two different operating systems

Circular and linear thinking each have their own operating systems.  Interestingly, they are opposites of each other. You can’t use use linear methods to get circular results, or vice versa.  Way too often people try.

Here’s an example.  I’m talking to a team of First Nation negotiators who are reflecting on their introductory talks with a mineral company.  Leonard asks “Why do they keep lying to us.  They say one thing at a meeting and the next meeting we learn there was lots they didn’t tell us.”  IMG_2132

I happen to know the mineral company and believe they are a principled group. They see their action as being strategic.  The mineral company is focused on getting regulatory approval in a timely manner at the lowest possible cost.  They are delivering the information that is needed to achieve that goal.  They are thinking linearly.However, if the intention of the meeting was to establish a working relationship, the mineral company is using an unproductive operating system when trying to engage with the First Nation. The First Nation is seeing the world from a circular view where the best results come from being transparent and considering the options with a 360 degree perspective.

Until the parties agree on the best thinking stye to adopt for any given issue they will continue to be in conflict.  The interesting thing is that the conflict is based on assumptions about procedure, not the actual point of discussion.  If they could agree on a common process, one that makes space for both circular and linear thinking, they might finds ways to reach agreement.

Most of the time we don’t really think about the process, we simply follow our instinct.  When talks are between two cultures the chance of there being a mismatch is very high.

Circular thinking works well when you need to develop relationships, and create an environment  where people can share diverse opinions.  It allows groups to consider the meaning of a project or what is meaningful to the people who will be impacted by a project.  It is also a great source of creativity.

Linear thinking is very effective when the goal is clear and you want to be productive, and do things like develop safety procedures, or ensure accountability.

Are You a Circular or a Linear Thinker?

Have you ever been in a conversation and felt like you’ve just been hit by a train?  Or, that the person you are talking to is from another planet, and there might be unicorns and endless time there?  These are extreme cases, but I do sometimes find myself in a discussion where I feel that there are assumptions being made that I don’t agree with or even understand.  It makes it hard to join the discussion.

The root of this disconnect may be that a circular thinker is meeting a linear thinker and they’re not recognizing their difference.  Each of these modes has a set of operating conditions that are intuitively being applied.  When this profound point is not recognized, and people are in different modes, the conversation can go off the rails very quickly.

Here’s a quick quiz to determine your thinking style.  Imagine yourself facing a challenge.  Does column one or column two  feel like the best way to proceed?

Column One                                             Column Two

1. Define the goal                                   1. Gather and welcome everyone affected

2. Develop a strategy                             2. Think about the questions to be asked

3. Make a plan                                       3. Interactively share information

4. Set time lines, costs, tasks                 4. Recognize a pattern, get an idea

5. Activate the plan                                 5. Create a prototype and try it

6. Measure progress                              6. Respond to the information and redesign

Column one is a linear thinking process and column two is circular.  Some of you may have seen yourself more drawn to one mode or the other.  This can be the result of a cultural norm or a personal comfort zone. Scientists often think linearly while artists think circularly; men on average lean towards linear thinking while women are more circular; aboriginal people traditionally think in circles while westerners tend to think linearly.

Possibly you answered “it depends.”  Biologically we are all capable of both styles of thinking and both are highly valuable.

Neuroscience has shown us that there are two fundamental ways we as humans can choose to view the world.  My geology professor, Bob Mason, used to say “there are two kinds of geologists; ones who say this is just like (fill in a deposit name), or ones who say this is nothing like…. The rest are fence sitters, just gathering useless information.”

We are biologically designed to either pull in what we love or push away what is detrimental or a waste of time.  Antonio Damasio‘s research at the University of Southern California found that a huge volume of information reaches our brains every day.  We must attach a love-based or a fear-based emotion to a piece of information for it to become available to us in decision making.  This is why tests are so effective.  We attach a fear based emotion to all the information required to get the grade.  Without the fear it is just a bunch of data.  Another way to learn is to be curious and engaged with the material.  Attaching these love based emotions also embeds information and makes it available for future use.IMG_2536

Fear leads to a linear style of thinking.  It is logical, focused, objective, disciplined, and goal oriented in order to push back against the danger fear has identified for us.  Without this instinct we could not survive.

Circular thinking focuses on pulling in more of what you want.  It is rooted in a drive to be inclusive and transparent – a belief that the answer will come when everyone with an interest is present and a diverse array of thoughts are considered.  It responds to an internal curiosity and subjectively seeks to find what is meaningful and stay aligned with that through a series of course adjustments.  WIthout circular thinking we could not change, feel contentment or develop relationships.

This blog is going to explore how knowing you are applying circular or linear thinking can make a difference to you in big and small ways.