Think Critically & Solve Problems
Critical thinking -- and the failure to have more of it -- has arguably gotten the U.S. into a bit of a pickle. That's what we call an understatement. Midwesterners tend to understate things that are, in reality, sometimes enormous and calamitous.
Critical thining helps us think through things logically. It helps us dissect arguments, make arguments, and follow lines of reasoning. It helps us walk through why most conspiracy theories don't stand up. It helps us reason with each, make cases, and move things forward. It helps us come up with big and small ideas, and think through how to make them happen in the real world. The lists go on and on - like so much of the material here.
Problem-solving is similarly lacking in the US. We've got a whole lot of capability in this regard - but we also have whole segments of the population who are not good at problem-solving. We've got some groups who refuse to do it.
Yet both problem-solving and critical thinking -- especially to help with the problem-solving -- are going to be super critical as we navigate the massive disruption that is a worldwide pandemic, and the abysmal U.S. reaction to it.
Problem-solving is so critical to helping us get through this pandemic that it is one of the four critical things we repeat over and over as good things to focus on to help us find our way forward. The other three are resilience, community, and connection.
It's not a total surprise that we're not fabulous at either the critical thinking or the problem-solving in the US. Our educational systems have fallen behind other countries', and our educational model is geared more for a post-World War II era manufacturing economy and employment landscape. Meanwhile, the world has become more horizontal, less vertical, more global, more flexible -- and we long ago entered "the information age." Meanwhile, in the U.S., we still keep teaching kids and college students in ways that fit an economy that has shifted significantly.
And that was before the great transformation that is the pandemic.
So here we are in a crisis.
We're going to need all of the existing critical thinking and problem-solving we can muster to get through this thing, and to transform our country while we're at it. So that's one thing.
We're also going to need to know and learn and train and teach others how to do critical thinking and problem-solving. We'll do a bit of that here and there with our events, consulting, and coaching when we can. But everyone everywhere can help. Get up to speed on it. Learn how to have civil, respectful conversations so that you can learn and train and teach effectivtly - and not push people away. Learn the nuances of critical thinking and logic. Practice your problem-solving finesse. Plenty of opportunity there -- pretty much every aspect of our lives at every level is going to need some kind of problem-solving at some point as we navigate this transformation.
Wicked Problem Wayfinding
One more thing. A friend who runs a problem-solving company in the Washington, DC area says that "the problems left to solve are the wicked problems." He's probably not wrong. If this pandemic has shown anything, it's shown us that the wicked problems need a whole heck of a lot more attention than we've been giving them - sometimes for decades.
What is a wicked problem? According to the wicked problems website, it is "a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. Poverty is linked with education, nutrition with poverty, the economy with nutrition, and so on. These problems are typically offloaded to policy makers, or are written off as being too cumbersome to handle en masse. Yet these are the problems—poverty, sustainability, equality, and health and wellness—that plague our cities and our world and that touch each and every one of us. These problems can be mitigated through the process of design, which is an intellectual approach that emphasizes empathy, abductive reasoning, and rapid prototyping."
The moment we're in is a wicked problem. So much that's associated with this pandemic is a wicked problem. Finding our way through it, surviving it, helping others survive it, and making transformation along the way -- all of that -- also wicked problems.
There is an idea out there in the wicked problem thought leadership crowd that we need to talk about problem-solving differently, because you can do problem-solving for wicked problems - but it doesn't necessarily look "solved" in the way that we typically think of things as having been solved. That idea isn't exactly widespread, so to adapt, we talk on this website about navigating wicked problems, or "wicked problem wayfinding," which is also the DBA (doing-business-as) name of Counterfear, LLC. Because the urgent problems in front of us are the wicked problems, and we very definitely need to find a way forward through them.
Finding ways forward through this pandemic will be the greatest challenge many of us will face in our lifetimes.
"Luck favors the prepared." - Edna Mode, or "E," in The Incredibles
More power to us. We'll have better luck if we can think big, understand complex systems, use logic, think critically, and solve problems. This area is one of the 25 focus areas because it's so key to helping us find our way through wicked problems.
Thinking About Complex Systems
Critical thinking and problem-solving aren't the only areas where the US needs to up its thinking game - and fast. The focus areas don't specifically call out the ability to understand complex systems, but understanding them and accounting for them would significantly improve our ability to navigate the wicked problems in the world around us.
Since we have the pandemic laid before us, perhaps the best case to illustrate the need for systems thinking is in this Atlantic piece, by Zeynep Tufekci: "It Wasn’t Just Trump Who Got It Wrong: America’s coronavirus response failed because we didn’t understand the complexity of the problem."
From the piece:
"We had time to prepare for this pandemic at the state, local, and household level, even if the government was terribly lagging, but we squandered it because of widespread asystemic thinking: the inability to think about complex systems and their dynamics. We faltered because of our failure to consider risk in its full context, especially when dealing with coupled risk—when multiple things can go wrong together. We were hampered by our inability to think about second- and third-order effects and by our susceptibility to scientism—the false comfort of assuming that numbers and percentages give us a solid empirical basis. We failed to understand that complex systems defy simplistic reductionism."
And the closing, from the same piece:
"In the United States and Europe, the die is mostly cast for the immediate future. But understanding our failures leading up to this moment isn’t an abstract exercise. Maybe we will muddle through the next few months, at great cost. But we will still need all the systemic thinking we can muster to anticipate the second- and third-order effects that will follow this crisis. And if we hope to blunt the impact of others like it, let’s not forget, again, that all of our lives are, together, embedded in highly complex systems."
This website gets into complex systems work off and on, but there are two deeper discussions. One is in the on facilitating infrastructure functionality, continuity, and resilience focus area with discussions on interdependencies and cascading effects, and one is in a discussion on the coming "Great Disruption" (what has turned out to be this moment now), and the system science that predicted that in this piece: Why.
Most people are not systems thinkers. Yet. We haven't taught it well, but we could do better. It's another area where we could do more with knowing and learning and training and teaching. Perhaps some are getting there. A friend of mine teaches incident management classes to first responders. He has said that the joke lately when someone says something ridiculous is to tease, "That's so linear!" Maybe that's a good sign - especially as incident management classes are inherently complex. Hopefully it's an indication that people can get better at systems thinking when they are exposed to it, and work with the concepts a bit.
Which is a good lead-in to metacognitive thinking, or thinking about thinking.
The Thinking Maps website lays it out this way:
"Metacognition is what enables humans to step back and think through problems rather than simply reacting instinctually. Our metacognitive processes allow us to learn from prior experiences, generalize learning so we can apply strategies to new situations, evaluate the utility of different approaches, and decide how we might do things differently next time."
More on that:
"These skills are critical... Students with good metacognitive skills are able to plan an approach to learning a new skill or solving a problem, monitor their progress towards their goal, and evaluate their own success. They can analyze both the requirements of the task and their own knowledge base and skill set to decide on an effective approach and determine what else they need to learn to be successful."
If we want to get better at critical thinking and problem-solving across the board, increasing our metacognitive thinking capabilities will help. Strategic thinking about our thinking can help our thinking.
The last section of this commencement speech piece gets into how the author tried something with a random group of people in their 30s and 40s, and found that "the upper limit of their mind was lower than it used to be," and that their ability to play with ideas had diminished. Part of finding our way through the wicked problems in front of us will be to get better at all of that; to work on it. We're going to need all the thinking.
If you want to work on any of this, give us a holler. Critical thinking and problem-solving are a big part of what we do. Systems thinking, too. This business is called Wicked Problem Wayfinding because of everything on this page - we're here to help find ways forward through this highly complex world, and especially to help find ways forward through this transformation. Some tight skills in problem-solving and critical thinking can help anyone or any organization make headway through the unfolding chaos.
There are ways through.