At a time when facts, claims, opinions and (even) data regularly bombard us, critical thinking skills have never been more necessary. Whether you’re reading a news article, or resolving technical issues at work, it’s vital to know how to logically analyze facts to form a judgment.
“If you are an engineer, or in a technical field, then critical thinking is all the more important,” says author Sridhar Ramanathan. “It enables you to help deliver the most effective and potentially novel break-through solution you can.”
Ramanathan, who is managing director and co-founder of Aventi Group, a high-tech product marketing group in San Francisco, has just written the first volume in a planned e-book series on the subject, Critical Thinking for Engineers – Book 1: Analytical Skills. IEEE-USA E-BOOKS is introducing it this month.
Organized around each of what Ramanathan believes are the eight key aspects of analysis, the volume is full of solid insights into acquiring the ability to examine something carefully – whether it is a problem, a set of data, or text. The e-book is available at http://shop.ieee.usa.org for $2.99 for members and $4.99 for non-members.
According to the author, the first step in developing analytical skills is learning how to frame and ask thoughtful questions. To make his point, he quotes Charles Kettering, the legendary one-time head of research at General Motors, who said, “A problem well-stated is half-solved.”
To Ramanathan, asking the right questions enables staff engineers to solve the right problems. In the e-book, he poses a hypothetical situation in which the engineering department of a smartphone manufacturer is asked to resolve consumer complaints about having to recharge their phones too often. Instead of leaping to an obvious solution – increase battery capacity – he stresses the importance of first asking how it might be possible to extend the time between battery recharges.
“Engineers and their managers should generate a few more ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions that point to possible solutions, or even unexpected breakthroughs,” he writes. “For example: ‘Why are applications and systems processes consuming so much power?’, and ‘How can we improve the efficiency of the battery itself to hold charges longer?’”
The next step in developing analytical skills, he says, is seeking out information. But before you start, it’s important to know why you’re seeking out the information. For example, depending on whether the goal is to make a specific decision or build a persuasive case for action, it’s crucial to know what information or insight would most support your decision or action.
“Journalists are masters at information seeking,” observes Ramanathan. “They ask the ‘wh’ questions of who, what, where, when, why and how.” He suggests that developing questions based on journalists’ framework will help to target information sources. Again using the smartphone battery problem to illustrate his point, the author says that identifying mobile professionals as the “Who” most frustrated with battery life because (“Why) they are too busy and on the go to charge their phone at any, one spot can pinpoint where to obtain the needed information. This identification strategy would include: People, such as interviews with customers, partners, employees, and others; Documents, including industry publications, analyst reports, research papers, and blog posts; and Data, derived from experiments or testing different factors to measure the impact on desired outcomes.
The author recommends building a few stories or case studies that unify the data points into persuasive narratives that point to an action or decision.
The importance of questioning the evidence upon which to base an engineering decision is another component of analytical skills that Ramanathan discusses in his e-book. He points to a classic example from astrophysics, when a 1925 Harvard Ph.D. candidate questioned the then-conventional wisdom that the sun and earth shared similar elemental composition. In her doctoral thesis, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin used a range of data to conclude the sun contains a million times more hydrogen and helium than other elements.
”Today, we know the sun is a burning ball of mostly hydrogen gas, but it was absolutely not the prevailing wisdom at the time,” he writes. “It took years for the history books to give Payne-Gaposchkin the proper credit. There’s always room for a fresh look at seemingly ‘conventional wisdom,’ based on well-established evidence.”
But a healthy sense of skepticism – Ramanathan believes it’s the underlying element to questioning data – is a critical aspect of examining data and preparing conclusions.
He notes that when the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman was asked to find the root cause of the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion, he concluded the failure was due to the O-rings used in the solid rocket booster joints.
“NASA claimed a chance of failure of 1 in 100,000,” he writes, “but Feynman was skeptical. In a stunning visual experiment, he showed the true number to be 1 in 100 – far from acceptable.”
Other key elements to critical thinking that the author covers in this volume are data interpretation, judgment, and recognizing differences and similarities.
Sridar Ramanathan has 30 years of experience in technology companies, ranging from startups to blue-chip firms. As managing director and co-founder of Aventi Group, he has been instrumental in leading many high-tech organizations through high growth phases. Prior to co-starting Aventi Group, he was the marketing executive for Hewlett-Packard’s Managed Services business. Ramanathan has an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, and a B.S. in Engineering Physics from the University of California, Berkeley.
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.