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.