Critical Thinking for teams
Updated: Jun 12, 2020
At AT4 we believe in fully cross-functional teams. Our Agile delivery teams consist of Developers, Business analysts, QA and UX specialists. A developer will focus on design patterns and optimisation of the codebase. A business analyst will act as the prime interface between the stakeholders and the team as a whole. A QA will act as the champion of quality. A UX specialist is expected to be concerned about workflows, look and feel and colour palettes. They all play a part in the implementation of the requirements in accordance with the customers expectations.
We don't work with robots, we expect each team member to think; the ability to evaluate information using a systematic and deliberate approach separate from the mechanistic ritualistic thinking employed in day-to-day activities, as evidenced by group nodding in many team discussions. Critical evaluation of information can provide the team with information which allows for a greater understanding of the ‘thing’ being developed which will lead to more informed decisions on the ‘thing’ being implemented. Skilled application of critical thinking doesn’t need to be overt if it is undertaken correctly, it won’t be a visible effect. It will just ‘be’.
The team has a collective responsibility to identify and communicate issues which enhance understanding and impact quality
Socrates was probably the world's first true thinker. He created a method of questioning known as Socratic Questioning. He promoted a line of questioning that attempted to differentiate beliefs that are reasonable and logical from beliefs that are comforting, egocentric, without adequate evidence or lack a rational foundation to support them.
In 16th Century England Thomas Hobbes adopted a naturalistic view of the world in which everything was to be explained by evidence and reasoning.
The Foundation for Critical Thinking gives a brief definition here: ‘Critical thinking is the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it.’
What it is
Critical thinking takes time and effort to apply correctly. It is distinctly different from normal, everyday thinking. In fact, it is the antithesis of normal, everyday thinking. Everyday thinking happens by default, you just aren’t aware of it, it is a product of repetition and experience. Walking employs thinking. Manoeuvring around obstacles employs thinking. Making a drink employs thinking. Driving a vehicle employs thinking. All take place without a targeted, conscious effort.
The advantages of employing critical thinking are numerous. Without employing critical thinking, decisions can be made that can cause adverse effects on the team and by extension, the value they provide to the client.
Each facet of critical thinking can have a marked effect on the team mindset and the efforts employed throughout the development of the product. It can be employed at any time but in our experience, there is a marked effect when used in group settings such as a daily stand-up, 3 amigos or refinement.
It can, and should, be used when interacting on an individual basis. Care is needed however to not isolate or otherwise distance the other individual.
This in itself is a skill.
Components of critical thinking
Clarity - Can it be illustrated via examples
Accuracy - Can it be verified
Precision - Is it specific
Relevance - Is the problem in question being addressed
Depth - What makes this a question
Breadth - Are there alternative points of view
Logic - Is this supported by evidence
Significance - Is this the core idea to focus on
Fairness - Are people conscious of their own bias
Or simply, the who, what, when, where, why and how
How to apply
In our experience, there are two main approaches to conducting a standup. Your experience may vary. Critical thinking can, and should, be employed in both approaches:
Standup number 1: Robotic statements; Yesterday, Today, Blockers, focused on individual contributions.
Standup number 2: Walking the board; Natural conversation flow, focused on completion of a particular story by the team as a whole.
The application of critical thinking in the first instance is inherently more difficult as the sequential format tends to inhibit natural conversational flow and questioning is directed at an individual which discourages further interaction at a team level.
The application of critical thinking in the second instance is easier as there is a constant stream of information from multiple sources in real-time, each with a particular viewpoint that can open up more possibilities for questioning and clarification. At the beginning it may seem quite daunting but the more you employ it the easier it becomes. There is a distinct and beneficial side-effect of employing critical thinking in that you can articulate your method of questioning to other members of your team.
The more you employ it the easier it becomes
For this reason, the methods will concentrate on ‘walking the board’
Let's run through some typical group scenarios that often occur in cross-functional agile teams, all of these questions can be asked by any member at any time:
Developer Jenny states that implementation of the API is almost complete but she believes that it doesn’t require much in the way of testing:
Ask for reasons for that position?
Are their statements logical?
Ask other members whether they agree?
Does everyone agree with this point?
Is there anyone who does not agree?
Query their approach and how they arrived at the conclusion(s) they did
Is their rationale based on fact, supposition or confirmation bias?
Developer George is about to pick up a task to write stubs to support the automation of a particular test effort, he’s done this type of work before and he appears quite comfortable with his approach:
Ask whether he will undertake research?
Will further information enhance the implementation?
Ask whether previous efforts have been consistent with the team’s standards?
Is this evidenced?
Can he provide the rationalisation for his confidence?
Is it well-reasoned?
Is it logical?
Ask whether his approach could be improved?
Can team members suggest alternatives?
Ask if the team can suggest abstract ideas?
Are there underlying assumptions in play?
Tester Gwen states that the vehicle selection screen story can now be considered done, BA Bob disagrees.
Ask Bob why he disagrees?
Can they provide a rational reason for the disagreement?
Do they have information that isn’t apparent to Gwen?
Ask whether his disagreement is valid in the context of the story?
Ask if the tasks that make this story up have been verified?
Can Gwen solicit agreement from the team for her conclusions?
Does Bob suggest an offline discussion to resolve the differences?
New Developer Alana picks up a task to implement form validation she appears a little unsure on?
Ask if she can articulate the task within the context of the story?
Does her understanding reflect the team’s understanding?
Ask if the card is accurate in intent and accurately reflects the actual task?
Ask if the the card requires rewording?
Does the team agree with Alana’s understanding?
Does the team employ empathy to address any confusion on Alana’s part?
Are there opposing views?
Are there questions that arise from the conversations?
Is there broad agreement from the team?
Is there information missing that would enhance understanding?
Is Alana comfortable with speaking in the stand-up?
Is undue influence being applied?
You articulate progress you made on a task you completed just before standup, the team appear unsure as to the actual status:
How do you know that what you’ve done is completed?
Can you provide alternative phrasing?
Can you provide an analogy?
Can you provide evidence?
Can you ask a colleague to paraphrase your explanation?
PO John queries the status of the sprint as a whole but devolves into a discussion about another sprint:
Do the team question the relevance of the other sprint?
Do the team ask them to reframe the question?
Do the team ask if this is the most important thing to discuss right now?
Do a team member interject at an appropriate point to bring the discussion back on track?
Do the team attempt to understand John's viewpoint?
Does John's reasoning have merit?
Are the team aware of their own implicit bias?
Critical thinking takes practice
No-one thinks critically 100% of the time
Critical thinking is a tool
Consciously practice on your own reasoning
Don’t attempt to inject every type of question into every situation
Encourage team members to look below the surface of other team members
Make a conscious effort to observe how individuals respond to different stimuli
Increase the awareness and understanding of body language from team members
Use retrospectives as an opportunity to dive deeper into aspects of the employment of critical thinking
The practical application of critical thinking skills will ensure the team can focus on maintaining a shared understanding whilst delivering value. The team will also benefit via a greater understanding of the thought processes employed by their peers. This makes for a happier team with less conflict and increased quality of the deliverable.