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Better Board Decisions – The Power of Critical Thinking
“Critical thinking is thinking about thinking while you’re thinking, in order to make your thinking better.” – Dr. Richard Paul, Chairman, National Center for Excellence in Critical Thinking

By Risa Mish, Senior Lecturer of Management at Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management

One of the things boards of directors must do is ensure that the organization stays true to its stated mission by determining how decisions are framed and approached. A board’s ability to successfully discharge this responsibility depends upon the degree to which its members possess and exercise critical-thinking skills when making decisions. This is because critical thinking — rigorously analyzing, evaluating and synthesizing information in order to guide beliefs and actions — is the foundation of all good decision making.

There are three keys to ensuring that boards are critically thoughtful in their approach to making decisions in all situations, including those involving problem solving, addressing issues or taking advantage of opportunities:
  1. Understanding the context in which the situation arises;
  2. Exercising “evidentiary judgment;” and
  3. Inviting counterargument before finalizing a decision.
Critical Thinking Key No. 1: Understanding the Context

A desire to decide quickly, and to make the decision process efficient and consistent, sometimes leads board members to treat past experiences as “binding precedent” for future actions.

We say, “I’ve seen situations like this one before, so I know what we should do here.” Or, “We should/must do X, because X is what we have always done.” Or, “We can’t do Y, because we tried Y before and it didn’t work.” Sometimes, what we’ve seen before is a very good predictor of what we should do now. And sometimes it isn’t.

Experience, as Ben Franklin said, can be a great teacher. However, experience can also mislead us if we fail to account for context differences between those past decisions and the challenge currently before us.

This is especially important for association boards to bear in mind. Directors are selected for board membership based on their leadership experience in a member organization. However, the association represents a wide range of organizations, many of which may differ in significant respects from the one in which the director works.

To help directors gain the broader association perspective so that the board as a whole makes more context-savvy, critically thoughtful decisions, boards should incorporate a context orientation when onboarding new directors. Orientation materials shared with new directors should answer the following questions:
  • Who, broadly speaking, are our members?
  • What are our current member segments — how big is each segment, how fast is each segment growing, what percentage of our total membership does each segment represent?
  • What do we know about the key member needs in each segment?
In addition, board directors should discipline themselves to ask the following questions before framing a situation or offering advice regarding next steps:
  • What do I think I already know about the situation at hand? How do I know it?
  • What beliefs do I have about the situation (based on my prior experience, or otherwise)?
  • What possible biases do I have about this situation?
  • How might my prior experience be different from the current situation?
Critical Thinking Key No. 2: Exercising Evidentiary Judgment

As just one form of decision making, problem solving entails identifying root causes and then arriving at a solution that addresses, eliminates or at least mitigates those causes. This requires gathering, evaluating and synthesizing high-quality supporting data, recognizing that not all data is equally relevant or reliable.

One potential evidentiary pitfall that critically thoughtful boards avoid is relying upon anecdotes to identify the root causes of a problem. Imagine, for example, that a board member speaks to three different members who say they aren’t renewing their membership because of reason X. To the board member who hears the same rationale from three different members, it may seem reasonable to conclude that reason X is the cause of declining membership. After all, he or she thinks “two is a coincidence and three is a pattern.”

In an association that has thousands of members, however, should a board embrace a solution that is based on what three people happened to tell one director? No. Critically thoughtful boards seek and, in fact, demand high-quality, comprehensive evidence before deciding what the problem is, what is causing it and how it ought be solved. They ask:
  • Where did the data come from?
  • Is the source an expert? Does the source have an interest in the outcome?
  • How was the data obtained?
  • Is this data set representative of our membership as a whole?
  • Are there any outliers? If so, how do they affect the conclusion?
Critical Thinking Key No 3: Inviting Counterarguments Before Deciding

A harmonious board is a beautiful thing. And yet, when harmony comes at the expense of counterargument, critically thoughtful decision making is undermined.

Even if there appears to be consensus in support of a particular decision, a board should insist upon rigorous counterargument before adopting that solution. Why? Because there is no such thing as a perfect solution to a complex problem, and the only way to uncover the downside of a seemingly optimal solution is to invite dissenting points of view.

Nearly every solution is potentially constrained by internal resource limitations (money, time, expertise) and external factors (political, economic, regulatory). Moreover, there are always unknown future contingencies that add risk and uncertainty to every solution we adopt.

Critically thoughtful boards do not ignore the risks of, or constraints upon, proposed solutions. They do not try to quell those who express doubt or concern. Instead, they embrace dissenting and countervailing points of view, because they recognize that doing so helps the association arrive at the best possible solution under the circumstances — a solution that takes full account of the potential risks and includes a plan to manage those risks as effectively as possible.

Boards should make it a practice to invite and incorporate counterargument into their decision-making process. For any significant decision, the board chair should appoint at least one or two devil’s advocates whose job it is to poke holes in any proposed solution. The devil’s advocate should ask, “Why might this proposed solution fail, and what can we do to minimize the likelihood that it does?” Only when the board is satisfied that it has thoroughly considered this question and arrived at a thoughtful and honest response should it proceed to recommend the proposed solution.


Boards that value and develop strong critical-thinking skills become more effective decision makers and stewards of organizational values and resources. By understanding the context, developing evidentiary judgment and engaging in rigorous counterargument analysis, board members will be better able to address issues, solve problems and seize opportunities, and, most importantly, help the associations they serve advance and accomplish their missions.

  Risa Mish is senior lecturer of management at Cornell University's Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, where she is an award-winning teacher of courses in team leadership, critical thinking and problem solving. She is also principal of a human capital and leadership consulting practice, providing advice and training to corporations, associations and senior executives, and has served as a keynote speaker, trainer and panelist at association conferences, corporate meetings and educational workshops.
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