By Essie Bester
For engineers critical thinking is of the utmost importance. Not only does it supplement all the other features necessary for the role – accuracy and exactness, clear handling, practical thinking, decision-making, attentiveness and systemisation – it also plays a decisive role in the strive toward extraordinary outcomes.
However, all too often engineers are trapped in a pit of technical knowledge. They remain sitting in front of their computer screens, coding without any analytical meditation. The need for critical thinking – a process of rationalisation that is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored and self-corrective – is too often overlooked.
Some of the world’s best consultants consider the four key steps to the promotion of critical thinking to be analysis, interpretation, presentation and evaluation. This entails that you as engineer will analyse the most relevant data, interpret the data to create applicable solutions, present the findings in a compelling way and reflectively evaluate the success of the relevant solutions.
- Analysis: When it comes to solving a real problem, too many professionals fall victim to analysing paralysis. With the plethora of data available today, the collection of information can be never-ending.
Instead, your initial task as a professional is to identify the actual problem. Obtain an overview of the available data, develop an initial hypothesis and then use it as a frame of reference for a more thorough collection of relevant data. Prioritise what is necessary through the lens of that initial hypothesis and test it for validity. If it remains valid, you may proceed on your chosen path of reasoning. If not, you have to revise and try again.
- Interpretation: After the relevant data has been identified and collected, your aim should be to see a connection between the ideas and convert them into doable insights.
- Presentation: As soon as the data has been analysed and interpreted, it is time to present the findings. Time is managers’ most precious commodity, therefore present the results in such a way that they anticipate and answer the readers’ most probable questions, in a sequence that supports a natural storyline. This means that first you provide the readers with the answer and then support it with the necessary detail. Remember, think deductively (in sequence), but communicate inductively (answer first, then support with details).
- Evaluation: Critical thinking’s climax is the measuring of the results. Determine the correct benchmarks, measure what worked accurately and what not. Observe the results with intellectual integrity – as they truly are, not as was hoped or feared. Identify personal bias and guard against it – the closer you are to the problem and the more knowledgeable you are, the bigger the danger. Always strive towards looking at it with a novice’s way of thinking.
Critical thinking is not a linear, once-off activity. The advantage of critical thinking and a well considered message is that, even if initially it should be wrong, your recommendation can be explained and then refined.
Of course this requires a nimble, repetitive approach that returns to the beginning time and again until an adequate, accurate answer can be arrived at and other interested parties can understand and accept the result.
Why is critical thinking important?
Every industry is being disrupted, and the nature of work is changing. Research indicates that within ten years up to 40% of human work will be automatic. If a process and policy can be documented, it can be automated. This also applies to engineering.
Yet there is at least one kind of work that cannot be replaced: the human ability to solve problems through critical thinking. By developing this skill – that cannot be automated – you safeguard your career against the future, regardless of what the robots have in mind. So, invest in the development of this fundamental skill.