Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 31;   August 2, 2017: Linear Thinking Bias

Linear Thinking Bias

by

When assessing the validity of problem solutions, we regard them as more valid if their discovery stories are logical, than we would if they're other than logical. This can lead to erroneous assessments, because the discovery story is not the solution.
Srinivasa Ramanujan

Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) was an Indian mathematical genius, self-taught, who exploded onto the mathematical scene in 1913. He became a research scholar at Cambridge in 1914, where he was mentored by and collaborated with G.H. Hardy. He received a Bachelor of Science degree, later renamed PhD, in 1916. His genius was so extraordinary that he repeatedly encountered linear thinking bias.

Of the many ways of thinking about problem-solving methods, the linear/nonlinear model, as widely understood, is perhaps the most linear. Linear thinkers are said to use thought processes dominated by logic and evidence. They follow a step-by-step progression in which the problem solver uses evidence and reason to move logically from starting point to solution. For example, linear approaches to complex problems often use analysis and synthesis. They decompose the larger problem into pieces, find solutions to the pieces, and then recombine the solutions, claiming (or, at least, hoping) that the combination of solutions to the pieces is a solution to the combination of the pieces. Linear thinkers seek basic facts, assumptions, or drivers, and a small set of laws that then predict whole-system behavior.

Nonlinear thinkers are more likely to accept that complex problems aren't susceptible to analysis and synthesis. They're more likely to try to understand the whole, working from multiple starting points. They collect and sort through known patterns, connections, and insights. Then they apply them to find new patterns, connections, and insights. They recognize that the system might not be reducible to a few core elements governed by a few simple rules. Nonlinear thinkers are more likely to accept — and seek — explanations for how the system itself drives the system.

But widely accepted explanations of nonlinear thinking take different views of nonlinear thinking. In these explanations, nonlinear thinkers are said to search for solutions by striking out in various directions, sometimes selected at random or by whim, from multiple starting points. Then, so it is said, they apply logic and evidence to expand from wherever they are to wherever they can go.

A difficulty inherent in this model Some models of nonlinear
thinking describe it as
essentially piecewise linear
of nonlinear thinking is that it is essentially piecewise linear. It models nonlinear thinking as a sequence of linear forays into the unknown, from randomly chosen starting points, without necessarily applying to the next part of the exploration any of the knowledge gained from parts previously explored.

When we ask nonlinear thinkers how they found the problem solution they just presented, they might not have a "logical" explanation, especially if they found their solution by other than logical means. Often, the absence of a logical, evidence-based discovery story causes some to doubt or even reject the nonlinear thinker's results. This is what I call linear thinking bias. After a number of such experiences with linear thinking bias, some nonlinear thinkers learn to retroactively invent linear discovery stories, sprinkled with appropriate amounts of evidence and logic, to explain to others how they discovered their results.

When this happens, the truth of their discovery method remains hidden. So, too, does a larger truth: we are all, to varying degrees, nonlinear thinkers. Don't ask me how I figured that out. Go to top Top  Next issue: Counterproductive Knowledge Workplace Behavior: II  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

XP-80 prototype Lulu-Belle on the groundNew Ideas: Generation
When groups work together to solve problems, they employ three processes repeatedly: they generate ideas, they judge those ideas, and they experiment with those ideas. We first examine idea generation.
Signers of the 1938 Munich AgreementHow to Reject Expert Opinion: I
When groups of decision makers confront complex problems, they sometimes choose not to consult experts or to reject their advice. How do groups come to make these choices?
An FBI SWAT team assists local law enforcement in New Orleans in August 2005The Paradox of Structure and Workplace Bullying
Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.
COL Michael Wyly, USMC (ret)Call in the Right Expert
When solving a problem is beyond us, we turn to experts, but sometimes we turn to the wrong experts. That can make the problem even worse. Why? How does this happen? What can we do about it?
Artist's depiction of a dust storm on Mars with lightningTackling Hard Problems: II
In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end.

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A well-festooned utility poleComing June 26: Additive bias…or Not: I
When we alter existing systems to enhance them, we tend to favor adding components even when subtracting might be better. This effect has been attributed to a cognitive bias known as additive bias. But other forces more important might be afoot. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceAnd on July 3: Additive bias…Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.