We all know hiring is hard. Some entrepreneurs get so wrapped up in finding "unicorn employees" -- people who are rock stars at everything, from sales to development -- that they fail to look at approaches that can be applied to many situations, not just skills.

Even the best business plans can fall apart quickly. The market changes, tech becomes irrelevant, trends influence customers' preferences: Any one of these things can change an entire company's trajectory. To pivot well -- or find ways to stay relevant -- companies have to think critically.

We worry about whether someone has the right credentials: Which school did he go to? Where did she gain her marketing experience? Is he certified? We should be more worried about whether the person is a critical thinker. Critical thinkers can tackle a lot of problems -- not just certifying exams.

Critical Thinking Can Look Like Laziness

Critical thinkers don't just look at what a company's done and accept it as the rule. They develop new strategies and ideas and look for ways over and around obstacles that seem ironclad. Their flexible mental approach allows them to move pieces around and create a structure that works -- and doesn't look like anything before it.

But fast-growing companies, especially smaller ones, have to remain agile, and they need their employees to immediately contribute. Without a critical-thinking edge, they find themselves on a steep learning curve. "Schools are no longer routinely teaching basic thinking processes, such as rhetoric or the scientific method," explained author Jen Lawrence. "Many companies find that they need to provide training in critical thinking."

Training critical thinking -- or even engaging in it -- can often look like something less than work, and that's part of the problem. Critical thinking isn't tangible; you can't see or measure it. The activities of critical thinking can look like "goofing off": People don't get their best ideas while working on spreadsheets or processing payroll. New ideas are sparked when they're taking a walk or playing foosball.

Critical thinking doesn't look like getting work done, but it is. That can be hard to justify in an efficiency- or productivity-driven workplace. It pays to reward and prioritize critical thinking, however. One of my employees developed a habit of asking follow-up questions in team meetings. By doing that, she -- or someone else -- would realize that one problem created another, and we could resolve two issues by making one change.

Letting Critical Thinkers Think

To avoid that learning curve, you have to hire critical thinkers and give them room to breathe. I talked to professional speaker Jeff Havens about this -- as an expert on business growth, he delivers keynotes to audiences about the high value of critical thinking.

"The biggest problem facing modern business is how we're increasingly confusing speed with success and activity with productivity," Havens said. "Moving quickly more commonly leads to failure than success -- look at the failure rate of Silicon Valley startups if you need proof of that."

He believes people have become so accustomed to "doing" that they're losing the ability to quietly sit and think, which is how innovation starts. "Leaders need to allow themselves -- and the people they lead -- the ability to work on a problem without expecting a solution in five minutes," he explained. "They also need to carve out some undistracted time in order for their thoughts to properly develop."

In addition to leaving openings on calendars, here are some ways you can help critical thinkers flourish:

  • Build in breaks. If you see people staring at a blank screen, don't immediately hand them more work. People who hold critical roles should be encouraged to go on walks, exercise, or take snack breaks to get out of their routine. I know a leader who takes yoga classes two times a week with co-workers to avoid that "stale" feeling.

  • Avoid perfection. Havens says, "I call people if I find myself sending them more than three or four texts, and I write messy and poorly worded emails to my business partners just to get my thoughts down and start receiving feedback." When we only discuss perfectly developed ideas, not those just in the beginning stages, we miss out.

  • Push together. If one person feels she has to come up with every solution, she'll burn out. Make critical thinking a team effort. Set up brainstorming sessions when people aren't worried about deadlines. Agree as a team that you'll ask each other "just one more" question until you get to the root of an issue.

Critical thinking is critical to companies' success. By praying at the altar of busy, we've robbed our businesses of our sharpest insights. Let your people use their smarts, and your company will benefit from something you yourself couldn't bring to the table.

Published on: Feb 20, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.