Are You a Linear or Non-Linear Thinker?

Balaji Krishnamurthy

H Have you ever heard somebody comment that so-and-so is a “linear thinker?” Or somebody might proudly say, “I am a non-linear thinker.” What do they mean?

The word “linear” comes from the root "line.”

The thoughts of a linear thinker tend to form a line (i.e. one thought leads to the next, then to the next, and so on). The implicit assumption in referring to somebody as a linear thinker is that the thought process is easy to understand and that the conclusions seem logically sound, with an undertone of judgment that the conclusions are not that profound.

In contrast, a non-linear thinker tends to have a myriad of unrelated thoughts that somehow interrelate; these thoughts lead to conclusions that might otherwise not have been evident, with an undertone judgment that the conclusions are more profound and insightful. Hence, the pride in claiming yourself to be a non-linear thinker.

Stereotypical characterizations often label scientists, accountants and analytical types as linear thinkers, while artists, designers and creative types are labeled as non-linear thinkers.

Is that generally true? Is introducing a sampling of non-linear thinkers into a staff of linear thinkers helpful in engendering creativity? Can linear and non-linear thinkers coexist and work together; more importantly, can they communicate effectively with each other?

Before we answer those questions, let us look at linear and non-linear thinkers from a different perspective.

(Wow! Non-linear thinking?) Let’s ponder an open, unsolved question from the field of computer science (P versus NP), one of the Millennium Prize Problems: Is it harder for computers to find the solution to a problem than to verify that a found solution actually works?

It is generally believed that finding the solution is significantly more difficult than verifying a solution. For example, can you pull together a select group of employees in your company whose balances in their company 401(K) account averages to precisely $100,000? Finding the right set of employees to choose might be difficult. But once found, demonstrating that their account balances average to $100,000 is relatively easy. It is generally believed that you need creativity of thought for the search, but once found, you need clarity of thought for its communication.

Let’s go back to linear and non-linear thinkers.

Do we sometimes confuse the thinking process with the communication process? Do we sometimes call people non-linear thinkers if they cannot articulate their thoughts clearly? Just because their communication is all over the place doesn’t mean that they have derived benefit from being all over the place in their thinking. They might just be haphazard thinkers.

Likewise, do we confuse organized thinkers with linear thinkers? Even if the search for the thought requires non-linear thinking, one needs to be able to articulate it clearly. We express that lack of clarity in communication of thought is often a reflection of the lack of clarity of understanding of the thought.

What you would like is a non-linear, organized thinker. These people can find connections between seemingly unrelated thoughts and then present them to you in a simple clear way. If you can get such people into your team, they will engender creativity.

How can you instill non-linear, organized thinking? Here is one possible technique:

We are all familiar with the concept of brainstorming, whereby a group of people throw out ideas, all of which are recorded, none of which are judged or evaluated, and when the ideas run out, we look at the whole list. Instead, try the technique of affinity mapping to group the ideas into categories that make sense.

Write each idea on a sticky note, paste all the sticky notes on a wall and let people move the sticky notes around to group related thoughts together. Again, like in the brainstorming phase, nobody has to justify why they moved one sticky note next to another. In fact, a sticky note might bounce back and forth, like a yo-yo, between two groupings of notes. When there is some level of settlement in the movement of sticky notes, have the group (or have one person) create a total story of what all the groups say. You have now promoted non-linear thinking with organized communication.

Affinity mapping is one of the tools in our tool chest. The concept of leadership tools, and the amassing of a large tool chest, is critical to becoming an intentional leader. And, as most of you know, that’s what we are all about: developing intentional leaders.

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