The Problem(s) with Linear Thinking

Question: Want to know one of my pet peeves (hint: re-read the title of this post)?

Answer: Linear Thinking (Books on Linear Thinking).

What is linear thinking? A very good description can be found at this website:

To continue to look at something from one point of view. To take information or observations from one situation, place this data in another situation (usually later), and make a conclusion in the later situation.

Linear thinking can doom an organization and/or a person. As an example, consider the organization that hires new employees who have backgrounds that match the employees that were hired in years past without any thought given to future needs and/or direction of the organization. Consider the following example:

You are a manager responsible for hiring a new Project Manager to manage consulting service delivery projects. You receive few resumes for the position and start to weed through them. While thinning out the resumes, you run across a resume from a candidate (#1) who has been a consultant and project manager for your closest competitor and another from a candidate (#2) who has been a consultant and project manager in various industries but little experience within your industry.

These two candidates have completely different backgrounds with candidate #1 having a BS in Business, an MBA, PMP certification and 10 years experience while candidate #2 has a BS in Computer Science and an MS in Marketing and 10 years experience. Which candidate would you choose?

I have a strong suspicion that many people would argue for hiring Candidate #1 since they have “industry experience” or because they have the PMP certification. Of course there isn’t a right or wrong answer to the above question since many factors would come into play (communication abilities, culture fit, salary requirements. etc) and a persons “gut feeling” about hiring will always make its way into the hiring decision.

The point of the example was to show an aspect of linear thinking that exists in organizations. As I mentioned, there really is no right or wrong answer to which candidate should be hired, but a person who is able to employ critical thinking abilities and think in a lateral manner just might have looked at the above candidates in a different light. Instead of hiring Candidate #1 who has similar experiences as other people within the organization, why not consider candidate #2 who might be able to bring a fresh outlook to the organization? Assuming that candidate #2 has the ability, shouldn’t they be considered just as much a fit as candidate #1? I think so.

I believe that linear thinking is an easy way out for organizations, hiring managers and recruiters. Its much easier to hire only those people that fit a narrowly defined job description than it is to open up the candidate search to people with a more diverse background. If the two candidates in the above example were both able to show demonstrable evidence of their ability to do the job, candidate #1 would still be the only candidate considered in most organizations because they ‘fit the mold’ that the hiring manager has created for the candidate search.

This might be a good time to bring in a quote from the person who inspired this entire post, Steve Neiderhauser. Steve discusses the the dangers of hiring non-linear employees when he writes:

In business, it’s important to hire ambidextrous employees — people who have business and technology skills. For they can imagine the future. If you don’t employ multi-talented professionals, you lose out on business opportunities that cannot be imagined by the linear worker.

Linear thinking is not just a challenge in hiring new employees. Linear thinking can cause “group think” and other dangerous mind-sets to develop within an organization and this type of thinking can absolutely kill innovation.

In addition, linear thinking can destroy projects. I haven’t run across any research on the topic, but I believe that part of the reason for the large failure rates within the project management community, especially within IT Project Management, is related to the inability to think in a lateral fashion. Project Managers have been trained in formal methodologies to use to manage projects and the strict adherence to these guidelines can cause a severe case of linear thinking. Again, Steve Neiderhauser puts it more eloquently (and succinctly) than I can when he writes:

Hypnotized by linear improvements, project management at many companies is stuck in a rut. Don’t let PM knowledge frame problems in a way that limits your ability to perform the unthinkable

How do we cure linear thinking within organizations and people? Not sure that I have the answer, although I’m still thinking about it. I do think that a healthy dose of creative and critical thinking would help, but how do you create a system to educate an organization on the dangers of linear thinking and/or the benefits of lateral thinking?. Interesting questions and something that I will be thinking about more in the coming weeks.

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  • Linear thinking is like hiring a bunch of Yes Men (Women) and we see that a lot in our National Presidents. Creativity, progress and survival comes from the crucible of competing forces and new ideas.

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  • Great article ! I totally agree with you.
    As a certified “de Bono” instructor, I believe leaders should develop another kind of thinking, now they are coping with new challenges (new emerging markets, crisis, …).

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  • Thanks Laurent. A new way of thinking is critical these days.

  • Clare Greenlaw

    An alternative way of looking at linear thinking, rather than viewing it as a restricitive limit to creativity, is the process of solving and analysing situations and problems. Creative linear thinkers use thier schema to conduct a systematic approach to projects that require creativity and innovation. Linear thinking does not need to lead to yes men/women. Harnessing a project manager who can look at a project or issue from start to finish and orchestrate allof the necessary steps to a creative and innovative solution can be a benefit more than it needs be a limiter.

  • Hi Clare – thanks for the new lens for looking at linear thinking.

    In my past, I've found linear thinking to be very restrictive but you've given me some things to think about.

    Thanks for stopping by.

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  • P

    My manager keeps telling me I’m a linear thinker. It feels like an insult to me – he might as well tell me I’m fat. I don’t know what evidence he has to support that’s how I think. He associates his conclusion with my habits of writing project plans before I do a project, being thorough on an assignment, and preparing communications that are upfront and direct to audiences technical readers (whom I have found appreciate you getting to the point and eliminate fluff.” I have been recognized for creative problem solving for many years too. I don’t see how this equates w linear thinking. How do I break out of this? What do I need to change?

    • TaylorStevenPunk

      I can tell just with how you wrote your paragraphic that it does sound like your a linear thinker. A non-linear thinker tends to go off on tangents and everything tends to connect to each other like a puzzle to a non-linear thinker. A non-linear thinker would think of problems has having a lot of solutions to it.

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  • Carl estep

    There exist an excellent book entitled : ” The Art Of Thinking ” , inside this book Dr. Robert Bramson discovers and emphasizes that there are several modes of natural thinking abilities shared by all ethnic   groups ! Everyone is born with a dominate thought process or algorithm , this determines how information is process after it is received . some of us for example are realistic thinkers innately , some analytic thinkers , some are idealistic thinkers , etc… To enhance the dominate thought process he discover that all one has to do is combine one or more of the other dominate thought process with the one you were inherently born with ! For example if your natural dominate thought process is realistic thinker , you could enhance this by becoming an analytical thinker or an idealistic thinker . Then we have the 4 Basic learning styles , the way in which we gather information , Visual learners , Audio learners , Kinetic Learners , etc This determines how we gather the information before we actually process it . Thus if an employer were going to hire someone to do a job he or she would first have to determine exactly what type of job he or she needs done . By having a clear and concise objective as an employer you can quickly access which particular candidate would best fulfill that position . Sometimes it is necessary to also hire more than one individual to do a specific task , thereby enhancing quality control over the work and the product being produced. 

  • Carl estep

    Linear thinking is not a bad thing . Sometimes when all is said and done all one needs is to take a simplicit approach to resolve the most intricate of problems. E=Mc2 , The Great Albert Einstein made this perfectly clear when he stated that : ” Imagination is more important than knowledge “. This simple formula after many analytical approaches is a perfect example of how we sometimes over react and use excessive brain power to resolve problems that ultimately end up with a linear solution ! If the great Albert Einstein used less than a 50 cent size portion of his brain to resolve some of the most complex theories of his time , then surely a fortune 500 company should not required all of it’s employees to have college degrees from ivory league schools to resolve and implement simple business plans and strategies . The basic principles of success used thousands of years ago is still relevent thousands of years later . U must give the customer a quality product or service at an affordable price with great customer service as prime business sense !

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  • Adam

    The challenge here, Eric, is that the maximization of profits and minimization of loss is in itself a linear construct, as it is the fastest path from point A to B. A more natural, fractal logic pattern would only be encouraged and fueled in an economy that incorporates a common treasury, which lends itself to a qualitative, hydraulic society where time is not equal to money as opposed to the quantitative, linear society we are currently in.

  • mostlynew

    The Stories of Your Life, by Ted Chaing, is the basis for the new sci-fi movie, Arrival. The aliens communicate in “radially symmetrical” images rather than a lineal “word order with centric clauses.” Had to look it up. Translation, you get the whole picture at one glance, rather than develop understanding as a sentence develops. This, by the way, is the way dyslectics view the world. Anyway, I’ll make my point.

    Fresh thinking often springs from counter intuitive imagination. This is why I.B.M.”s Watson would never recommend the hula hoop to a recreational products mfg.