The Stubbornness of Linear Thinking

Key Point: Thinking exclusively in straight lines gets in the way of innovative and exponential performance. A brilliant article by Bart de Langhe, Stefano Putoni, and Richard Larrick appeared in the May/June, 2017 issue the Harvard Business Review. Their conclusion:

“In recent years a number of professions, including ecologists, physiologists, and physicians, have begun to routinely factor nonlinear relationships into their decision making. But nonlinearity is just as prevalent in the business world as anywhere else. It’s time that management professionals joined these other disciplines in developing greater awareness of the pitfalls of linear thinking in a nonlinear world. This will increase their ability to choose wisely—and to help the people around them make good decisions too “

To make their point, they invite readers to test their linear thinking on the following puzzle:

“Imagine you’re responsible for your company’s car fleet. You manage two models, an SUV that gets 10 miles to the gallon and a sedan that gets 20. The fleet has equal numbers of each, and all the cars travel 10,000 miles a year. You have enough capital to replace one model with more-fuel-efficient vehicles to lower operational costs and help meet sustainability goals.

Which upgrade is better?

  1. Replacing the 10-MPG vehicles with 20 MPG vehicles.
  2. Replacing the 20-MPG vehicles with 50 MPG vehicle.

Intuitively, option B seems more impressive—an increase of 30-MPG is a lot larger than a 10-MPG one. And the percentage increase is greater, too. But B is not the better deal. In fact, it’s not even close. 

Shockingly, upgrading fuel efficiency from 20 to 100-MPG still wouldn’t save as much gas as upgrading from 10 to 20-MPG.

But choosing the lower-mileage upgrade remains counterintuitive, even in the face of the visual evidence. It just doesn’t feel right. If you’re still having trouble grasping this, it’s not your fault. Decades of research in cognitive psychology show that the human mind struggles to understand nonlinear relationships. Our brain wants to make simple straight lines.”

If you want the full-Monty on this concept, please read the entire article. I see the stubbornness of linear thinking in people all the time. However, the fact that our brain wants us to keep things on the “straight and narrow” can often hamper our ability to really challenge, experiment and explore. A non-linear thinker tends to embrace a myriad of unrelated thoughts that somehow connect in ways that might otherwise not have been evident. We know the world is getting faster, and more complex. As leaders, we have to intentionally nurture non-linear thinking within others and ourselves to discover novel approaches to daunting opportunities. 

Character Moves:

  1. Challenge yourself with questions like: What other perspectives are there? Who else is talking about this? How would ___ think about it? How might we___? Have we considered or thought of ___? 
  2. Ask people who have nothing to do with your business or who work in tangential fields how they might approach a problem. 
  3. Momentarily walk away from the problem and intentionally put yourself in a position to look at things from a completely different perspective. What do you see now?

Non-Linear in The Triangle,

– Lorne

One Millennial View: As the HBR article above states, it’s easier said than done, but tackling something from a new and different angle seems to be one of the greatest weapons Millennials have to make waves in a world that ceremoniously and uncreatively “re-tweets.” Go ahead, call another situation “____gate.” Photoshop another “Crying Jordan” meme for something obvious. Your initial results and “likes” might be gratifying, but in my opinion it’s so tired. Can’t we think a little non-linear and do a lot better than that?

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis

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