Linear thinking is when we think in terms of two factors. We think of before and after, start and finish, cause and effect. But linear thinking strips out important elements of the system in order to achieve its simplicity.
The simplistic view might seem to make sense but often when it gets applied to “the real world” it doesn’t behave the way we expect. Instead we find that factors that we didn’t anticipate become the factors crafting the change or lack of change.
In Enterprise-wide Change: Superior Results Through Systems Thinking, authors Stephen G. Haines, Gail Aller-Stead, and James McKinlay say, “Simplistic cause-effect analyses and the desire for quick fixes often create more problems than solutions. Because our world is composed of levels of complex and interdependent systems, multiple causes with multiple effects are reality, as are circles of causality-effects.”
Yet we all rely on these sorts of quick fixes in our lives. Our doctor tells us that our BMI is too high so we diet for a couple days. Our financial planner says that we aren’t saving enough of our income so we put a couple hundred dollars into the account instead of increasing the percentage that we are saving.
But we have to break away from this type of simplistic thinking. It is much better to be able to see the full system to gain simplicity. We often add more and more detail and things get complex quickly.
But if we keep evaluating the system we can start to see factors that are more impactful than others. We start to see the leverage points. We start to get a feel for what is happening from the standpoint of the whole not the parts.
To be able to break free from the system we have to understand the system. We don’t necessarily need to know every detail, but we have to start seeing the interacting elements enough to start to manipulate the whole system.
As we do we have to keep our focus on changing the system, not just on changing a part. The whole is what ultimately matters so simplifying the whole is the best way to proceed confidently, addressing more of the root cause instead of just focusing on the symptoms of the problem.
We all deal with complexity in life. We see it at work, we experience it raising our children, we manage it when we have a spouse, and we all have to live in a world with external rules and influences.
The key isn’t to get so much information that you feel paralyzed and can’t act. The key is to get enough of the whole system so you can start to simplify the understanding of the system. This will allow you to make positive changes and address the root causes; not just slap a quick fix on symptom problems that surface.