Linear thinkers in a non-linear world are catastrophic – The Law of Accelerated Returns.

This post looks at how well-equipped humans are in functioning confidently and productively in a world where the nature of reality is complex and changing.

We often hear and read about linear and non-linear thinking. We also see derogative comments about linear thinking. This post explores what these modes of thought are, and I explain our default mode and point out that we need to be able to shift our style of thinking between linear and non-linear.

There is no ideal way to think – we need to realize that for some situations, linear is the way to think, and in others, non-linear.

At the sight of the word 'complex', many people switch off. If you do that, you are not doing yourselves any favors. It is essential to understand what it is and how to deal with situations where things are complex because the world is incredibly complex. If we pretend it is not, we are being ignorant and digging ourselves into a hole of blissful utopia.

'Complex' is a word that describes a situation that is 'intertwined', something that has many intricately connected variables influencing and interacting with each other. The outcomes are unknown and unpredictable.

The nature of complexity is driven by:

  • The number of variables
  • The level of interdependence between the variable

But be careful - complicated is not another word for the complex. I describe the difference in this post.

Linear Thinking

Linear thinking is the process in which people put things in order as they express and experience ideas.

red yellow and blue lego blocks

The thinking proceeds is sequential in manner – like a straight line— the most efficient way to get from point A to point B.

Efficiency tends to be linear in logic. We can argue that efficiency becomes almost a function of estimation as a reduction of data usually accompanied by some loss of information.

Linear thinking is based on rules, methodical, sequential, and focused* thinking. The aim is singular: the objective is to find the best path to reach the destination and exclude possibilities and alternatives.

We tend to expect yes/no – answers. A flowchart is an excellent example of linear thinking.

This type of thinking is easy to repeat, replicate, and teach others. These activities and tasks are achieved easily by AI. The process is efficient, organized, and prompt, whereas people are selective. Professions that tend to be linear thinkers are lawyers, policemen, and accountants. See this article on Skills.

Neuroscientists and economists agree that linear thinking is our default mode of thinking. It is the path of least resistance and high energy efficiency, and the brain is designed to take this path.

The mind is constantly trying to preserve energy to ensure the body can get out of difficult situations (the sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight-or-flight response), acting like the accelerator in a car. Note that flight does not necessarily mean escaping from lions; the triggers are the same in stressful situations in life and work.

The drawback with linear thinking is that we think in either/or terms. This approach is not particularly good at proposing and presenting alternatives – it is not good at explaining the differences between A, B, or even C. It cannot suggest alternative routes to the solution if things go wrong along the way. It is also unable to deal with the idea of 'the middle ground' and compromise. It is only about getting to A or B. It is either correct or incorrect.

In linear thinking, the assumption is that things are constant, and there is no change. There is little space for creativity, invention, and strategic thinking. The outcomes are predictable.

In business, this will lead to diminishing results, for the simple reason that the moment we must deal with people or surprise, linear thinking cannot deal with this level of complexity. However, it is suitable for planning a project, documenting a process, and even managing a workflow.


The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Comparing linear to non-linear
There is no right or better mode. Each has its place in our thinking skills. They are different ways to think, and each has advantages and disadvantages.

Note of caution – linear thinking is not wrong; it depends on the nature of the task. If you are dealing with a systematic, logical, and singular answer, then linear thinking is what you need.

*Focused refers to declutter – ditching of irrelevant information. It is not about determination necessarily. It also can include determination.

Non-linear Thinking

In contrast, non-linear thinking is all about navigating situations with even the slightest level of complexity—the ability to find alternative ways to see a problem.

For example, if we intend to create a new product, we need to be innovative and creative. For this, we must make connections between unrelated concepts, ideas, fields, or backgrounds.

Non-linear thinking is abstract, uses imagination and creativity as ways to solve problems.

The starting point often involves more than one premise (assumption). Then deductions (hypotheses) are made along the way, followed by inferences (conclusions).

The explanation of an event will easily have multiple reasons/explanations. This reality is the natural flow of non-linear thinking. Ambiguity and uncertainty are the conditions. The brain's ability to operate in such situations is energy consuming, frustrating, and requires high comfort levels with stress. Note - learning to manage stress is essential and straightforward - I will write a post on this topic.

Using open-ended questions is an approach of non-linear thinking to solve such problems. The conclusions are highly dependent on the factors considered at the start. The findings can quickly shift the moment new data becomes available, or even if new people become part of the discussion.

Non-linear thinking is disruptive and tends to be non-conformist. The attitude is one of 'there are no mistakes, only opportunities.'

Some people have great difficulty with non-linear thinking. They have difficulty in seeing the links in the starting assumptions and plausible conclusions. They feel extremely uncomfortable with the process and find it paralyzing to take action and make decisions based on an issue that appears based on flimsy logic.

Dealing with this kind of complexity in a situation is easily achieved with the right tools like SenseCatcher. The brain does not need to get stressed. SenseCatcher uses the brain's favorite mechanism – vision and story to explore complexity in simple steps.

The moment we must deal with various options simultaneously, the best way is to map them visually and tell stories of how the variables interact and behave together. This way, non-linear thinking is instantly made available to all of us easily.

Why the wheels fall off

Despite knowing that the real world is complex and ever-changing, we stubbornly keep using linear thinking and pretend all problems are simple or, at best, complicated.

Using these kinds of tools suggests that such people use the wrong tools and methods to solve problems they do not understand. They are only dealing with shallow aspects of understanding – symptoms.

I recommend reading 'Dirty Rotten Strategies' by Ian Mitroff and Abraham Silvers. They explain how people fall easily into the trap of the 'doing it as we have always done before' attitude. It is a severe trap that many businesses fall into.

Peter Druckern

The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions.

Linear thinkers in a non-linear world are catastrophic. Cognitive psychology research shows that we struggle with non-linear relationships. Our brain not only likes simple straight lines, but our educational system reinforces this thinking. Linear relationships work, but only in very restricted areas in business.

In an article published by HBR (2017) by Bart de Langhe, he and his colleagues explain how business managers fail badly with the simple notion of profits. They use linear thinking to address the three primary relationships of costs, volume, and price. It gets worse when dealing with things like consumer attitudes. The relationship is non-linear. Read the full article – it is interesting. 

It should be more than clear that we need a tool that helps us look at non-linear relationships and complex reality. By using stories, visual thinking, and patterns, we can hack our brains to deal with complexity by talking the brain's language - symbols.