Learning and Development Training Needs a Good Dose of Healthy Skepticism

By Mike Vaughan - December 21, 2017

Given my recent focus on the value of balancing creative and critical thinking in corporate leadership training, I thought it would be interesting to go a bit deeper into both core abilities. I fully acknowledge and embrace the fact that I love to geek out on these types of topics - as does virtually all of the team at Regis - and I hope you find value in these posts as well.

Let’s begin by looking at how Dr. Robert Harris, a retired professor at Vanguard University of Southern California, defines nine perspectives and processes that help to build creativity:

  1. Curiosity. Creative thinking, like critical thinking, encourages thinkers to ask questions to broaden an issue and expand the boundaries of what they know, rather than digging down deeper into it. Broad knowledge is necessary for creativity to flourish to its fullest. Knowledge is enjoyable and often useful in strange and unexpected ways. Seeking new information does not require a reason. The question “Why do you want to know that?” seems strange to the creative thinker, who is likely to respond, “Because I don't know the answer.” The curious person's questioning attitude toward life is positive, not reflecting skepticism or negativism.
  2. Challenge. Creative thinking challenges the assumptions behind ideas, proposals, problems, beliefs, and statements. Many assumptions, of course, turn out to be necessary and valid, but others are unnecessary or outdated. Creative thinkers root these out and search for alternatives.
  3. Constructive discontent. Discontent is not all bad. Creative thinking encourages positive, problem-solving discontent that addresses a need for improvement and proposes a solution. Constructive discontent is the first step to identifying problems around us and offering solutions for improvement.
  4. A belief that most problems can be solved. First, by faith and later by experience, the creative thinker believes that something can always be done to eliminate, or at least alleviate, almost every problem. Creative thinkers understand that problems are solved by a commitment of time and energy and, where this commitment is present, few things are impossible. Creative thinkers look directly into the face of fear.
  5. The ability to suspend judgment and criticism. To consider all options, creative thinkers suspend judgment about new ideas, have an optimistic attitude toward ideas in general, and avoid condemning them with negative responses like, “That will never work; that's no good; what an idiotic idea; that's impossible.”
  6. Seeing the good in the bad. Creative thinkers ask, “What is good about this?” They can perceive that every idea may have something useful, however minimal that might be, directed to good effect or even made greater.
  7. Believing problems lead to improvements. Whether we look for issues or not, we know that they will come up. Creative thinking accepts that problems are not necessarily bad if they permit solutions that leave the world better than before.
  8. Seeing solutions instead of problems. One person’s problem can become another person’s solution. Creative thinkers can even find good ideas in someone else’s bad solutions.
  9. Understanding problems as acceptable risks. Creative thinkers refuse to hide from problems. They view issues as interesting challenges worth tackling. Creative thinkers may even find problem-solving fun, educational, rewarding, ego-building, and helpful to society.

Our business simulations apply these different types of creative thinking to multidimensional problems. We give participants a library of decision points and actions, and users must sequence the decision points by dragging and dropping them on one of the work streams. If participants choose to go deeper, each decision point has additional information. Here’s the catch: there are no right answers. Rather, there are many possible solutions, and some decisions at certain times are better than others.

Adding to the complexity, the scenario dynamically changes as the situation unfolds within the simulation training. As with many critical and creative thinking tools, the goal is to prepare users to adapt their thinking as new information presents itself by quickly formulating and reformulating recommendations. Through the application of critical thinking, the recommendations are analyzed and judged by the simulation engine for effectiveness and appropriateness in solving the problem.

A key component of many instructional technology tools is a reflection on innate biases and fallacious reasoning. Typically, this is accomplished through dialogue with peers or trained leadership development consultants. We’ve also had success using online collaboration services. The behavior we seek to establish is called reflective skepticism, a concept first coined by Dr. Stephen Brookfield. He defines reflective skepticism as “. . . being wary of uncritically accepting an innovation, change, or new perspective simply because it is new,” but, rather, having “. . . a readiness to test the validity of claims made by others for any presumed givens, final solutions, and ultimate truths against one’s own experience of the world.”  

Reflective skepticism requires checking to see that both critical and creative thinking have taken place. Were assumptions identified? Were they valid? Were reasonable alternatives created? Learning and development training participants in our business simulations learn to ask questions such as these:

  • What’s the problem?
  • What are my assumptions?
  • What’s possible?
  • What else?

These questions appear simple, but how often do decision makers even ask them, much less keep at it until they get answers?

When each of us makes these “connections” and flows between critical and creative thinking, we expose flaws in our mental models. Evolutionary changes to our mental models occur when we make connections. Revolutionary changes occur when we create something entirely new, as the situation requires it. Extraordinary changes occur when what we create considers the systemic effects over the long term.

Michael Vaughan is the CEO of The Regis Company, a global provider of custom business simulations and experiential learning programs. Michael is the author of the books The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker and The End of Training: How Business Simulations Are Reshaping Business.

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