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The benefits of linear thinking over systems thinking

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

The benefits of linear thinking over systems thinking

Scott Miker

I’ve written several articles that detail the benefits of systems thinking over thinking linearly but the truth is that both ways of thinking have benefits.  

While thinking linearly misses some important systematic information and can lead us down a path of failure when problem-solving it does have some advantages.  But if we can utilize the systems thinking mindset and be aware of some potential limitations, we can effectively get the best of both worlds.

Linear thinking is looking at things as a small snapshot of the full picture.  Instead of seeing the full process of how water goes from clouds to rain, to being absorbed back into the atmosphere and then raining again, we focus solely on one part.  We see clouds and know it is going to rain.  This gives us important information without the need to fully understand the system. 

Times when we don’t need to fully understand the system, linear thinking can be quicker and more effective.  It can help us move away from trying to out-think the situation. 

Linear thinking also has an advantage because of the complexity of systems thinking.  Systems thinkers can easily get caught up in the evaluation process instead of taking action.  This results in analysis paralysis. 

Much of our knowledge of the world has come about through linear thinking.  In science experiments we are told to try and isolate the variables we are testing so we can conclude the outcome was the result of the changes we made to the variable.

By forming a hypothesis and testing it we are looking at a small snapshot of the real-world phenomenon.  But this allows us to deeply understand something specific, which can then be built up into something bigger and more comprehensive. 

But linear thinking also causes problems.  One example that shows the benefits and disadvantage of linear thinking comes from the scientific community and the study of eggs. 

It seems every so often news reports come out and tell us that we were wrong about eggs.  First they were healthy for us.  Then they were unhealthy.  Then they contributed to high cholesterol.  Then they were loaded with vitamins.  Then they were not linked to high cholesterol. 

Because the scientific community is obsessed with absolutes, they have a hard time really accepting the complexity of the situation.  They try to answer the question, “Are eggs good or bad for you.”

But the answer is both.  There are things that are good and things that are bad.  All of these factors all exist together and work together to form a system that is both good and bad from a nutrition standpoint. 

This is why systems thinking is beneficial.  But if linear thinking has advantages how can we rely on systems thinking but also avoid some of the negative aspects?

The key is to understand systems thinking enough to be able to improve.  We can’t get so wrapped up in the complexity that we can’t take action.  We have to get a better overall picture, sometimes quickly, and then respond. 

One of the keys here is to change the focus from being on perfection to being on making progress.  When we shift to making progress we accept the fact that there is more complexity than what we can know at any given point but that the key is to move forward. 

This helps avoid analysis paralysis.  This maintains movement in the direction that we want to go and take a learning mindset so we can continue to improve our understanding of the situation. 

When it comes to the fact that we can take a small section of something and study it in depth to better understand the whole, we can use systems thinking to better pull apart the puzzle pieces and see the connections between all of the variables.  Then we can test and test again to see if the other variables change.

There is great value in seeing the systems all around us but if we aren’t careful we could easily get caught in analysis paralysis.  But by being aware of these potential traps and making an effort to overcome them we can gain the great understanding that systems thinking provides, without hitting the pitfalls.