Critical Thinking: the skill we all need


The Frequency Illusion or Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Well, that’s what has been happening to me in relation to the future of skills. I recently read an article by Alex Gray published by the World Economic Forum about the 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and I saw on my Twitter timeline that Nesta has just published The Future of Skills: employment in 2030.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. As a social scientist, I am inherently curious, and particularly curious to understand the interplay between people and different phenomena. I am also currently exploring this in the context of sport and physical activity, now and in the future. So, I guess my thinking is heightened and looking for possibilities in this space…

In Nesta’s report, they lay out how employment is likely to change, and the implications for skills. Their analysis is “grounded in an explicit consideration of the diverse and interacting sources of structural change – non-technological as well as technological – all of which are expected to have major impacts on future skills needs.” Gray argues that these disruptive changes will “translate to skill set disruption almost simultaneously, and with only a minimal time lag.”

Incredibly, over one-third of the skills (35%) that were considered important in 2015 will have changed by 2020. The pace and scale of disruption will need a profoundly different approach to education, skills, and employment. Skills investment must be at the centre of any long-term strategy for adjusting to structural change. Businesses too will need to put talent development and future workforce strategy at the forefront of their sustainability and growth plans.

Interpersonal skills, such as persuasion, emotional intelligence, and teaching others, and higher-order cognitive skills, like originality, fluency of ideas[i], active learning[ii], and sociotechnical systems[iii] will continue to grow in importance. Not only, as Tett (2017) argues, as organisations seek to reduce the costs of coordination, but also as they negotiate the cultural context in which globalisation and the spread of digital technology is taking place. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, technical skills will need to be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills.

Looking at the top 10 skills in 2015 and in 2020, a number of the skills are inter-related.

Complex problem solving and critical thinking requires creativity. Co-ordinating with others requires emotional intelligence.

WEF Skills

I am really interested, but not surprised, with the fact that critical thinking is high on the list.

As the rate of complexity rises, there is an increasing need for critical thinking.

This has become very apparent for those of us working with the pioneering Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act. The Act seeks to improve the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of Wales, now and in the future. It requires public bodies to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with people, communities and each other, take a more joined-up approach, and to prevent persistent problems such as poverty, health inequalities, and climate change. To ensure everyone is working towards the same vision, the Act puts in place seven inter-connected well-being goals.

The Act is inherently aspirational and requires bold and visionary leadership, and importantly, critical thinking skills.

In the Future Generations Commissioner’s recent publication, Well-being in Wales: planning today for a better tomorrow, the Commissioner identified that there was a lack of meaningful consideration by Public Service Boards of the interconnections between issues, and what data means in different contexts and communities – that is, a lack of critical thinking.







Indeed, Tanya Menon and Leigh Thompson argue[iv] that the problem isn’t lack of data; the vast amount of data means that people struggle to prioritise what’s important. “In the end, they end up applying arbitrary data toward new problems, reaching a subpar solution.” To curb this kind of decision-making, we should think more carefully about the information we need to solve a problem and think more strategically about how to apply it to our decision-making and actions. This intentional thought helps convert data into knowledge and wisdom.

So, how can we all develop our critical thinking?

In his 2010 Harvard Business Review article[v], John Baldoni, helpfully provides some suggestions:

Question assumptions. Critical thinkers are inquisitive and look to find the what and the why behind every proposition.

Adopt different perspectives. Take advantage of the genders and cultures represented in today’s diverse management landscape. People may have the same problem-solving tool kit, but their different experiences can provide valuable insights.

See potential. Assumption-busting and harnessing multiple perspectives are deductive skills. Critical thinkers should also have a creative bent that allows them to see opportunities where others see obstacles.

There is one additional aspect of critical thinking that is vital to today’s leader: managing ambiguity. The speed of business, intertwined as it is with global factors and complexity, dictates that you will never know all the variables.

Aligned to this latter point, Jesse Sostrin argues[vi] that we need reflexive urgency – the ability to bring conscious, rapid reflection to the priorities of the moment – to align our best thinking with the swiftest course of action.

With the pace and scale of disruption, skills investment must be at the centre of our long-term strategy. This disruption is happening within an increasingly complex world, where the societal challenges and opportunities that we face, are multiple and messy. Critical thinking is the skill we all need.

Critical thinking isn’t easy, but as with any skill, it requires practice. The more we do of it, the more likely it will become the norm. So, go forth, and practice, practice, practice!


[i]      Fluency of Ideas – the ability to come up with a number of ideas about a topic (the number of ideas is important, not their quality, correctness, or creativity)

[ii]     Active Learning – understanding the implications of new information for both current and future problem-solving and decision-making

[iii]    Sociotechnical Systems – the term sociotechnical system refers to interaction between society’s complex infrastructures and human behaviour. It can also be used to describe the relationship between humans and technology in the workplace

[iv] Menon and Thompson (2016) How to Make Better Decisions with Less Data, Harvard Business Review, November 2016

[v] Baldoni (2010) How Leaders Should Thinking Critically, Harvard Business Review, January 2010

[vi] Sostrin (2017) How to Act Quickly Without Sacrificing Critical Thinking, Harvard Business Review, April 2017


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