Five sharp thinking standards to continuously monitor and improve the quality of your thinking.

HAVE YOU EVER looked back on a project or decision that hasn't gone quite as you expected, but in the clarity of hindsight, it's obvious where your thinking went wrong? Wouldn't it be nice if you could avoid this type of situation in the future? You can by becoming a sharp thinker.

In his book, Why Didn't I Think of That, Charles McCoy suggests using Socrates as a model to ask questions. These questions will challenge you to clarify your thoughts, eliminate inaccuracies, think more comprehensively, make better sense and achieve intellectually honest results. Run-of-the-mill thinking fails to apply these vigorous standards that lead to the question, "Why didn't I catch that?" or "Why didn't I pay attention to the quality of my thinking?"

Use the following five sharp thinking standards to continuously monitor and improve the quality of your thinking.

Is it clear?

Without clarity, thinking turns into confusion. Unclear language leads to miscommunication. Unclear thoughts lead to misjudgment. Next time you are struggling with a crucial decision or are trying to solve a problem that has got you stumped, apply some of the following questions to test for clarity:

*Is your thinking too vague?
*Have you clearly defined key terms and concepts?
*Does the problem need further elaboration?
*Can you better illustrate or explain your decision?
*Does your thinking contain significant ambiguities?

Is it accurate?

Clarity promotes plain thinking, but it does not guarantee accuracy. Accuracy aligns thinking with reality and entails more than just attention to detail. Adding up numbers correctly does not always guarantee accurate results if the significance of the numbers has not been determined. For example, instead of just adding apples, you may be inaccurately adding apples and oranges. To be precise, you must apply standards and measures to your thinking. Check for accuracy in your thinking by answering the following questions:

*Does your thinking match reality?
*What assumptions have you made?
*Can your thinking be verified, validated or confirmed?
*What sources of error exist, and what can you do to minimize or eliminate them?

Is it comprehensive?

Clarity and accuracy paint a correct picture. Comprehensive thinking looks beyond the first "right" answer to find the best solution. You can achieve the deepest and widest perspectives by asking the following comprehensive questions:

*Does your thinking address the root of the problem?
*Does your thinking approach the issue from multiple perspectives?
*What biases might negatively affect your thinking?
*Have you oversimplified things?
*Have you thought of all possibilities?
*Have you formed decisions too soon?

Does it make sense?

The first three standards are building blocks of sound thinking. Pulling them together requires good sense. A decision can seem right, but still not be right. Sharp thinkers test their thinking to make sure it makes sense. Writing can help. What seems logical in your mind might make no sense once you've written it down. Illogical thinking results in awkward sentences and paragraphs. You can further test your thinking for sensibility by asking the following questions:

*Is the idea plausible and realistic?
*Is your thinking consistent?
*Is your solution credible?
*How will your thoughts stand up to reasonable scrutiny?

Is it intellectually honest?

Even if your thoughts are clear, accurate, comprehensive and sensible, it is possible that they are still wrong because of a lack of intellectual integrity. Honesty is what holds sound thinking together by making it well-constructed and wise. Intellectual honesty values truth and distinguishes between right and wrong, fact and opinion. It is especially important when you might be tempted to adopt a more popular, but wrong-headed, decision. Test the intellectual integrity of your thinking by answering the following questions:

*Are you avoiding issues that must be addressed?
*Can you detect inconsistencies in your thinking?
*Does your thinking rationalize rather than reason?
*Are you allowing a desired result to sway you from genuinely honest thinking?
*Have you substituted speculation for facts?
*Are you holding yourself to the same rigorous standards that you demand of others?
To be intellectually honest, stick with your principles, regardless of the situation.Strive to be a sharp thinker by reevaluating your thinking and avoid ever asking yourself again, "Why didn't I catch that?"
McCoy, C.W. Why Didn't I Think of That? Prentice Hall Press: Paramus, N.J., 2002.