Every leader knows what it feels like to have an opportunity land on their doorstep. The key is knowing what to do about it. According to Bruce Eckfeldt, strong leaders leverage critical thinking to help them see which strategic opportunities to take advantage of and which ones to let go.

Eckfeldt advises leaders to use the following five tips to help improve their ability to identify, analyze, solve and implement effective problem-solving strategies.

  1. Gather more and better data. Good critical thinkers start by collecting as much high-quality data as possible. They don’t take things at face value. They question summaries and dig to make sure that they really understand what’s happening on the ground and maximize the raw information they have to work with. This includes structured and unstructured data, as well as quantitative and qualitative information. It’s also important to look at history and trends and to compare the data you’re looking at with other benchmarks and norms. Good thinkers don’t rely upon summaries and averages; they go back to the source and get the raw information.


  1. Learn how to separate fact from inference. Once you’ve collected information, it’s key to understand the difference between facts and inference. Too often, leaders will make assumptions about what’s really true and treat it as fact when really it is an inference. This creates a shaky foundation for any future thinking and decision-making. A fact is objectively observable by other people. An inference is something that includes an assumption or an opinion that may or may not be true. If you literally drive from New York to L.A. and it takes 58 hours, that’s a fact. If you use a map to calculate the distance and estimate an average speed to get to 58 hours, that is an inference. Don’t confuse the two.


  1. Break things down to first principles. First principles are the fundamental building blocks in thinking and decision-making – the core elements that are true regardless of situation and context. They generally are found by asking clarifying questions, considering alternatives and testing assumptions. Once you have a good set of first principles, you then have the elements that you need to start creating new options and new solutions that you can be confident in.


  1. Develop effective models. Leaders and teams should think in terms of models or analogies. While these are an abstraction and reduction of reality, they can be useful for simplifying a situation and quickly finding alternatives and strategies. For example, economies of scale is a model for how price changes with volume. While a specific situation may not follow the model perfectly, it can help a business figure out how to gain efficiencies by increasing the volume while holding costs the same. The trick with models is to know where and why they work and how they can fall short. Models can help you quickly generate insights and strategies, but you need to be aware of their limits and not get lulled into a false sense of security about reality.


  1. Continuously challenge your assumptions. Leaders and teams should create ways of testing and validating their assumptions quickly. If left unchecked, an assumption can lead to poor thinking and bad decision-making. This can be avoided by quickly going out into the real world and seeing if what you’re assuming holds up in the field.


By developing your critical thinking skills, you’ll improve your decision-making and ultimately get better outcomes and long-term results. And while some of these steps may take some time and energy, they are good investments and will yield strong returns.