Mind to Market

Monday, September 18, 2006

Linear Thinking

One (simple) definition of linear thinking that I can agree with is to take information from one situation and use this information in another situation to make a conclusion about the later situation. We go to a new restaurant and look at the menu which we've never seen before and choose an entree that is a combination of something we like and are familiar with and what's described on the menu. If we order shrimp linguini in white sauce we would expect a few shrimp with linguini shaped noodles in a cream based sauce. If we were served a well-done T-bone steak this will exceed the constraints of our linear thought process (and deprive the waiter of a tip!).

We could go on to say that linear thinking involves sequential ordering of concepts between subdivisions but contains no loops linking in outside elements into the sequence. Although linear thinking works in many situations, i.e. the restaurant example, it may not encompass sufficient complexity to deal with more complicated situations. Linear thinking is relatively safe and conservative; it would be easier to describe a linear thought process to others than to describe a non-linear one.

So what is the counterpart to linear thinking? If we consider linear thinking to be "inside the box" then non-linear thinking may be considered "outside the box." One problem with working with the linear thought process is that you are always defining new systems in terms of systems you already are familiarity with. In some cases this is too great a limitation and it hinders the creative or developmental process. In The Innovator's Dilemma Clayton Christensen argues that following a linear development process will trap a company into simply improving existing technologies instead of finding new disruptive technologies that will eventually outpace existing ones. For the most part, our management and accounting systems are set up as linear systems; next year's budget is dependent upon this year's, our customers want to continue to use this year's products with only a few upgrades. The resistance to non-linear thinking is high, even to the point of supporting archaic processes.

But non-linear thinking in and of itself is not a solution. Nor is it even the framework of a solution; it is merely the lack of constraints imposed by linear thinking. It suggests that a solution to a problem may be beyond the types of solutions that have been used in the past. Ironically, what is considered non-linear thinking the first time through will be incorporated into the knowledge base and will be considered linear in subsequent usage.

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