Connecting the Dots for Success

More and more companies these days are training employees to be results-oriented critical thinkers.

When Cigna needs its executives to think critically on a global scale, it sends them abroad. After a week studying specific emerging markets—including how their cultures, economies, health-care systems, and governments operate—executives develop ideas to advance Cigna’s business in those countries.

Those executives spend week two of the program in that developing economy as part of the Cultural Agility Leadership Lab (CALL) program, working with locals and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). That often means inserting IT professionals into areas with unreliable electricity, spotty cell phone reception, and sometimes no indoor plumbing, and expecting them to perform.

The program is a universal win. The NGOs gain expert volunteers, and the executives learn practical, on-the-ground realities they can use in their daily work.

“It’s life-changing,” says John Staines, HR officer, Global IT for Cigna. “Those who’ve worked in those situations say they come up with different views of how people address health care, how they work, and how they communicate. Their mindset is different.”

While that program is specifically for senior executives, Cigna has developed training for all levels of employees—from senior level to interns—to help them improve their critical thinking skills.

What Is Critical Thinking?

“Critical thinking, really, is just the ability to connect the dots quickly,” Staines says. “For example, as the head of a function, you must be able to think beyond your own business unit and your own function.” That’s true of middle management, too. “Companies are starting to recognize that even middle management needs to connect the dots faster.”

Marc Prosser, co-founder and managing partner of business review company Fit Small Business, defines critical thinking as “not following a pattern just because that’s the way things were handled previously. Instead, people make adjustments as needed, based upon new information. We challenge our employees to ask themselves, ‘Does this make sense?’ based upon what they already know,” Prosser says. “If it doesn’t, we expect them to look closer and determine why.”

As the global economy becomes ever more interconnected, there is a compelling need for all employees, regardless of their function or location, to sharpen their cognitive abilities. People must comprehend the ramifications of particular policies, programs, and decisions on colleagues throughout the world and consider how those policies or programs may be implemented in light of the available technology and cultural norms of each region. With a global mindset, they may identify better alternatives to business as usual.

Cigna Makes Training Experiential

Cigna’s emphasis on critical thinking grew as its business transitioned from domestic to international. Rapid international growth particularly challenged IT leaders, Staines recalls. “We needed to train IT leaders to navigate a global marketplace, as well as to think in business terms. We’re trying to help them develop consultative skills, so rather than being order-takers, they can understand what’s being asked of them and thereby contribute valuable solutions.”

To address such needs enterprise-wide, Cigna completely revamped its training program approximately three years ago to make learning more experiential. For example, professionals in IT and other disciplines—from intern to senior executive—are put together to listen to case studies from different businesses and geographies, and to discuss those case studies and participate in mentoring sessions.

Their challenge, Staines elaborates, is to develop a business solution Cigna could implement. Product ideas must consider the financial impacts, risks, rewards, practicality, and cultural fit. The involvement of multiple disciplines and geographies helps learners formalize better responses. A panel then judges the ideas. “This has had a tremendous response,” Staines says. “A few of the ideas have been patented and are being implemented, and learners remember the lessons.”


“Measuring return on investment is tough,” says Staines, who notes that he’s looking for behavioral changes. He conducts cultural assessment surveys before executives participate in the CALL program and six months after they return. “We clearly see shifts in cultural agility,” he says.

Cigna also tries to correlate engagement and activity. “In some countries, that’s tricky,” Staines admits. For example, he explains, in Indonesia, the prevailing attitude is that whatever happens is God’s will. Likewise, in Thailand, large percentages of the population simply accept conditions as they exist. Neither culture considers prevention (for accidents or diseases, for example) particularly valuable.

Think, Then Do!

Critical thinking has always been a fundamental skill in business, but the need today is more urgent because of what Dileep Rao, clinical professor of Entrepreneurship at Florida International University, calls Internet 3.0. The reliance on the Internet today goes beyond e-mail and social media to affect manufacturing, transportation, and online education. “Therefore, training must go beyond evolutionary to revolutionary. Corporations that don’t adjust will go broke,” he predicts.

To avoid that fate, organizations must meld critical thinking with critical doing. “The trouble with companies is that although they may understand the need for change cerebrally, there are barriers.” Typically, Rao says, those barriers focus on two questions: “‘Whose ox will be gored?’ and ‘Who has the needed skill sets?’ Inertia and risk avoidance are endemic in corporations. To overcome them, organizations must learn to grow with minimal capital.”

That can be accomplished with a bit of critical thinking. “Forget fads such as Lean and ‘think outside the box.’ There’s always another box. Instead, think about what you need to do, and then do it!” Rao admonishes.

Experience is a wonderful teacher. “It’s amazing when people remove the shackles of the mind and explore trends that affect their business, market, and technology, and then are asked to exploit those trends. You get all kinds of feedback that doesn’t occur in a top-down model,” Rao says.

Of course, this sort of encouragement doesn’t work with everyone. “Some will never think,” Rao continues, but others will develop business plans. A subset will go beyond developing a business plan and develop proof of concept. That is the group he finds most interesting.

Rao has seen lots of business plans as a professor and former financer. In identifying concepts worthy of investment, he says, “what helped me was to take time to sift through the garbage people tell you to figure out what’s true. This doesn’t take math skills or a high IQ. It takes street smarts.”

However, Prosser cautions, “People are too reliant on technology to provide them with information.” To evaluate anything critically, they need some fundamental knowledge that allows them to make good decisions quickly.

Before hiring, Fit Small Business gives candidates a word problem that asks them to determine, for instance, whether running a particular marketing campaign makes sense and why. “That forces them to convert the words into math and explain their thinking,” Prosser says.

Similar challenges exist on the job. Rather than accepting data, he expects his team to consider whether the data makes sense or addresses the situation in question. That often means identifying missing data or using appropriate data to ensure the conclusion is realistic and right for the situation—not just that the numbers are accurate.

Cognitive skills, including the ability to connect the dots, are honed by experience. Trainers can provide some of the tools employees need to help them to connect the dots faster and more effectively by exposing learners to a wide variety of situations, disciplines, and cultures. Afterward, it’s up to managers to give them the freedom to craft creative solutions and staff to take advantage of this freedom.