of problem analysis closely resembles the search for clues, a kind of “whodunnit.” The good innovator, like a skilled detective, will spot the relevant information and use it, point by point, to narrow down the search for the real culprit (cause).

Doing this efficiently under pressure is not easy. But it can be done fast, and the more systematic and logical the method, the faster and more efficiently it will work. A systematic way of doing something is always more efficient and less time-consuming than a disorderly approach that may require doing the same thing over several times in order to get it right.”

Here’s the takeaway: Make no mistake, relying on intuition to make the critical decisions necessary for a successful innovation project is a bad strategy. Critical thinking, the most important skillset an innovator needs to possess, is what determines success from failure in today’s fast-paced, high pressure innovation environment.

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Patrick LeflerPatrick Lefler is the founder of The Spruance Group – a management consultancy that helps growing companies grow faster. He is a former Marine Corps officer; a graduate of both Annapolis and The Wharton School, and has over twenty years of industry expertise.

Patrick Lefler




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  1. Chris Jones on April 10, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    Excellent post, Patrick. We’re on the same page regarding the importance of critical thinking in business, although I think the same rules apply across society. When we stop thinking deeply and accept what we see at face value, we miss the true implications, and our decisions become suspect. Unfortunately, in our fast paced world, that tendency has become all too common.

    I’ve caught myself doing it, so I’m to find out why.

    Can you share more on the optimal ‘speed’ or ‘pace’ of critical think

  2. Carlos on April 11, 2011 at 7:00 am

    Hi Patrick, this is our daily conundrum; how fast is too fast? or die by “Analysis Paralysis” I agree with the premise that just going with your raw intuition will not lead to real innovation, it does help choose the path toward the solution to follow your instinct, and from there it should follow a more structured process. The innovation has to address current needs and future needs as well, to me a real innovator is thinking of what I want before I really want it.

    Great post!

  3. Alejandro De Luca on April 11, 2011 at 7:47 am


    Critical Thinking is not just “Critical” for innovators it is very important for your live as well (business and personal live). I agree with you that intuition is a bad strategy, and I think that many managers have deep problems to solve before using critical thinking, I am afraid that some of them just need to think.

  4. Peter Gluck on April 11, 2011 at 9:12 am

    Excellent paper!
    Critical thinking- in its most valuable form (Based on NO, NOT) is essentila for problem solving too.
    Prolem solving is a very difficult problem per se. Fortunately I have solved it, see please:

    Now I have to solve only a follow-up problem- everybody should know and use these rules. Please help!

  5. Peter Hanik on April 11, 2011 at 10:07 am

    Excellent insight. I think it is clear to everyone that one must first correctly define a problem. If this is not done the answers you get will be extraneous at best. Then you must understand cause-and-effect in the system that contains the problem. If you don’t understand cause-and-effect all you can do is guess at an answer. Charles Byetheway, a value engineer at GE in the 1960’s, developed an excellent tool for understanding cause-and-effect. Byetheway is the father of FAST Diagrams (Function-Analysis-System-Technique). FAST Diagrams are models that reveal how, why and when things happen in a system. Building a FAST Diagram is very insightful and leads to a critical examination of not only how a system functions but where there are opportunities to improve the system.

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