Put simply, critical thinking is the ability to analyse facts objectively and form a judgement. It means knowing what questions to ask and how to ask them so that you can analyse, evaluate and synthesise information to make well-informed decisions.
The best-known business leaders are renowned for their critical thinking skills. They’re open to new viewpoints, new information and challenges to their thinking. At its best, critical thinking is the ability to learn from ideas, even if they’re vastly different from your own.
As a product manager you’re a generalist who deals with specialists who nevertheless expect you to understand what they’re doing. You probably feel like everything is your responsibility, and that people rely on you to make the right – informed – decision all the time. Effective critical thinking skills are therefore at the very heart of your day-to-day work. In fact, when we’ve asked Mind the Product readers about critical thinking in the past you’ve told us it’s been the most essential skill you could have to enable you to progress your career.
How do you cultivate critical thinking skills?
Critical thinking is a huge topic, and needless to say, its practice is an ongoing process. To analyse facts objectively, you need to keep on top of your subject matter, the market you operate in, industry trends, new tech, best practice. The more you know, the better informed your decisions will be.
It means you need always to be conscious of all the things we tell ourselves we should bear in mind, like gathering a diverse range of perspectives, seeking feedback, practising solving problems, and taking the time to reflect on the steps we’ve taken.
How about some scenarios where critical thinking skills are very important?
Competitive analysis: Critical thinking skills become important when you’re doing competitive analysis, for example, and you need to understand how your product compares with the competition in terms of areas like feature sets and functionality, pricing and ease of use. What critical decisions would you make to assure you keep a competitive edge?
Prioritisation: You always have a limited budget and resources for product development. It means you have to critically assess and prioritise which features or projects you should invest in to maximise your product’s impact.
Feedback: You might get unanticipated negative user feedback about a recent product update. Your approach to this will require critical thinking – objective evaluation and synthesis of this information – so that you make informed decisions on how to address it.
Entering new markets: Suppose you’re launching your product in a new market. There are a large number of critical factors that you need to consider about local culture, regulations, customer preferences and the like you need to take into account before you launch your product.
Pivot: If your product isn’t gaining the traction you expected, you need to evaluate why this is and work out whether to pivot to a new target audience or product direction.
When things go wrong: Maybe there’s a security breach, an outage or some other product-related crisis. Critical thinking will be needed to resolve the situation, communicate with stakeholders, and minimise the damage to the product’s reputation.
Frameworks for critical thinking
There are plenty of frameworks to help you hone your critical thinking skills. A few of the common ones are listed below:
SWOT Analysis: You can use a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis to assess your product’s current state and potential future directions. It’s a framework that helps you identify areas where critical thinking and action are needed.
PESTEL Analysis: PESTEL analysis looks into the macro-environmental factors or external changes (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental, Legal) that can have an impact on your product’s success.
Root Cause Analysis: Problem-solving techniques like the 5 Whys or the Fishbone Diagram (also known as the Ishikawa diagram after its creator Kaoru Ishikawa) can be used to dig into the root causes of an issue.
Value Proposition Canvas: This framework should help you to understand your customer segments’ pains, gains, jobs to be done, and the solutions your product offers. It – and you can download the Strategyzer framework here – should help to guide you as you refine your product’s value proposition.
Kano Model: This model was originally developed 40 plus years agoto study customer satisfaction, but can be very successfully used to prioritise product development, as this post from Martin Eriksson explains: Using the Kano Model to prioritize product development
Product-Market Fit: Assessing continually for product/ market fit means you’re always gauging alignment between your product and its target customers. The author of the Lean Product Playbook Dan Olsen shares his model for achieving product/market fit in a ProductTank San Francisco talk here.
Any tips for best practice?
We’ve already mentioned the importance of continuous learning by staying on top of industry trends, best practice and the like, and the importance of embracing feedback.
You can try things like sharpening your problem-solving skills through puzzles and crosswords, or through brainstorming sessions with other people on your team.
Get yourself a mentor. They can give you constructive feedback and help you discover any areas you might need to work on.
Gather diverse views. A different perspective will always stimulate your thinking and help you to challenge assumptions.
Remember to distinguish between data and opinion.
Remember that not all problems are equal so prioritise your work so that your critical thinking is focused on where it matters most.
Stop and reflect. Think about how you’ve approached past decisions and ask yourself what you might have done differently.
Remember that you always need to first clearly articulate your problem or the decision you face. Next you should gather together relevant data, insights, and context, while recognising any assumptions you’re making.
Then you should explore alternatives – evaluate other courses of action and their implications. Then you can make a decision. And don’t forget to monitor and adapt your approach as new information becomes available.