Beware the Limits of Linearity

An image of a man on a road with a lightbulb over his head

The shortest distance between two points — as we were all repeatedly taught — is a straight line.

But is it really?

Western thinkers are so habituated to thinking in terms of linear models that we allow them to inform not just what we think, but the fundamentals of how we think. Little wonder. Linearity is a critical and — apparently — inherent part of our cultural DNA.

Examples of the “straight line is the best line” approach abound from the Greek creation myths and Hindu eschatology to post-modern strategic business thinking, not to mention almost all financial-planning models. Linearity abounds, whether in the form of Christian theology’s forced historic march from the Garden of Eden to Armageddon and Apocalypse, or in political ideologies as diverse as Manifest Destiny, Karl Marx’s notion of an inevitable proletarian revolution, and those portions of the Reagan and Bush doctrines addressing the near-predestined triumph of democratic principles over terrorism and dictatorship.

Nowhere is the contemporary cultural bias toward what we call “X axis” thinking — or horizontal logic — so oppressively present than in contemporary commercial strategic thinking. You will recognize it in the seemingly unending parade of chevron graphs, each gently prodding its peer on to new heights of linearity. It’s also in Gantt charts, graphically describing the proposed start-to-finish linear progress of a project, and in PowerPoint’s build animations, revealing the less-than-complex structure and relentlessly iterative progress of flat-line ideation with a few simple clicks of a mouse.

So, what’s wrong with this traditional approach? Well, for one thing — and perhaps this is all you really need to know — it rarely succeeds, especially over the long haul.

In a world awash in digital connectivity, disruptive innovations, political instability, cultural fragility, continuous interactive feedback loops, and exponentially evolving technologies, linear thinking is less and less effective for building even moderately effective mid-range strategies.

Our cultural bias toward linearity and its intellectual stepchildren — action and reaction and cause and effect on the scientific side, and sin and damnation and grace and redemption on the theological side — runs deep. Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of our existential nature, following as it does a simplistic but compelling, immutable and seemingly inescapable straight-line pattern from birth to death.

Sadly, when it comes to building businesses or the strategies to run them, the building blocks of even great cultures aren’t necessarily useful tools. Of course, this isn’t to say that linear thinking doesn’t have its moments. In fact, it serves us quite well much of the time. We rely on linearity to retrospectively make sense of how we got from where we were to where we are.

The problems start when we extend the exercise to project forward from where we are to where we might be going. Projection does work, of course, but only up to a point. And that’s the problem. Based on linear projection, we tend to conflate the immediate, inferable extensions of current conditions with the future.

Why is this dangerous? There are five fatal flaws in the linear model that can negatively impact the way most businesses think about their past, present, and — most importantly — their future:

  1. It is demonstrably wrong: The real problem with taking a purely linear approach is that what we are so fond of calling the “predictable” rarely is. Take this simple example: Based on our experience with past technologies like the steam and internal combustion engines, computerization was supposed to eliminate paper, reduce person-hours, and create a surplus of leisure time. Anyone still want to sign up for any of those assumptions?
  2. Assumes that past is prologue: Linearity carries with it an implied subtext of causal predestination: “Event A” inexorably triggers “Event B,” which in turn establishes the foundation for “Event C.” Our dogged belief that the present and — by extension — the future are best understood in a meta-historical context leads us to act as though future possibilities are defined by the limitations of the past. There are, quite literally, tens of thousands of examples of why this is obviously wrong, especially in business, but that never seems to slow us down. Perhaps the most limiting aspect of a linear view is that it assumes a predictable end state and therefore incorrectly eliminates any and all potential alternative conclusions. If you assume you know the answer, why bother asking the question? 
  3. Marginalizes the concept of discontinuities: The linear approach also assumes that since incremental opportunities are inherently predictable, and therefore manageable, that — when it comes to resource allocation — they should always take precedence over potentially exponentially more promising “wild goose chases” down the dark back streets of innovation. But, the fact is, discontinuities, when they occur, create much greater growth and profit opportunities than simply betting on trends.
  4. Imposes old patterns rather than discovers new ones: “Encoding” is the term psychologists use to describe the process by which our minds take in sensory inputs and break them down into mentally digestible, storable, and retrievable information, i.e., memories and cognition. In short, encoding is how we transform what we perceive into what we know and can recall. What works at a physiological level also works in terms of our strategic vision. We all carry mental models of how reality functions and impose that structure on events. “Corporate encoding” allowed U.S. automakers to believe that the public wanted gas-guzzling muscle cars in the early 1970s; led traditional food retailers to continue believing they had nothing to fear from Walmart; and let bookstore owners tell themselves that what people really wanted was a better shopping environment, one more conducive to browsing for physical books.
  5. Minimizes the role of feedback in an increasingly interconnected world: At the heart of a linear view of the world is the assumption that we are passive audiences placidly moving to a more or less inevitably predestined end. Our “job” is to receive and accept broad or narrowcast messaging without bothering to critique the content of the message. Perish the thought of establishing a dialogue! True, we can appear to change direction on a superficial level, but such changes are, in the end, little more than tweaks to the master plan. A non-linear view of the future assumes a bit of randomness and chaos, of fuzziness, feedback, and interaction, and, as such, opens up vast new horizons of possibility.

So, given all of these flaws, why do we cling so fervently to linearity? Perhaps because a linear view of the past, present, and future offers mediocre minds both reassuring comfort that our vision is correct and a framework for rationalizing our singular lack of innovation and creativity.

After all, nobody ever went broke in America betting on vanilla.

Linearity is comfortably predictable, easily explained, and apparently logical — at least until too many anomalies pile up.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t come close to making it a particularly useful tool for real strategic thinkers interested in causing or — at a minimum — successfully reacting to exponential change and opportunity.

Rejecting the comforts of linearity isn’t easy. Its roots, after all, form the foundation of Western thought. The assumption of pattern is virtually omnipresent, even among those who rail against convention and champion what they see as a nonlinear approach.

As works of literature from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and cinematic classics from Citizen Kane to Pulp Fiction demonstrate, what first appears to be “nonlinear narrative” is really often just linear narrative fragmented and rearranged. In the same way trompe-l’oeil uses realistic imagery to create an optical illusion, these narratives create what we’ll call a trompe la pensée — tricking the mind into focusing on an illusion of randomness concealing an underlying linear narrative flow. As media theorist and author Douglas Rushkoff noted, “The horrible truth is we are linear beings; we can’t multitask, and we shouldn’t keep interrupting important connections to each other with the latest message coming in.”

How do we escape the seeming cultural inevitability of linearity? Songwriting theory provides a clue. Composers draw a distinction between a bridge and a chorus. Both signal a break with the preceding verse, or the patterns that have come before; but, unlike a chorus, a true bridge never repeats. Our first step is to listen for — and learn to appreciate — “bridge moments” as standalone events or ideas, independent of any earlier “verse.”

This approach offers us an opportunity to reframe strategic challenges in new and more productive ways. Discontinuities are no longer — by definition — aberrations, but rather unique developments demanding, and deserving, to be examined on their own merits and not prejudged within the confines of an existing context. Not only is the past no longer prologue, but because there is no inexorable chain of causes and effects, we are free to recognize or imagine new pattern formations that represent real paradigm changes. Most importantly, since new ideas, events, individuals, innovations, etc. are allowed to stand on their own merits rather than exist in the shadow of an assumed order, we can react to them more quickly and more completely.

The ability to begin thinking about things outside a linear context can be strengthened by some simple exercises. Start reading trade journals from an industry you know nothing about, or begin studying a topic you have no real interest or background in. Since you lack a linear “back story,” it forces you to evaluate individual observations at face value and on their own merits. You may not know that 3M introduced a new ceramic-grain sanding disc this year. In fact, you may think a ceramic-grain sanding disc is a new kind of Frisbee. But, we are willing to bet that if you looked into it you’d be seeing it through fresh eyes rather than as another chapter in the exciting history of sanding discs.

Once you’ve learned to process information in obscure areas on a discrete basis, you’ll be ready to start rethinking subjects you do know.

There is a fabled Buddhist exercise that asks a student to imagine him or herself sitting in the middle of a near-infinite sheet of rice paper and to visualize writing down a single random word. Let’s choose the word “leaf.” Students are asked to write down all the words that connect to “leaf” like “branch,” “trunk,” “root,” etc. Then they are asked to imagine capturing all the words that connect to the connecting concepts, say “earth” to “root” and so on, and to keep repeating the exercise.

If one had enough time and patience — as well as perfect information and an unimaginably large sheet of rice paper — one could perhaps map how everything in the universe connects to everything else in a series of direct, linear connections, but that’s of little to no use to most of us.

Mystics have long advised us that in order to find the answer we first have to rid our mind of all the “wrong” questions and patterns we’ve built up over a lifetime — “unlearning” — in order to make room for enlightenment. We don’t know about that, but one thing is for sure: In a world of continuous disruption, breaking from the limits of linearity is a critical tool for developing a full appreciation of the world as it is, not as it was.

4 responses on “Beware the Limits of Linearity

  1. Kerry

    Thank Ryan and Jim for your insights. You’ve refreshed my thinking! Your reach into a wide range of thoughts, huge and small, has supported me in finding a new way to see. It’s timely for me as I’m charged with resurrecting a program that has never really had an outcome, despite well intentioned previous attempts over about 10 years. I like to think differently, I want this to work, although I am trapped by expectation from hierarchically grander people. I’m going to try anyway….. 🙂

  2. Muder Chiba

    Brilliantly articulated! It is comforting to ‘project’ revenues/productivity etc. into the future assuming linearity…imagine presenting a case for a project with probabilistic/ what-if curves/parabolas and what-not! As to what actually happens on the ground ,it was possibly Keynes who once said “In the long run ,we’re all dead” .

  3. Mel Blitzer

    This is very interesting. The aliens in the recently released film “Arrival” exist in “non-lineal time”. Linearity and lineal time are so much a part of our existential paradigm, that it is very difficult for us to conceive of non-lineal time and to thinking in a non-lineal way. Of course thinking in itself can be conceived as lineal in nature and that is why it “makes sense” to use music and literature as metaphors to explain the creativity that derives from non-linearity.

  4. Thomas K Burch, Prof. Emeritus, Sociology

    I applaud your attention to this problem, which plagues social science as well as business and government decision making. But I am surprised you made no mention of systems dynamics as a remedy. In my experience it is the most powerful encouragement to the development of models — both mental and computer — which are appropriate for dealing with complex dynamic systems with feedback. An authoritative reference is Business Dynamics, by John Sterman.

Leave a Reply

Please submit respectful comments only, including full name, professional title, and contact information (only name and title will be posted). Required fields are marked *