Businesses battered by ‘Hurricane Covid’ find safety in critical thinking – Working Voices

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A major weather system has blown through our economy. More than that – our whole society. Since Hurricane Covid first made landfall in March, it’s turned our lives inside-out. The lucky ones who have escaped illness and financial ruin still face difficult decisions as they look out on a landscape that is unfamiliar, unstable and uncertain.

In a recent blog I talked about how critical thinking skills help with decision-making. What I’ll do here is take a single question that I hope is common and typical. I’ll show how the six critical thinking steps I outlined in the last blog apply to it. You may already be someone who thinks critically but putting a name to these good habits allows you to be more aware of what you’re doing and bring others along with you.

The single example I’ll choose is a big question, but probably universal:

What should our business strategy be?

As you can see, that’s a question that almost every business is asking itself anew right now. Then how would critical thinking break this question down and answer it?

The first step is Clarify Goals. In other words, we need to ask the right question and set ourselves the right task. The problem with ‘What should our business strategy be?’ is that the goal of the strategy is not yet clear. So first, we need to define what we we’re trying to achieve. An uncritical thinker might ask themselves: ‘how do we get back to normal?’. And you can probably see what’s wrong with that: we don’t know if things will get back to the old normal. Different industries have different things to think about here. If you run a city centre bar, you might confidently expect demand to remain the same as it ever was – though how soon you can return to freely operating is another matter. If you run an airline, it might be unwise to plan for the demand for air travel to return to its previous levels.

A more critical approach might be to ask ‘where do we want to be in a year’s time and what will get us there?’. This question helps to make the goal more explicit. Of course, you’d also need to think in the very short term and the longer term – five weeks and five years. And this leads on to one of the key insights you need about clarifying goals: you usually have multiple goals. And the goals often conflict. For example, what’s needed to achieve the short-term strategy (staying solvent till the worst of the crisis has passed) may be the opposite of what’s needed for the longer term strategy (increase market share as the turbulence subsides).

How often have you seen an organisation pursue one goal single-mindedly while seeming to neglect all others?  A more thought-through strategy would have prevented the needless sacrifice of those other goals.

The next stages are all about information and knowledge. The key insight here is to remember, always, that information does not equal knowledge. The picture you have in front of you is usually incomplete. Sometimes all you have is a few fragments of the map you really need. It’s essential to admit that you’re in the dark about certain things. It’s normal. Virtually every decision in business is, in one sense, an attempt to predict the future – and to do so on incomplete evidence. To treat the problem critically you need to list known information, list reasonable assumptions/predictions, and list unknowns.

So you could write those down in question form:

  • What do we know for certain? (And why are we so certain?)
  • What can we reasonably assume? (And why are these assumptions reasonable?)
  • What don’t we know but wish we did? (So how big is the gap in the data?)

In the current situation, the third of those questions is the big one. The timing, pace, and extent of market recovery are unknown. So too is its nature. For example, many service industries have made an emergency switch to a digital version of their offering. How many customers will continue to want online yoga, language tuition and medical advice once the old options are restored? Will the high demand for supermarket deliveries be sustained even when rules are relaxed? Lots of smaller shops have started delivering – will that work in the long term or will customers drift back to the supermarkets? We just don’t know. So any cautious strategy would take the uncertainty into account by preparing for the full range of outcomes rather than banking on one.

The next step is simple enough: find someone who disagrees. The traditional version of this is to have someone play devil’s advocate and present counterarguments to test your thinking. This is a critical thinking trick that you may well already employ.

But you can go one better and find a real person who actually disagrees. Very often you know who this person will be. For that reason, you might be inclined to avoid discussing your ideas with them. Overcome that. The point here is not that this person will be able to dissuade you completely (though that has happened to me!) but that they offer the objections that your plan will need to overcome if it’s to succeed. And so you can modify the plan to make those objections less valid. These modifications invariably turn out to be good ones. If you’re anything like me, you’ll claim all the credit for them further down the line, completely forgetting that it was that awkward bugger in the office who put you straight!

One of the other benefits of listening to disagreement is that it helps you with the last step: communicating assertively. The word ‘assertively’ here means clear and unambiguous. It doesn’t mean bullish, blunt, pushy or aggressive. The trick to assertive messaging is precision of language. Use everyday words not business-speak. Use short sentences. Tell people what they need to know. Don’t try to create a good impression by using words that sound ‘forceful’, ‘caring’, ‘dynamic’ or however you feel you should come across. The truth will do all your work for you.

Here is an unassertive attempt to communicate the business strategy:

“Given the unprecedented impact of Covid-19 on the market, the decision has been taken to restructure the business permanently in anticipation of greater digital engagement going forward. Marketing and Product Development will primarily operate with a digital focus. We will redeploy some retail unit capability to digital support positions.“

It’s unassertive because of the language used, bus also the lack of clear thinking. People want to know what we’re doing, what it’s supposed to achieve, and why we think it will work – and ‘what this means for me’. Here is a plainer, straighter version of the same thing:

“A lot of our customers have switched to our online service during the lockdown. Customer surveys show that a lot of them expect to continue buying online after the Covid crisis ends. We think that expanding in this area is the best way to achieve our aim of winning new business in the future. To do this, Marketing and Product Development will focus on the online service for the time being. We’ll also transfer some staff from retail units to work in the digital service.”

This version uses transparent language and it says what we believe is happening, what we want, and what we’ve decided to do.

If you’re struggling to be 100% transparent in communicating your decision, the danger is that there was something wrong with the way that decision was reached. So review it before you announce it. What’s your real goal? Exactly why do you think this action is the best way to achieve the goal? That’s what it comes down to. At heart, critical thinking is all about simple answers to simple questions. It’s just that simplicity is the most difficult thing to achieve.

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