The step-by-step process of how information becomes ideas – the Information Chain – is one way to define ‘analytical thinking.’ But even that phrase is loosely defined because I often hear ‘critical thinking’ used as a synonym. I see them as different, and they serve different needs. Here’s Analytical Thinking versus Critical Thinking.
Analytical Thinking … focuses on a specific thing, such as a thing, a piece of information or an idea. By examining this singular entity, you break it down into smaller, more understandable components.
Look at a vendor’s invoice for example. You can break it down by amount, date, invoice number, the total amount vs the different expenses, terms and conditions, bank payments details.
In other words, Analytical Thinking is thinking inside itself.
Critical Thinking … focuses on evaluating a specific thing, piece of information or an idea by comparing and contrasting it to something else to better understand it.
To critique the vendor’s invoice, you have to put it beside something else to understand it, such as another invoice. Is the total amount or individual expenses the same or different? What are the dates of when work was done? Is this the same purchase order, or a different number?
In other words, Critical Thinking is thinking outside of itself.
And, never forget one of the most important aspects of critical thinking, thanks to Walter Shewhart. Information without context is useless.
Something that both Analytical Thinking and Critical Thinking have in common is either can be applied anytime and anywhere during creative problem solving. If you look at the Hourglass Figure (below), you can be analytical or critical when gathering information (in the green strategic or convergent stage) or when brainstorming potential ideas (in the blue creative or divergent stage).
So what’s the point of all this?
Whether you’re using Analytical Thinking or Critical Thinking – or even looking at something generally – you are trying to extract five useful qualities. You want to know if this thing is …
- Accurate? Is it exact? Factual?
- Authentic? Is it genuine? Consistent?
- Objective? Is it free from bias, stereotypes, prejudice and motives?
- Valid? Is it what it says it is?
- Worth? What is its price or cost?
Most of all, these five values add up to Value.
Before we close, one last point about Analytical Thinking or Critical Thinking. To do either, don’t forget the need for …
- Curiosity – the intense desire to know something. If you didn’t have it, you’d never think further than absolutely what’s necessary.
- Scepticism – an attitude of doubt toward something to gauge if its ‘real’ or ‘true.’ Without scepticism, the mind accepts anything. (This point reminds me of the old Chicago newspaperman’s mantra about truth: ‘Even if your mother says she loves you, check it out.’)
- Humility – the ability to admit when you’re wrong and not take it personally. Even the best among us make mistakes. You could review something and 100% believe it, but find out later you’re wrong. Be humble, admit it, laugh at yourself, and move on.
Whether you’re applying Analytical Thinking or Critical Thinking, or even Strategic Thinking vs Creative Thinking (the Hourglass Figure), here’s some questions to consider.
- Are you starting with the right goals? Are they S.M.A.R.T.?
- Are you addressing the real problem? Or, are you fixing a symptom? More so, are you solving the wrong problem?
- Where are you gathering research? Who says it’s quality, reputable information? (Hint: if you don’t know where to start, start with the topic’s history, which will help you understand the current state of affairs.)
- Are you only research to prove yourself right, or should you also do research to prove yourself wrong? Also, the best place to start research is with the people who have the problem.
- Are you analysing information deeply enough? A search that never goes beyond the first page of Google is not research, it’s laziness.
- Are you fairly comparing or contrasting information? Information from a reputable physician versus ‘Dr Google’ lead to different outcomes.
- Are you extracting a true insight? Says who? (Again, if you already knew it, it’s not an insight.)
- Are you generating enough ideas (even bad ideas)?
- How are you selecting the best ideas, and does the ‘client’ agree with your criteria?
- Do your ideas actually address the business problem?
How have you used Analytical Thinking or Critical Thinking in the past? Any suggestions or tips to help others be analytical or critical in a productive way?