In 1637, French philosopher René Descartes wrote “Discourse on the Method,” which is probably most notable in producing the Latin phrase “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think; therefore, I am”).

While Descartes most likely wasn’t thinking of corporate management when writing his discourse, new thinking is the lifeblood of successful companies. Finding and developing people who possess this skill can separate a company from its peers, whether it is a small family business or a large public company.

While the trait is common in chief executive officers and other senior leaders, it is difficult to find. In PayScale’s 2016 “Workforce-Skills Preparedness Report” survey, 60% of managers said that critical thinking and problem-solving was “the soft skill lacking the most among recent college graduates.” Fortunately, people with certain skill sets can develop this critical soft skill.

Casting Your Net

The first step is to discover who exhibits the greatest potential to become critical thinkers. During this process, you may notice a repeating pattern producing three types of individuals — people who:

  • Are already critical thinkers.
  • Do not fit that definition but have the potential to do so.
  • Lack both the skill and the ability to learn the skill in the future.

You will want to direct your efforts toward the second group. How do you accurately find those people in your organization? In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Matt Plummer, founder of productivity training company Zarvana, identifies a few simple performance markers you can use to assess employees:

  • Do they successfully complete assignments?
  • Do they complete them on time?
  • Do the assignments meet company standards for quality?

If they can complete the project without direction, in a timely fashion and with high-quality results, they probably used some form of critical thinking, whether they realize it or not. They received minimal direction and produced maximum results, which is an encouraging foundation to build upon.

Opportunities for Observation

There are other ways you can observe the beginnings of critical thinking. Meetings, for example, can provide insights into how employees systematize and respond to data. People with clear processing and logical deduction show an aptitude to learn new ways of thinking. Employees who can easily identify the significant details of a meeting and synthesize them into prioritized actions are likely to be good candidates for critical thinking training.

Do employees provide recommendations and suggestions, or do they prefer to receive direction to complete their tasks? Individuals who take a consultative rather than a reactionary approach to their work demonstrate the ability to think beyond direction and execution.

Finally, can employees produce ideas and strategies spontaneously? Ask them to create ideas or strategies to improve and grow an area of the business. Employees who construct coherent, actionable plans are likely adept at critical thinking already. They’ve taken undeveloped data and thought, step by step, through scenarios that are yet to come.

Observing individuals through these benchmarks can help you identify the employees and managers who are the likely to succeed in developing and implementing critical thinking skills. Once you’ve found them, you must teach them. Teaching critical thinking comes down to basic behavioral psychology, because critical thinking is a behavior that many can learn with the right incentives and timely reinforcement.

If you are willing to invest the time and effort in developing critical thinkers, these managers and employees will reward you by producing more efficient and creative teams and, thus, a more successful business.