Developing Non-linear Thinking Skills

We know while comprehending complexity, linear logic fails. That appears to the most important reason as to why most people find it difficult to understand complex situations or grapple with complex problems.

With simple linear logic, principles come first and deductions follow. Hence the process may be described as:

Observe -> Model the observations based on relevant domain theory -> apply Principles/mathematics -> Deduction

Fair to say that this standard approach, based on linear logic, is used in science and engineering to solve linear problems. Since this is an efficient way of thinking it dominates our educational, professional and social lives.

But when it comes to solving non-linear complex problems (unfortunately most life problems are non-linear) application of linear logic fails. Instead what is needed is the development of non-linear thinking skills.

In fact, non-linear thinking style is a necessary skill with the larger theoretical framework of digital literacy through multiple format known as transliteracy through transmedia learning environment.

Nonlinear thinking styles are defined as using intuition, insight, creativity and emotions when comprehending and communicating information (Vance, Groves, Paik and Kindler, 2007)

But how to develop non-linear thinking skills?

I would give below a 3 step approach, one of the many approaches I developed for the specific purpose of developing non-linear thinking skills of my adult professional students. This specific technique is christened as the Fugue technique.

1. Think in terms of fugue. In a fugue, all the notes cannot be constrained into a single melodic scale. Compressing everything into one single melodic scale is analogous to modelling a phenomenon or behaviour based on a high level of abstraction, which is the dominant characteristic of linear thinking style. Make this clear to the participating group. It would relieve them of the unnecessary stress of finding the “one right answer” or “one right approach” to a complex problem.

2. Bring people together to tackle a complex problem. Make sure that the participants are familiar with the problem. This means that complex problems are to be selected from the familiar working environment of the participants or problems the participants have grappled with but failed to find a solution.

Putting a number of people together gives us a big advantage. Different people see the same problem in different ways. It would depend on their specific strengths and mental makeup, tendency and practice. Some find some parts of the problem easy to see and understand, which others might find too difficult to even notice. Each member of the group is then encouraged to focus on some parts of the problem that comes easily to them so as to come up with their own unique perspectives and understanding.

Before allowing people to jump in, preferably use different media to present a problem — narrative, story telling, printed material, videos, pictures, data, internet references etc.

3. Invite the group to plunge directly into the midst of things and follow the temporal order created by the thoughts of the different group members. Build upon each others thoughts. Never mind if we get different strings of thoughts to build different lines of thinking, which is the most desired output. Encourage all forms of communication — dialogs, debates, discussions, collaboration, negotiation, etc. Be patient with the flow of time. Activities might show sudden bursts of energy at various points of time. Allow people to express their thoughts through different media – verbal, slide shows, discussions, drawings, doodles, story telling, narratives/presentations, logical interpretation through principles, etc. It is expected that each member communicates in his/her preferred style of communication.

Link the different strings of thoughts or different perspectives to make a collective but coherent understanding of a complex problem without attempting to put them into “one melodic scale.” It means that it is not necessary to align the different perspectives into one linear path. Multiple paths are encouraged. Expecting multiple solutions would be the norm. The output measured against time is exponential when compared to linear approach. It helps in increasing both depth and width of learning. In Nemetic terms the resultant ecology is known as nemePlx or nPx

When a group performs this exercise on many live problems over a span of few days (a four-day long session appears to be just enough), it propels the students to develop their non-linear thinking skills. It also develops their transliteracy skills (a non-linear thinking skill) immersed in transmedia learning environment.

Note:

1. This Fugue technique has been extensively used for Power Plant professionals solving their complex problems.

2. The author is of the opinion that non-linear thinking skills cannot be taught in any explicit manner.

References:

!. Digital Literacy: A Demand for Nonlinear Thinking Styles Mark Osterman, Thomas G. Reio, Jr., and M. O. Thirunarayanan Florida International University, USA http://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1321&context=sferc

2. Now you see it: How the brain science of attention will transform the way we live, work, and learn Davidson, C., (2011). New York, NY: Penguin

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Ruthless Honesty & Integrity

Excerpt from my forthcoming book — Solving Complex Problems through Vibration Analysis; An introduction to Non-linear Dynamics

 

One last thing before we move on to the next chapter. We have had a glimpse into the fundamental process of seeing a problem. We start with an open mind. Then we ask lots of questions out of curiosity, being mindful that we don’t know the answer. We intently observe. We then make intelligent guesses to come up with a hypothesis that relates all the problems in the system, interdependent as they are. Finally, we should still doubt as to whether we understood the system to sufficient depth. We simply can’t get rid of this nagging doubt till our solutions are proven effective through practical implementation. If proven, we learn. If not proven, we learn to unlearn our ignorance and set out to learn again. Either way we learn something useful.

This reminds me of an incident. Long back when I was studying vibration analysis under my Guru, Tim Henry of the University of Manchester, I was working on a small experiment with accelerometers. I was bit upset about the funny results I got and was ashamed about the wasted effort at the end of my week-long experiment. Tim asked me as to why I look sullen on a fine English morning.

When he came to know the reason for my long face, he just said, ‘Well, there is nothing to feel bad about. What you got is also useful knowledge. It would tell others that this method of finding out of what you wanted to find out does not work and this is why it doesn’t work and here are the results as evidence. There is no question of shame. Don’t you think it would save a lot of time and energy for other researchers who would come after you by choosing to avoid the path you just found to be incorrect? And you just learned more about the subject. Haven’t you?”

What a relief that was. Thanking him, I promptly went out to soak in the rare sun on a cold English morning. And that is where I was hit by the truth — all human search must be based on honesty – ruthless honesty — so that integrity of human learning can be preserved since quality of that integrity decides whether we survive better or not. I vowed — from now on, I must learn to take things as they are.

I also think: by learning to be honest with our failures and vulnerabilities and to resiliently respond to uncertain outcomes and situations is a vital step to get rid of fear and shame that hold us back.

 

Note:

This book acts as a further expansion and exploration of my previous book – Winning Anywhere – the Power of ‘See’