CXO

How critical thinking, or lack of it, makes or breaks projects

Critical thinking can produce realistic expectations and help solve problems before they arise.

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Image: iStock/SIphotography

The Foundation for Critical Thinking, which strives to effect changes in education and society through the cultivation of critical thinking, defines critical thinking as "the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action."

Recent examples of social media users individuals falling prey to false news have highlighted the need for critical thinking, but the need for critical thinking is anything but new.

SEE: Fake news is everywhere. Should the tech world help stop the spread?

In their book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Professor Richard Arum and Associate Professor Josipa Roksa, reported on a study of undergraduates who were two years into their university studies. The study found that 45% of the students surveyed demonstrated no improvement in their ability to think critically after two years of college.

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Hoping to address this need for more critical thinking, at at least one university, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, now has a course on critical thinking for project managers.

Among the objectives of the UMASS-Lowell project management course are helping project managers learn are how to clarify issues to arrive at correct assumptions for projects, how to clarify unclear project communications while ensuring that all communications going out about a project are always as clear and as accurate as possible, and how to project the future implications of project decisions in a variety of different scenarios while also incorporating insights from individual on the project who might have different points of view.

Critical thinking is a necessity outside of academia as well. Here are some ways it makes a difference in IT projects.

Clarifying issues and arriving at correct project assumptions

When project managers and their staffs are under the gun to make projects happen quickly and to deliver tangible results, critical thinking can quickly fall to the wayside. Instead, IT frantically tries to finish the project and meet timelines through a lot of "heads down" work that bypasses regular contacts with stakeholders, as well as continuous project planning and assessment. This is where factors such as project scope creep, overcommitment of resources, task under-estimates, etc., begin to factor in. These factors are also major drivers of project failures.

Critical thinking can improve communication

Project team members are being hit with demands from problems that evolve during the course of their work—from end users, to technical and system problems, to issues with colleagues, and even their project managers! If the work they're doing is highly technical and they are under tight deadlines, the work will be done "heads-down." Right or wrong, they will expect their project manager to do most of the critical thinking and to keep them updated with outside (as well as inside) factors that could impact their work.

I once worked for a project manager who established his reputation as technical programming expert. The manager told me, "I should only have to say something once. There is no time to repeat it, and I expect my staff to understand it the first time."

But staff doesn't always understand the first time, especially if the message is abstract or conceptual. Clearly communicating the results of critical thinking is just as important as actually taking the time to do it.

Incorporating ideas from others is another area where critical thinking is an important leadership skill. Many IT'ers come from technical backgrounds and consider themselves as "doers," not talkers. However, critical thinking in projects means getting the best ideas from project stakeholders and staff, and then plugging these ideas productively into the project. In the process, the project manager must be the orchestrator and critical thinker-in-chief—and he or she must know how to use meetings and brainstorming sessions to the project's advantage.

Critical thinking produces realistic expectations

Being able to critically think through a project, and then taking the steps to ensure the highest probability of achieving success, are hallmarks of effective project management. But project managers, like their teams, are driven by deadline pressures.

In one case, a manager was asked to deliver a multi-million dollar project to a Wall Street firm by the end of the year. He couldn't make it, but rather than tell the user, he fudged timelines and made it look like the project was on time. Meanwhile, staff was asked to just get the system done. Quality control work was bypassed. The end project resulted in disaster and produced an angry client.

This was the first project I was asked to take over as a project manager. Going in, I decided to give the client the unvarnished truth about the project—that it would take another six months to complete it. I considered that I might be immediately fired by the client, and also by my own management, but I had done enough critical thinking about the project and what needed to be done to conclude that the project would only end up in the same place six months from now if I didn't make the communication.

Critical thinking is a requirement for every IT project, which can "make or break" on communications breakdowns with staff members and end users as easily as it make-or-break when tasks are missed or late.

Project environments are fast-paced, and they bring with them very high expectations. These high expectations and compressed timelines place pressures on project managers as well as on project stakeholders and end users—but at the end of the day, everyone engaged will look to the project manager for critical thinking and judgments. No one on the project team is better positioned to make the tough calls.

Also see:
Agile project management: The smart person's guide
8 assumptions that can derail projects and leaders
Start, switch, stop: How to regroup your IT projects to prepare people for change
How to manage the top 4 tech culture challenges

About Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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