Promote Critical Thinking by Looking Two Desks Beyond


In most organizations, leaders will emphasize the need for critical thinking and tout its use. Unfortunately, not everyone understands what constitutes critical thinking. A simple Google search of “Critical Thinking” will net over 135 million hits, and further specifying “Critical Thinking Definition” still results in 33.6 million responses. There are widely varying definitions and approaches to critical thinking, and quite frankly, many are academic in nature.

Let’s face it, most of us don’t spend much time thinking about thinking. It’s something we just do…consciously or unconsciously. We process information, visual cues and a host of other data points to go about our daily lives. Breathe in and breathe out.

Seems simple enough, and this basic way of approaching the whole thinking process would be fine if our roles and responsibilities were devoid of complexity. However, that is rarely the case. Daily, we face complex issues and problems and often have to make decisions with incomplete frames of reference. Correspondingly, we need to fill in the gaps with information, context and multiple perspectives. So we must put our proverbial thinking caps on and reason through issues and connect all the dots.

Following are some of the ways we think or reason through issues when using a critical thinking approach:

  • Analytically
  • Rationally
  • Logically
  • Independently
  • Strategically
  • Judiciously
  • Conceptually
  • Inferentially
  • Creatively
  • Using deduction
  • With reflection
  • Multiple sources

Those all sound reasonable, but will all of those concepts be easily understood across your organization? Your employees are valuable resources to provide pieces of the puzzle, but if they are not trained or equipped to think critically, they may not understand how their information or part of the overall process is important to you and the organization. So how can we operationalize and simplify this principle so that everyone in an organization is thinking in somewhat of a critical manner?

That’s where “Looking Two Desks Beyond” comes in.  It’s an approach I came up with to get the people in my organization to think past their individual duties. The goal was for them to gain a greater awareness of their impact on their co-workers, other offices and organizations, our customers and, ultimately, to our organization’s mission. It’s a simple starting point and certainly doesn’t touch on all of the items in the above bullet list, but it does get the ball rolling.

We get caught up in what we have to do…the tasks and items on our immediate plate. We empty our in-basket or fulfill job assignments or make some keystrokes to complete a transaction, and then we’re on to the next item on the to-do list. But where do those items from our in-basket go? Who needs to work on that job assignment after we complete our part? How many other programs, organizations or customers rely on the information we just updated on that transaction? That’s important to know.  Regardless of position or responsibilities, if everyone began to look “two desks” beyond their own — upwards, sideways, downward and outwards — they would begin to see the impact of their duties.

Following are some steps to take to make this happen:

  1. Clearly articulate the organization’s strategic goals and objectives. It’s important for employees to know the vision and direction the organization is taking.
  1. Explain how employees’ roles and responsibilities fit into the organization’s overall mission. People want to know what they do is value-added and their performance contributes to the organization’s success. In this way, you are operationalizing those strategic goals and objectives.
  1. Help them identify how their tasks impact operations “two desks” beyond their own in all directions. The employee needs to participate in this step.  As they discover how their actions and tasks impact their co-workers, other functions and customers, the more aware they become to the larger organizational construct. They also understand how others depend on them to complete their work correctly and on time.
  1. Foster open communications throughout the organization. Just as employees need to understand the important of their individual tasks, they also need to gain an appreciation for what others do. Open lines of communication can help build trust and also break down functional stovepipes.
  1. Make this a 360 degree proposition. This concept is tied solely to junior employees. If it permeates throughout the organization with everyone looking beyond their personal responsibilities, there will be more opportunities for shared problem solving, process ownership and employees who will buy in to the larger organizational mission and strategic vision.

When employees of an organization, as a whole, begin looking two desks beyond their own, the organization is more likely to be proactive. The employees begin to manage consequences by looking at second, third and fourth-order effects when new ideas are being proposed. They realize everything they do – or don’t do – impacts many people both within and outside the organization. They also realize there are partners within their organizations who rely on the information or services to be completed on time. Many times, our responsibilities have external impacts to other departments, agencies and customers.  When an employee understands how their performance and individual accomplishments eventually effect the mission, their perspectives and inputs become more valuable.

Again, this is just a starting point. It’s a simple tool to get people to think a little broader. The end goal is for organizational leaders to make better decisions — to solve, or perhaps even better, prevent problems. A proactive workforce looking beyond their own interests is a great step in making that happen.

Brian Schooley is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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richard regan

2 desks beyond is very similar to the American Indian/Alaska Native tradition that we should live and act in a way where we understand our impact on the 7th generation.