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Are Critical Thinking Skills Important in International Acquisition?

Emphasis on the importance of “critical thinking” in defense acquisition efforts has increased markedly over the past few years.  As USD(AT&L) mentioned in his recent article in Defense AT&…

Are Critical Thinking Skills Important in International Acquisition?


  1. Home
  2. Blogs
  3. Are Critical Thinking Skills Important in International Acquisition?

Emphasis on the importance of “critical thinking” in defense acquisition efforts has increased markedly over the past few years.  As USD(AT&L) mentioned in his recent article in Defense AT&L Magazine, “what really matters in defense acquisition is our people and their professionalism and leadership”.  Is critical thinking really that important and, if so, how should DAW members involved in international acquisition activities use critical thinking skills to enhance their productivity?

Since I’m now a DAU and American University prof – part-time I grant you, but the HR people tell me it still counts -- I feel duty bound to follow the conventions of academia and establish a common point of departure by attempting to define “critical thinking”.  As you might imagine, there are several approaches used by the professional critical thinking community -- a rather eclectic group, I might add -- to describe its nature and attributes. For those of you who consider themselves more bottom line-oriented, you may want to skip the next few paragraphs on critical thinking theory before we rejoin our main story line on how use of critical thinking can help achieve better acquisition outcomes.  Just think of this decision as one of your first critical thinking choices!

My first real engagement with critical thinking theorists occurred about a month ago when I was preparing to take a DAU faculty professional development course.  Many of the pre-course reading assignments focused on critical thinking since we (the DAU faculty) are not only supposed to practice it, but teach DAW members how to use it to improve their job performance.  Ironically, the course ended up being cancelled due to one of the many snow storms this winter, so I have yet to receive Continuous Learning Points (CLPs) for my pre-course intellectual effort, but I have accepted the fact that the intrinsic value of the material was its own reward, consistent with critical thinking theory, of course ...

I started my critical thinking journey as skeptic.  Let’s face it, those of us with experience in the actual workplace have had many bosses and peers over the years that placed much more emphasis on, ‘do what I told you’ and ‘just follow the policy’ rather than appreciating any independent thinking you may have done regarding how to improve an acquisition policy, process, or outcome.  We are all likely guilty of the ‘do what I say’ disease to a greater or lesser degree, so organizational culture is a good place to start our journey through ‘critical thinking land’.  Effective use of critical thinking in the acquisition workplace requires, in the first instance, a supportive attitude by workforce members at all levels regarding its value.  Let’s face it, Socrates was considered a leading critical thinker in his day, and look what happened to him!  So the first ‘take-away’ that I would ask you to consider is that it is essential for all of us to nurture and promote, rather than ‘punish’, use of critical thinking in the acquisition workplace.

Assuming we can get past this rather large cultural hurdle and transition to an acquisition workforce that routinely values (and even embraces) critical thinking, what is it, and how can we actually engage in and use it to improve acquisition outcomes?

Richard Paul, Director of Research and Professional Development at the Center for Critical Thinking, offered the following thoughts on the nature of critical thinking at the 27th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking in July 2007 at Berkley, CA (of course):

·         It’s a system for opening every system that exists (or could/should exist, I suppose).

·         It’s thinking that analyzes thought, that assesses thought, and that transforms thought for the better.

·         It’s thinking about thinking while thinking in order to think better (his words, not mine).

In this conference, he described critical thinking as an approach that consists of three concentric circles (sorry, no visual aids in blogs): the inner-most circle is “Elements of Thought”; the second circle is “Standards of Thought”; and the third circle is “Traits of Mind”.  The critical thinking process involves applying the “Standards” to the “Elements” in order to develop the “Traits” needed for better thinking about the challenges we face.  (For those of you with an intellectual bent who would like to learn more, visit http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/critical-thinking-in-every-domain-of-knowledge-and-belief/698).

             An alternative view of critical thinking provided in the DAU faculty course materials avoids providing an abstract definition and instead states that it is “complex combination of skills” with the following key characteristics:

·         Rationality

·         Self-awareness

·         Honesty

·         Open-mindedness

·         Discipline

·         Judgment

The article ends by stating that, “critical thinkers are by nature skeptical’, which I found pleasing since – as you may recollect – I was a skeptic in the first instance.  I recommend you retain a healthy skepticism during your journey through ‘critical thinking land’ as well. 

            To complete my ‘rule of three’ tour of the critical thinking landscape, I would like to offer one additional view, that of Peter Fascione in his article, “Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts”, which may be found on the web at http://www.insightassessment.com/CT-Resources/Independent-Critical-Thinking-Research/pdf-file/Critical-Thinking-What-It-Is-and-Why-It-Counts-PDF. He advocates a question-based (Socratic) approach to critical thinking based on a set of core critical thinking skills and corresponding disposition to engage in it:

Core Skills

Disposition or Orientation










Confident in Reasoning


Open Minded




Had enough on the nature of critical thinking?  I thought so … but in any case a simplistic, and hopefully useful, summary of all the above could be phrased as follows:

-          Critical thinking is more effective than uncritical thinking (assuming you have time to think at all … and you probably should, even if you have to make time).

-          Better, more structured thinking is more desirable than undisciplined thinking (as we have all experienced).

-          There are a number of critical thinking approaches and frameworks to choose from – picking any of these is advisable as an alternative to chaotic thinking.

-          Open-mindedness is preferable to close-mindedness (obvious on its face, but often difficult to achieve in ourselves and others).

Rejoining our main theme -- how can critical thinking improve international acquisition outcomes – I would like to suggest to all of you that the first, and most important, step to take is to listen to others in an open-minded way since this establishes an environment where critical thinking skills can be effectively used.  This means that all of us have to set aside ‘do as I say’ or ‘do as it says’ supervision, peer relationships, and adherence to policies and procedural approaches in favor of a more skeptical approach where questions are posed and alternatives other than the status quo are considered.  Easy to say, hard to do … but I submit that part of being an acquisition professional – as opposed to a bureaucratic automaton -- means we have to accept challenges to the way we perform our international acquisition business (and be willing to challenge others) in order to improve results.

            Building on this, we should also broaden our individual and career field perspectives by systematically communicating with and engaging other integrated program team (IPT) members outside our areas of specialization to materially improve the ‘horizontal integration’ of DoD’s international acquisition activities in our current and future programs.  Fortunately, most DAW members have participated in (or are aware of) other international acquisition transactions that can be used as a benchmark for the application of critical thinking skills to optimize the international results their IPT is seeking to achieve.  If this is not the case, please contact DAU and we will do our best to provide you with the learning assets and mission assistance you need to make these kinds of connections.

             Finally, we should strive to look beyond our own programs, commands, and DoD Components in order to understand the ‘bigger picture’ of DoD acquisition and how we fit (or should fit) into the enterprise’s efforts to develop, acquire, and support the systems and equipment that the U.S. and allied/friendly nation operational forces need.  Despite the reduction in resources available – funding, personnel, even time – we must try our hardest to avoid the tendency to constantly operate in crisis management mode or, even worse, hunker down in our respective foxholes to fight the inevitable bureaucratic battles that occur in a downsizing environment.  While senior leadership will play a key role in preventing the defense acquisition environment from turning into a Darwinian struggle among warfare communities and programs over diminishing resources – in the meantime turning a blind eye to current and future operational needs -- we must all do our part to avoid such a zero-sum perspective.

            International acquisition efforts – with their potential to markedly improve affordability and achieve interoperability with allied and friendly nations – remain a ‘Better Buying Power’ choice that can pay both short and long term dividends by creating win-win outcomes in our programs.  Bringing a critical thinking orientation and skill set to international acquisition – an area that, by its very nature, should be flexible and adaptable -- will help enable the entire Department to achieve better overall acquisition results despite the many challenges we face. 

Please make sure to visit us at our Int'l Acquisition Management Community of Practice (COP) website -- https://acc.dau.mil/CommunityBrowser.aspx?id=17638&lang=en-US -- to learn more about area and, for DoD personnel, obtain mission assistance advice and suport. 

Until Next Time, Prof. Frank Kenlon