Seeing the best in life's challenges

Looking Toward the Future: Linear vs. Conceptual Views

on September 20, 2012

I have previously written about Linear vs. Conceptual thinkers, and it’s a post that gets a lot of google hits.  Plus, I’m noticing how many people are wondering about what the future holds, what changes are in store, and how that’s going to happen.   In the meantime, I’m re-reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.  This is my attempt to put all three together to help describe what in my opinion is a global transition from the Linear to the Conceptual.

Linear Thinking goes step by step.  It’s methodical and tends to follow rules (which have been established based on what has worked in the past).  Some disciplines are more linear than others, but linear thinking can be applied to any situation.  Even someone doing something very creative, say learning to paint, can take lessons based on someone else’s methods.  Then they might use these methods to create a unique picture – but it would still be largely a linear creation.

Conceptual Thinking sees the big picture. While holding the picture of the destination in mind, the conceptual thinker lets creative ideas bubble up in each moment and is constantly evaluating possibilities and how they will contribute to reaching the goal. Conceptual thinkers are those who can think outside the box.

The two approaches, on a day-to-day basis, might not appear so different.  There may be similar steps undertaken to reach the goal.  It’s just that the Linear approach will rely on established methods or external direction in deciding what the steps will be; the Conceptual Approach will be much more fluid and adaptable.  The Conceptual thinker will consider the established methods alongside creative options that haven’t been tried before.  The Conceptual thinker relies on inner guidance and intuition, rather than what others think they should do.

So, in any one job or industry or task, there might be those who approach things mostly Linearly and those who approach them more Conceptually.  I had mentioned before, the biography of Steve Jobs is a great description of a very conceptual approach in a linear world.  I am sure that those who were drawn to working at Apple, and those who were hired, were largely conceptual thinkers.

Of course, if we are looking at this as a Transition, then any individual will use their own a blend of Linear and Conceptual; there is a broad range of approaches amongst people and organizations as we move toward becoming more conceptual.

How does this relate to how we are looking at the future?

When Linear Thinkers look at the future, they tend to extrapolate – they project what has happened in the past, and extend that into the future.  When they are trying to figure out what’s going to happen, they assume a lot of sameness, a continuation of what has been.

When Conceptual Thinkers look at the future, they allow themselves to dream.  They ask, What If…?  They ponder the possibilities.  They don’t assume things will remain the same.  And they are less concerned with how they will get there – they know that they will come up with something to try, and if that doesn’t work, well, they’ll try something else until they get there.

These days, the Linear Thinkers are looking forward and all they see is more of the same.  More conflict, more war, more government, more problems like the ones we have always had.  Based on the fact that these problems have not been solved in the past, they see no way out.  Their impulse is to try harder in applying the old methods, despite the fact that those methods aren’t working.

The Conceptual Thinkers, however, don’t see why we have to remain in that rut.  They aren’t totally sure of how we get out, but they know we can get creative, and try some new approaches.  As long as we keep trying, they know we can get to a future that is different, if we put our minds to it.  Anything is possible, and there is no such thing as failure.  If one thing doesn’t work, you just try another.

But, especially when looking at the future, the Conceptual Thinkers can have a hard time totally breaking out of the habit of Linear thinking.  Since the world has been largely linear, we are used to knowing how things are going to work.  When a Conceptual thinker shares their vision of a brighter tomorrow, they are still asked, “how will that happen?”  And we still want to know the answer to that question.  It’s not totally comfortable or satisfying to answer, “I don’t know how we get there, I just know we can do it!”  This is when conceptual thinkers are called foolish or crazy.  Fully jumping off the cliff and trusting that it’s all going to be ok still takes a lot of faith (and yes, maybe craziness) to believe.

So now let me try to bring this all together with The Tipping Point.  The book focuses on how trends happen based on real world examples.

This is really important: Gladwell points out that his conclusions represent radical thinking about how the world worksThe world doesn’t actually work the way we think it does.

Trends spread just like epidemics which have three characteristics:

  • Contagiousness
  • The fact that little causes can have big effects
  • That change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment (the Tipping Point)

Then there’s the Law of the Few:  “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.”  Gladwell describes how the Connectors, the Mavens, and the Salesmen each play a role in spreading new information.  If you haven’t read the book I hope you do – I found his descriptions of how these people operate very recognizable.

There is a “stickiness factor” – the information or the message has to be memorable enough to spark one’s interest.  And Context matters more than we might think – basically that the timing and the environment have to be right for change to be possible.

We all know how great ideas don’t always “make it.”  Gladwell describes how an innovative idea might be accepted by the “Early Adopters,” but there has to be a process of “translation” that occurs to make that great idea acceptable and understandable to the majority.  Certain people act as Translators to reframe the message or product into an acceptable form.

What if the spread of conceptual thinking is the epidemic of the day?

We are ready for this one.

My personal observations lead me to conclude that we are on the cusp of a radical change in thinking, a sudden transition to a world that thinks conceptually and creatively, that is not bound by rules and linear thinking.  When is the Tipping Point?  Some people want to know the date when this will occur – but that is the old Linear paradigm wanting the know the details.  As a conceptual thinker, I may be called a fool or a dreamer…..but I can tell you that my faith and craziness tell me we are going to get there, whenever and however it happens.

“Those who are successful at creating social epidemics do not just do what they think is right.  They deliberately test their intuitions.”

“What must underlie successful epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus.  This, too, contradicts some of the most ingrained assumptions we hold about ourselves and each other.”

4 responses to “Looking Toward the Future: Linear vs. Conceptual Views

  1. Thank you for this post! I’ve been thinking I’m crazy all this time…that I’ve some how failed because I don’t do all the steps in exactly the right order from things as small as cooking to as large as searching for a job… I’m beginning to be excited about the opportunities for conceptual thinking in the future. Again, thank you!

  2. […] (note:  I wrote some more on the topic more recently: Looking Toward the Future:  Linear vs. Conceptual Views.) […]

  3. The Hubbards says:

    Hip Hip Hooray for Conceptual Thinkers!!!

    Leslie Hubbard

    LMH Consulting

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: