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​Thinking About Thinking

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For a good time, ask people what they think "critical thinking" is.

This is no frivolous question. When audit leaders are asked for the most important skills they want in their internal auditors, critical thinking always comes in at the top of the hit parade. (And yet, research also shows that they keep hiring for accounting degrees rather than soft skills … go figure.) Here's some recent examples showing this desire for critical thinking skills — one from IIA Global, one from MISTI, and one from Richard Chambers' blogs.

So, if the phrase continues to be bandied about like an audit report on its 35th rewrite, it must be well-understood and well-defined.

Not so fast there, Andretti. Again, go ask around. Find out what your co-workers/bosses/subordinates/business partners/life partners/kids/dogs/cats/baristas/Kwik-E-Mart cashiers/hot dog vendors/veggie-juice blenders/money lenders/public defenders/public nuisances/any random people you meet on the street think is meant by critical thinking and see if you find anything anywhere within that entire mass of humanity's answers that is close to a consensus.

Trust me. I've asked this question a lot. And it is amazing to see the wide breadth of responses you will get. Boiling it all down, here's what I hear as the common — if not spoken — element that people have for critical thinking:

Critical thinking is doing your work with your brain somewhere nearby.

So, it becomes quickly evident that, if we are going to search for this holy grail of skills, we have to understand what we are looking for. And that means we have to do some research, some study, some personal deep dives to learn what the heck we are even talking about.

Over the last six posts, you have seen me doing some of that exploration, myself. In this loosely connected group of posts, I have been thinking out loud — doing my own investigation into what we mean when we talk about critical thinking and what that phrase might really mean within the context of internal audit.

It started with a discussion about quality in audit report writing and how that quality is based on the quality of the audit itself. The next post discussed the need to ensure we identify how we are at fault when things go wrong, not just pointing the finger at others. The third post, focused on the need for each of us to pause and look back at the work we have done to learn from past mistakes and successes. The next post talked about the need to identify and recruit people willing to give you honest, critical feedback. The fifth post took on the subject of what we mean by the phrase "trusted advisor." And the most recent post discussed the tendency of people to evaluate decision-making on results rather than the rightness or wrongness of the decision-making process itself.

Taken at face value, this seems to be a random set of topics — the kind of thing you might find if you haphazardly pulled any six blog posts. However, there are a couple of thin threads that hold these all together.

As already mentioned, underlying each of these is a part of what we might consider critical thinking — for example, the critical thinking necessary to do good audit work supporting a good audit report, the critical thinking needed to look back at our work to learn from it, and the critical thinking fundamental to the concept of trusted advisor.

But there was a second thread within this group of posts. As I managed to mention in most of them, I have been reading a book by poker champion Annie Duke titled Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts. Although it doesn't say it anywhere, this is a book about critical thinking — about how to apply critical thinking in practical situations (not just poker games.) And those applications are what got me going with this set of posts.

But this is only the latest book/research regarding critical thinking that has piqued my interest. In blog posts a few months ago, I began quoting Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow, a book that has enough connections between internal audit and critical thinking to keep any of us busy for a couple of lifetimes. (And take my word for it, this is book worth reading. In fact, don't take my word for it. Just go read it.) And a while ago, I was researching emotional intelligence and the work of Daniel Coleman. And somewhere in the last year or so I stumbled across the great resource, The Foundation for Critical Thinking, at criticalthinking.org. And then there was the time …

A definition of critical thinking I like is "thinking about how we think." To some extent, that is what all the preceding was about — thinking about how internal auditors think. But that also is the larger message/lesson for all internal auditors.

It is fine to practice thinking that is critical, it is fine to talk about the importance of critical thinking in what we do, and it is fine to isolate and celebrate critical thinking. But, to be effective critical thinkers — to really be able to use critical thinking in every aspect of our profession — each and every one of us has to do the heavy work of learning what critical thinking is and what it means to ourselves and our profession.

Try any one of the resources listed above. Or go exploring on your own; there is a lot out there. But, ultimately, learn as much as you can about critical thinking and start thinking about how you think.

Then, when we understand the processes that make up how we think — the good, the bad, and the erroneous — that is the time when we will actually be practicing effective critical thinking.

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