Why Engineers Need Critical Thinking Skills
It doesn’t matter if you’re a design engineer, the chief engineer, or somewhere in between, you need critical thinking skills. Too much in our profession relies on clear, concise, and rationale decisions and these decisions only come about through a structured process of thought. While design-related decisions have codes and design principals to guide them, decisions involving cost, emotions, or design approach do not. These types of decision are left wide open to interpretation and opinion.
Without a critical thinking process for decision-making in place you may find yourself stuck in arriving at courses of action or a recommendation agreeable to stakeholders. Some reasons for developing critical thinking skills for decision-making include:
1. Leads to a replicable process for planning, researching, and presenting ideas, courses of action and recommendations. Processes make everything easy and it can lead to a good habit. Establish a process that becomes habit and marrying critical thinking with decision-making becomes second nature. That’s good.
2. Saves you time in transforming data into decision quality information. It also saves time for decision makers since the material they’ll review is decision quality i.e. they don’t have to research it themselves or assemble the data into decision-quality information themselves. Think that’s not your job? You’re wrong. I want decision quality information handed to me when I’m making a decision on approving change orders, determining what to cut from project scope to stay within costs, etc. So does your boss or project sponsor.
3. Provides decision-makers and stakeholders assurances that your rationale and recommendations are based on a process of critical thought and not ad hoc. This is especially important on critical resource decisions or in situations where constituents may be opposed to the issue at hand. With a sound critical thinking process, others may not agree with your recommendation, but they can’t fault your process or rationale.
4. Provides you with an opportunity to highlight yours, and others’, assumptions and biases. Biases and assumptions will be present in every decision. A critical thinking process ensures you account for these, highlight them, and understand what impacts exist on the decision at hand.
5. Leads to a professional format for presenting ideas, courses of action, and recommendations. Done correctly, your critical thinking process will naturally step you through the decision and this will in turn make it easier for you to display this to others.
With the wealth of data available to everyone today the ability to compile this into a cohesive, coherent, and concise package is vital. The engineer who develops the critical thinking skills to turn data into decision quality information will easily put themselves ahead of those who rely on ad hoc methods. Hint: be the one who has the critical thinking skills.
“Thinking is skilled work. It is not true that we are naturally endowed with the ability to think clearly and logically — without learning how, or without practicing…. People with untrained minds should no more expect to think clearly and logically than people who have never learned and never practiced can expect to find themselves good carpenters, golfers, bridge-players, or pianists.” – Alfred Manner
Chris Knutson, P.E., PMP is a leadership and strategy coach, practicing engineer and program manager. He is co-founder of The Engineering Career Coach, a company providing engineers and engineering companies core skills, leadership, and lifestyle design services enabling them to execute their vision. Chris is a retired U.S. Air Force civil engineer officer with over two decades of active duty service leading engineering organizations and multi-million dollar programs around the globe. Learn more about his work and access more resources at The Engineering Career Coach.
Check out the new e-Book on Critical Thinking Skills, Getting it Right at The Engineer Leader blog.