While checking out some postings on the blogosphere, concerning the postulation that “six sigma” efficiency cultures are antithetical to highly creative thinking, I came across the following observation on Coaching and Facilitating from a blog on WordPress.com Coaching and facilitating – two faces of a coin, and followed a link to Design Thinking.
Actually the diversion (or digression?) set me thinking about the way that ideas form and grow from apparently random interactions. Say you overhear a snippet of conversation in a crowd, and it means something to you. Using Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic (VAK) predicates, it may cause a flash of inspiration, strike a chord in your mind, or give you an empowering feeling. Your internal filters and meta-programs kick in and sort, distort and generalize this new input and place it into the thought processes which are going on in your mind at the moment, down in your unconscious. Suddenly this is manifested in your conscious mind as a new idea, which may solve a problem you have been wrestling with, or take you off in a new business direction.
The overheard snippet may have nothing to do with the problem you have been unconsciously seeking to solve, or anything else in your life at the time; all it has to do is provide a bridge between the old state, and the new one. It is your own meta-programs which have shaped the new piece to fit the jigsaw. To take the jigsaw metaphor even further, it actually does not matter what fragment of picture is on the new piece, as long as it it fits in place; the picture is built from the resultant combination of the combined inputs. This process can also occur during sleep, as a dream, which may be interpreted in the waking state or simply ignored.
So what has this to do with the debate about Associative v Linear thinking? Well nothing and everything! Nothing, because drives for efficiency and refinement of process are linear, systemic and iterative, while shooting off on a mental tangent, or making an intuitive leap to a solution is non-linear, unpredictable and random, so would be excluded from any data set as background noise or spikes. Associative thinking is a holistic process that looks for relationships even though no causal link is apparent. This could also be seen to exclude intuition and divergent thought patterns.
However, it is the very random and unpredictable nature of the non-linear conclusion which may be germane to the debate; this could easily be the basis for an associative connection, made at an unconscious level. While this might be accepted by an Asian thinker as having a rational basis, this is inconceivable to western minds.
As noted in The Geography of Thinking by John Mole, author of Mind Your Manners, “The most striking difference is between Asian and Western ways of thinking. While western thinking strives for order, Asian thinking aspires to harmony. Rather than look for ways of reducing facts or premises into categories, eliminating what does not logically fit, it looks for ways of associating them into meaningful patterns which accommodate rather than resolve conflicting premises or facts. ”
So with this geographical component to the Associative v Linear debate, it is now appropriate to turn to the main challenge of Coaching and Facilitating Associative Thinking; If efficiency cultures are as far from highly creative thinking as it is possible to be, how can you promote and nurture the creativity in such a controlled and linear environment?
As Professor Krishnamurthy Prabhakar posted in the thread Productivity vs. creativity: Does the culture war impact social entrepreneurs?, “the six sigma process is based on linear thinking. It is applicable to simple systems that can be measured and controlled. On the other hand creativity is a non linear process”. He also points out that “Organizations today are not just simple input process and output feedback systems. They are complex and non linear. You need to change the mind set that six sigma is a cure for all ills. Six sigma is one tool, but not a theory to explain complex system behavior.”
This polarization between linear and non linear though processes is more than just a debate between creative and system oriented types. On the BBC World News program Virtual Revolution Dr Aleks Krotoski explores how the World Wide Web is reshaping almost every aspect of our lives, 20 years on from it’s invention. The Web is promoting a change in the way people search for and access information, and may be resulting in a change in the brains of users, prompting the title of the fourth Programme in the series, Homo Interneticus? Check out the cogitative processes of the Korean children who have been using the web to research answers as part of their school curriculum.
Business development professionals are clear that being able to ‘think out of the box’ provides a competitive edge, particularly in research and technology based industries, which value inspiration. One of the fundamental building blocks of ‘thinking out of the box’ is associative learning, although we really do not know how the associations and links in our brains function. While western culture ignores or marginalizes non-linear conclusions as aberrant or illogical, Asian thinking encompasses and encourages them to preserve harmony.
Once the dust has settled on this argument, the truth may be that linear thinkers are slipping into their sunset years, while the rising tendency towards associative thinking will mean more intuitive coaching is required. In this new world, Neuro-Linguistic Programming and the specialist techniques used by associative thinking coaches will become highly prized. It would be unfortunate if Asia was the only source of such specialist skills.