Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Gaps between Linear Thinking and Nonlinear Thinking

In the real, physical world or business world, most relationships are nonlinear.

The digital business and the world has become over-complex and hyper-connected; in the industrial setting, business management often practices linear thinking with a set of linear skills; it perhaps works in the considerably static and silo business environment. However, digital means the increasing speed of changes and the high degree of uncertainty, hyperconnectivity and fierce competition. The nature of digital is nonlinear and dynamic, How to close the gap between linear vs. nonlinear thinking in order to drive a smooth transformation?

Straight line” thinking vs. Circular thinking: Linear thinking is viewed by many as being simply the opposite of closed-loop thinking (thinking in a straight line rather than circularly). As linear often implies cause and effect with no feedback. In the real, physical world or business world, most relationships are nonlinear. Some thought linear thinking is a type of logical thinking and non-linear thinking in an out of box thinking. But to dig deeper, non-linear thinking is an emerging type of systems thinking to understand the interconnectivity of things. Hence, it is important to understand the digital organization profoundly. One characteristic of nonlinear systems is that small changes can have large impacts. A small error, inconsistency or change in a system specification can totally ruin its performance. Similarly, achieving the desired impact can sometimes be as the result of a very small initiative or decision, this is the magic of nonlinear systems thinking. If you pick the right thing to alter, you can sometimes achieve enormous outcomes at little or no expenditure of effort on your part. This approach requires great insights and knowledge.

Arithmetic thinking vs. problem-solving thinking: Linear thinking implies the whole is equal to the sum of its parts, which is not effective from a business perspective as well. Linear systems are those that follow a generalized superposition principle (doubling the input doubles the output, adding two inputs together leads to adding their two outputs.) This attribute leads to powerful analysis tools that allow you to break any input into simple pieces and compute the output due to each piece separately, then add the results. The whole is equal to the sum of its parts, it is the core concept of reductionism which is the dominant management philosophy in the industrial age. The reason linear thinking is in many cases, not so effective for solving many business problems because there is always a temptation to use simple linear models to understand highly complex, nonlinear scenarios. The applying of non-linear thinking has to do with complex problem-solving. It just turns out that, as human society gets more and more complex, the very natural attempt of humans to take the very powerful techniques of mathematics, such as techniques of linear mathematics or non-linear mathematics, and apply it to the world very quickly come up against insurmountable difficulties. Thus, nonlinear thinking is more effective for problem-solving in the digital world today.

Reductionism vs. holism: There are two different philosophical approaches for managing businesses; one is called reductionism (break a problem into parts, solve each part separately, add up results) vs. holism (the whole is different from the sum of the parts.) The reductionistic approach comes from attempting to isolate and understand the dynamics of the individual functions in the enterprise, some of which for the time frame will be as good as linear, but more often, the organization as a whole has to function more holistically and coherently. When systems are not linear, they are defined as nonlinear. And ultimately, organizations need to integrate their interdependencies and ensure the business as a whole is superior to the sum of pieces.

From linear to nonlinear thinking could be evolutionary. Bridging the gaps between linear and nonlinear thinking can significantly help improve business effectiveness. In the beginning, you often make a one-dimensional, linear, list of things to do. At the end when you have gone through the mufti-dimensional analysis or process, when everything else is in place you again have a list of what you need to do, to practice nonlinear thinking and holistic problem-solving.


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