When government senior leaders are asked what skill is missing from the government workforce, you may be surprised at the response. The answer? Critical thinkers. In fact, at a recent Department of the Air Force Information Technology and Cyberpower (DAFITC) education and training event, several keynote speakers specifically cited the need for more critical thinkers in their organizations.
As a retired civil servant with over 35 years of acquisition experience, including supervisory coaching and team building, my first thought upon hearing this bold declaration was absolute agreement. But then I considered, “What if those senior leaders were talking about me? If I was a new hire today, how would that statement make me feel?”
Missing the Mark
No matter the era, every government employee is subjected to mandatory training and development. Each hire is educated in multiple functional areas through a variety of methods, from formal classes to on-the-job (OTJ) training. In the acquisition career field, even more classes are required to advance. Yet with all these educational opportunities, not a single one is focused on developing critical thinking skills—the one thing senior leaders say they need! How can this be?
In my opinion, critical thinking skills have suffered as face-to-face interaction has declined. The current cultural work environment focuses on computer-based training (CBT)—a method that covers textbook concepts but eliminates valuable human dialogue. There is certainly a place for CBT (e.g., during a pandemic, extended remote work, etc.); however, there is much more to be gained by investing in real-time, in-person interaction with our human workforce, even if over video chat.
When I was hired back in 1983, there were frequent opportunities to acquire knowledge directly passed down from current experts. For example, “lunch and learn” sessions were offered where new hires watched videos and sat across the conference table from senior leaders who were personally invested in developing his or her workforce. I still remember with fondness the care these mentors gave us as they answered our newbie questions and inspired us with notions that our work contributed to the common good. The stories and passion from seasoned professionals resonate with and add value to the otherwise flat textbook concepts. I was inspired to be like them one day! I believe that real-time feedback and guidance greatly contributed to prior generations learning how to think critically.
The Value of Case Studies
Another resource responsible for developing my critical thinking skills was the PMT 350 course at Defense Acquisition University (DAU). This intensive class offers 10 weeks of case studies that will exercise your brain to think critically. Case studies are extremely valuable for critical thinking because they allow the learner to view an issue through a particular conceptual framework, then identify and critically evaluate potential solutions. If you can’t afford to spend 10 weeks away from your job and family, I recommend investigating a speed course instead.
Leaders are Readers (and Listeners and Watchers)
Besides formal training, critical thinking skills can be developed in other ways. What we read and watch, who we listen to, and the programs we support all promote critical thinking skills.
There are many books that have made a huge impact on my critical thinking. Two excellent recent reads include Think Again by Adam Grant and The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli. I also love anything by author Malcolm Gladwell (but especially The Bomber Mafia—it’s about the Air Force!)
Don’t like to read? Podcasts are an excellent option for non-bookworms. Ted Talks are also valuable, and many are available online via YouTube and other video sources.