Honing Critical Thinking Skills: Start a Salon

There is a lot of information out there about creativity; how to develop it, how to harness it productively, and how to nurture it within a company.  What I see far less often, is how to hone critical thinking skills. As I've said before, I define innovation as, "Doing something new that adds value to the business."  Creativity is necessary to explore new things. Critical thinking is necessary to recognize whether or not the new things will add value.

So far, one of the best ways I have been able to hone critical thinking skills is to start a "Salon."  The American Heritage Dictionary defines a Salon as: A periodic gathering of persons noted in literature, philosophy, the fine arts, or similar areas, held at one person's home.  Salons thrived during The Enlightenment period in the 18th century as a means to use reason to challenge previously accepted doctrines and traditions, and resulted in many humanitarian reforms.

For the last several years I have been leading informal Salon groups and I have found them to be invaluable in terms of sharpening my thinking. While I don't have any formal rules about how to set one up, I can offer a few thoughts about what has worked for me. 

Start with a Pink Elephant There are usually a few issues that polarize people in a company. This polarization can bring discussions to a halt, as everyone avoids mentioning the pink elephant in the room. These Pink Elephants are often based on tradition or other immovable obstacles in an organization.  Other good issues are when someone is exposed to new information that may cause a group to rethink how they perceive an issue. It's best to fully understand the implications of your position before a customer or client exposes the inconsistency.

Choose the right people Ideal candidates to join the Salon group are people who do not take discussions about issues personally, and who seek higher understanding of how to reconcile different points of view. The group should represent as much diversity as possible in how they think about issues, but similar in their openness to contribute new ideas or ways to combine existing ideas.

Seek higher understanding Salon discussions should seek to build frameworks for understanding an issue. These frameworks will often represent the different perspectives, and how they fit into the higher idea. This serves to reconcile differences, and provide rationale for abandoning ideas that are no longer useful. They should recognize the past usefulness of the ideas, and show how and why new circumstances require a change.

Don't try to solve everything The group should meet regularly. Allow enough time between meetings for people to "background process" the issues that have been discussed, allowing for new patterns to emerge. It's good if a meeting ends with open issues for people to think about, as these thoughts provide a good beginning for the next meeting.

Make it safe to say "dumb" things Recognize that the issues you are discussing have not been articulated clearly in the past. It will take many tries by group members to get the thoughts out. People may need to draw things, or write ideas, or try to build frameworks to illustrate what they are thinking. Expect that before the clarity dawns, there will be a lot of muddy articulations of ideas. It's good to encourage discussion of ideas that haven't yet been worked out.  That's why you're here.

Push for clarity Ultimately the goal is to establish clarity on an issue, that can be described in simple terms. Often after a few sessions someone will say something that is instantly recognized by the group as the simple way to say what everyone has been struggling to describe.

These are just a few thoughts on what has worked for me. As I think of more I will continue to post new ideas. I think there is far to little written about the value of critical thinking, especially about how to use it as a way to make creative ideas work. I'd love to hear about what others are doing, and what has worked for you.