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.”
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.