Thinking About Thinking While You’re Thinking
Author: Larry Colby
At MITRE, we are routinely asked to analyze large amounts of complex information, crunch numbers, be innovative by linking separate ideas from different disciplines, and collaborate by applying new concepts and ideas. We tackle tasks related to everything from reviewing information and analyzing data to evaluating and formulating solutions.
In other words, we think.
We often think long and hard about long and hard problems.
While these tasks are indeed well-known, it has also been my experience that many professionals may not be able to explain clearly what their thinking is and what steps were taken to generate their conclusions. Are all of us completely clear on how to think through a problem? Whether we work on national security problems, an agency regulatory issue, or even difficult problems at home, many of us could benefit from using a questions-based framework to formulate a well-thought-out conclusion that comes from critical thinking. A questions-based framework can help us concentrate on outcomes that are important and practical. In other words, ensuring our thinking is well thought out!
Why Will This Help Me in My Thinking?
Henry Ford and Thomas Edison both publicly said that thinking is the hardest work and therefore few engage in it. Many recent books (e.g., The Black Swan, How Not to be Wrong, Superforecasting) call the act of thinking one of the toughest things for the human mind to conquer.
As the host of Family Feud, Steve Harvey laughs with competing family members and contestants as they race to be first with an answer, any answer. Watching Harvey’s contestants provide (incorrect) answers to simple questions reminds me of Thinking Fast and Slow. In that book, Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and co-winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, breaks up thinking into two parts: System 1 (“thinking fast, intuitive and emotional”) or System 2 (“slower, more deliberative and more logical”). Harvey’s contestants fall under Kahneman’s System 1 of “thinking fast, intuitive and emotional!”
The more difficult, complex problems that we face at MITRE (and at times in our personal lives) require us to think longer and harder, which is Kahneman’s System 2-style thinking. Thinking longer and harder is our sweet spot at MITRE. But whether we view problems and apply our thinking according to Systems 1 or 2, we are all potentially open to human error.
Left unchecked, the human mind can be myopic, biased, inaccurate, overconfident, and incomplete. The quality of our thinking is directly correlated to our language, culture, practices, and habits. The quality of our thought is based on our education, experience, and exposure. Unstructured thinking can be costly to MITRE, our country, to a family, and to each of us personally. As Team MITRE continues to produce successful outcomes for our sponsors in an uncertain and complex world, comprehending a set of questions as part of the structure from which quality thinking arises may be a best practice for your consideration. Critical thinking experts share with us that this is done by dividing our thinking into parts and asking crucial questions.
There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.
Parts of Thinking
In her work The Thinker’s Guide to Analytic Thinking, educational psychologist Dr. Linda Elder shares eight elements that make up our thinking. She writes “whenever we think, we
- think for a purpose,
- within a point of view,
- based on assumptions,
- leading to implications and consequences.
- We use concepts, ideas, and theories to interpret data, facts, and experiences
- to answer questions, solve problems, and resolve issues.”
Dr. Elder shares that each of these elements has implications for the others. As we at MITRE approach a sponsor’s problem, it requires us to think through our purpose, which leads us to have questions, followed by more questions. It’s the Socratic Method in action. With more questions comes our desire to hunt for new information and data. The loop of questions and data is continuous in resolving issues.
Questions to Guide our Thinking
Dr. Elder refers to some of these questions to aid in our understanding of a problem and formulating a solution:
- Clarity: Could you elaborate further? Could you give me an example?
- Accuracy: How could we check on that? How could we find out if that is true?
- Precision: Could you be more specific? Could you be more exact?
- Relevance: How does that relate to the problem?
- Depth: What factors make this a difficult problem?
- Breadth: Do we need to look at this from another perspective? Do we need to consider another point of view?
- Logic: Does all this make sense together?
- Significance: Is this the most important problem to consider?
- Fairness: Do I have any vested interest in this issue?
The Five Why’s involves more actual questioning, while the Six Thinking Hats encourages looking at problems from multiple perspectives. Both offer useful tools for critical thinking.
While aviation and medicine are two industries that utilize checklists to ensure a set of formal, repeatable procedures are followed, thinking does not need to be viewed as rigid. It is not necessarily a prescribed checklist that will lead to the perfect set of solutions for the sponsor. Instead, checklists should be used as a guide to assist your thinking. Author David T. Moore in his Critical Thinking and Intelligence Analysis explains that a big picture way to think utilizes cognitive brainpower to leverage curiosity, skepticism, and objective reasoning. It simultaneously creates a chain of reasoning to test your logic. Reviewing and challenging your thoughts is necessary to protect the integrity of your own thought processes.
Example of Applying Critical Thinking to Reading/Research
A few years ago I taught Strategic Leadership and Healthcare Industry-related courses at the National Defense University and wrote about the experience in a previous KDE blog post, along with my MITRE teammate Jim Chapple. When we approached the subject of critical thinking with our graduate students, we started the semester by assigning an article to be read regarding pharmaceuticals, followed by discussing as a group in the classroom to analyze the author’s points. At the end of the discussion, we would ask them to identify the author’s background. Not one student questioned who wrote it and why. Our teaching point: every article they would read (reports/presentations upon graduation, too) was geared to persuade, inform, or entertain. The lesson was that they should read critically to detect bias and find out the ‘why.’ In this example, the author was from a healthcare organization (lobbyist), and if the reader did not pay attention, they might be persuaded by opinion rather than fact. Our point was that slanted stories, politics, guilt feelings, powerful interest groups and competitors are all out there seeking one’s opinion. Made famous by Ronald Reagan, we emphasized the “trust, but verify” concept when reading and researching. To assist our students, we placed emphasis on Mr. Moore’s and Dr. Elder’s works mentioned above. The same concepts can be applied when conducting MITRE interviews, focus groups and research.
Critical Thinking and National Security
One other item comes to mind when considering MITRE and critical thinking: national security. It has been documented by recent domestic and international events, government reports and speeches by national security leaders that the future continues to be uncertain when it comes to the actions of adversaries against the United States. Our country does not have the resources to deal with the issues facing the future and we need our current team of doers and thinkers to be at the top of their game by providing analysis and deep thought on information and data, no matter what the source. We may want to review reports and articles via a critical thinking lens, as these are difficult, heavy-weight challenges that require System 2 thinking. Not falling for internet rumors, text spam, Tweets with no basis in fact, and political bias in what is and is not reported by different media outlets requires us to apply critical thinking to public statements. Only critical thinking will reveal false statements, hypocrisy, and the incomplete presentation of facts. If something does not seem right, it may not be.
All of us should consider improving our critical thinking skills via additional practice. Reading and studying in this area informs us of our unique capabilities and limitations of our minds, informs us of how we generate answers, and gives us personal indications of how we can improve the quality of our lives. This self-education not only benefits us personally, but the MITRE products and solutions we produce to solve problems for a safer world. Thinking about thinking while thinking. Think about it.
 Criticalthinking.org. 2012. The Thinker’s Guide to Analytic Thinking: How to Take Thinking Apart and What to Look for When You Do | Critical Thinking. [online] Available at: <https://www.criticalthinking.org/store/products/the-thinkers-guide-to-analytic-thinking-how-to-take-thinking-apartwhat-to-look-for-when-you-do/171> [Accessed 22 September 2022].
Larry Colby is an Organizational Change Management Principal at MITRE. He specializes in Human and Organizational Systems with a variety of government organizations. He has flown for the U.S. Marine Corps and is a retired military pilot from the U.S. Air Force. He holds an MS in National Resource Strategy from National Defense University and an MA in Leadership from Duquesne University. Larry is also the author of the Ford Stevens Military-Aviation Thriller Series that features the Reserve Component of the U.S. military.
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