Linear Thinking and Corporate Leadership Training

By Mike Vaughan - September 29, 2017

Failure does not strike like a bolt from the blue,” said Dietrich Dörner, emeritus professor of General and Theoretical Psychology at Otto-Friedrich University in Bamberg, Germany, and recipient of the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize (the highest honor awarded in German research).

He goes on to share his insight: “. . . complicated situations seem to elicit habits of thought that set failure in motion from the beginning. From that point, the continuing complexity of the task and the growing apprehension of failure encourage methods of decision-making that make failure even more likely and then inevitable.

Our brains have been trained to adeptly handle straightforward situations. Corporate development training programs have focused on linear, cause-and-effect scenarios and isolated decision-making tasks. With our learning radar focusing on what to think, we are unprepared to act amid complexity. We are setting these patterns of thought into motion, increasing the likelihood that habitual thinking will lead to underperformance in the complexity of today’s business world.


“Events, threats, and opportunities aren’t just coming at us faster or with less predictability,” says IBM Corporation CEO Samuel Palmisano in the introduction to “Capitalizing on Complexity,” the company’s fourth sweeping survey of CEOs. “They are converging and influencing each other to create entirely unique situations.”

IBM researchers conducted face-to-face conversations with more than 1,500 CEOs from around the world. Their analysis of the interviews identified three themes:

  • A rapid escalation of complexity is the biggest challenge confronting both public- and private-sector organizations today.
  • Less than half of those interviewed feel that their enterprises are equipped to cope effectively with this complexity.
  • The single most important leadership competency for enterprises seeking a path through this complexity is creativity.

Clearly, the problem of complexity has recently claimed a spot in the forefront of the business landscape. The truth is, however, that the problem of dealing with complexity is not some new quest of the tech-savvy twenty-first century or modern leadership development training firms.

Aspects of this complexity have always been apparent, though they have taken varying forms. In the 1920s, through advancements in quantum physics, people clearly saw the interconnectedness of the world. At that point, scientists uncovered that multiple particles are linked together in such a way that the measurement of one particle’s quantum state determines the possible quantum states of the other particles. The world was complex even then, but the details of quantum physics did not intrude on most people’s days.

As it is, we are optimized, task-driven thinkers. Even when numerous variables are introduced or vast amounts of information must be processed, we can usually follow cause-and-effect events (A caused B caused C, and so on). But going deeper requires that we suspend judgment and maintain both past and future in our exploration.

At first, this can be a difficult concept to grasp because most of us have learned to think primarily in the here and now. We live in an event-oriented world in which 24/7 news is bombarding us with happenings from around the world, so we cannot be expected to respond any other way. Much of the information we receive is superficial or single-use and lacks underlying system data.

Information gathered at the superficial level may create a feeling of excitement and even confidence, but it rarely leads to sustainable solutions. This concept works nicely with—and results partly from—our linear thinking tendencies. Push the gas pedal, and the car goes faster. Press the brake, and the car slows.

On the surface level, these seem straightforward, but even these examples may lead to nonlinearities. Push the gas pedal, and the car goes faster—until you get a ticket or run out of gas. Ride the brakes all the way down Mount Evans, and the brakes overheat and the car speeds up. Things that act linearly are frequently only linear over a certain limited range and over a certain period of time. Applying this level of thinking to scenarios that do not operate in a linear manner gets us into trouble.

Complexity means the existence of many interdependent elements in a system. When we think of an organization, we typically see a picture of the traditional hierarchy structure. There is a top that branches into groups that further branch into more groups and so on. The reality, however, of how an organization actually works and accomplishes tasks is a bit less neat. Below, a model of a manufacturing organization presents a high-level view of a more realistic organizational map.

In practice, there are actually many more interconnected elements that dynamically interact, shaping the behavior of the organization. But even from this simplified model, you can see the complexities of an organization and better understand why decision-making, problem-solving, and collaboration are so difficult.

These are all concepts included in the field of system dynamics and systems thinking. System dynamics is an approach to understanding the behavior of complex systems by taking into consideration interconnected parts, feedback loops, and delays. Jay Forrester, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, created the field of system dynamics in the 1950s after realizing the limitations of our linear thinking.

Top minds in the field of learning and system dynamics—such as John Sterman (1993), Dietrich Dörner, Peter Senge (1995), Jay Forrester (1972), and Peter Drucker (1967)—all describe a variety of thinking patterns that frequently lead to poor or costly decisions. Here are examples of how an individual's lack of higher-order thinking can result in diminished decision performance:

  • Failure to consider the entire system and its context
  • Failure to understand and accommodate the delayed effects of any proposed intervention
  • A narrow focus on the current problems without regard to future consequences
  • Failure to notice what is actually working in any given situation

At The Regis Company, we have observed these patterns of thought and their challenging effects in our learning and development training programs. Within a business simulation, decision makers often try to solve one problem at a time, creating new problems in their wake. They tend to focus on the problems they have, ignoring problems that have not yet surfaced. As they become overloaded with information, they become even more fixated on the elements they think they can control.

Michael Vaughan is the CEO of The Regis Company, a global provider of business simulations and experiential learning programs. Michael is the author of the books The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker and The End of Training: How Business Simulations Are Reshaping Business.

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