When you think about the skills leaders need to be successful, critical thinking is at the top of the list.  Yet, a recent study (reported in the Wall Street Journal) found colleges are failing to improve students’ critical thinking skills over the four years they are undergraduates.  This may not shock corporate leaders.  After all, 50% of employers complain that college graduates they hire aren’t ready for the workplace.  Their No. 1 complaint? Poor critical-reasoning skills.  The consequences are significant.  Poor critical thinking leads to poor decisions that waste precious time, money and resources and put you at risk. 

A little background on how we know this is an issue.  Freshman and seniors at 200 public colleges and universities across the U.S. take a little-known test every year to measure how much better they get at learning to think.  The results of the CLA+ test?  At more than half those schools, between 2013 and 2016, at least a third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument.  This includes some of the most prestigious flagship universities.

Colleges and universities are kicking the can down the road by failing in this area.  It must be addressed at the strategic level where college and university curricula is planned.  In the meantime, business has to pick up the pieces and become forward thinking.  Business must invest in helping leaders learn to think.

What do they need to learn?  How to rationally evaluate data, generate options, debate them on the merits, and develop criteria for decisions, for starters.  They also need to learn how to communicate all of this to senior leaders, boards, and decision makers.  The front line of business management has valuable knowledge that is not breaking through to senior leaders, because they don’t know how to communicate their thinking and communicate the rationale for their decisions.

At Bates, we use a proven business case model to help leaders thoughtfully evaluate and present rational arguments.  We teach them before they offer solutions, to zero in on the problem to be solved, and, to make the case for why it should be solved now.  Only then do you have permission from the audience to proceed with your big idea and solution.

We also teach leaders how to succinctly state that big idea in 25 words or less.  We believe that unless you can state your plan’s idea, outcome and impact in 25 words, you will lose your audience. Our business case model has helped thousands of leaders learn to make a cohesive argument for a project or initiative.  Although we use it as a presentation tool, it’s really a thinking tool, or perhaps more precisely, a tool for communicating our thinking about how to solve a problem.

It’s deeply discouraging that some of the most prestigious universities are not producing thinkers and problem solvers.  The fact is that the business world is going to have to address this problem.  Critical thinking should be introduced earlier and more often in leader development.  Young managers and new executives are at risk to form bad habits that lead to poor business decisions.  Most of us have experienced the failure of initiatives that began with poor critical thinking.  These have serious consequences for every company. 

The Wall Street Journal rightly raises the issue as one for our universities – after all, the findings really bring into question the purpose (and value) of a college degree.  However, business cannot afford to accept this situation.  Companies must act in their own interest.  When it comes to critical thinking, they will have to invest more in helping leaders develop.  It’s hard to imagine how US companies will otherwise compete in a global business world.

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