Archive for the linear and nonlinear thinking Category

A couple weeks ago I spoke of the requirements of a listening mindset.  About how one can’t truly listen, either as a teacher or as an innovation marketer, unless one first recognizes that one’s audience does not see your questions as the questions of importance.  About how you can’t solve your problems with others not listening unless you are willing to bear the lion’s share of the listening cost burden.

About how one can’t truly listen well unless one ASSUMES that the audience has GOOD reasons for not listening to you.  That regardless of whether you think listening to you is more important to your student or prospect than anything else, your student and your prospect don’t agree.  That they consider those other things to be valuable and that, when it comes to getting them to listen, theirs is the only opinion that matters.

Today, I want to speak of the remaining requirement for a listening mindset, iteration.  Or, as my company motto puts it, “Listen.  Think.  Repeat.”

Listening cannot be something one does once, before moving on and starting to talk/sell again.   It has to be done again and again and again.  No matter how good a listener you think you might be, you aren’t going to hear well the first time.  Your own biases, prejudices, your own “usual suspects,” aren’t going to let you.  You’re going to hear the other guy’s words, but the meaning you ascribe to those words is going to reflect your values, not his.

Nothing wrong with that, per se.  You’re entitled to your values, and listening is not about changing your values.  It’s not about your values at all.

Listening is about hearing the other person’s values.  It’s about what Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments called “sympathy” or “fellow-feeling.”  It’s about what the literary critic Kenneth Burke called “identification.”  It’s about mentally walking a mile in the other person’s shoes.

And then walking another mile.  And another.

Teachers and those who would market innovation share one character trait — they tend to be very passionate about their subject.  I teach economics because, deep in my bones, I believe that the world would be better off if more people used the “economic way of thinking.”  Larry Page and Sergei Brin started Google because, deep in their bones, they believed that a new approach to online search would change the world, and change the world for the better.

Teaching is about changing the world and improving people’s lives.  Innovation is about changing the world and improving people’s lives.

But if you’re out to change the world, it’s easy to forget that others aren’t interested in changing.  That they’ve got very different notions about what improves their lives than you do.  As a teacher, as an innovator, you’re a true believer.

And true believers need to be extra attentive in finding ways of short-circuiting their own brains.  Ways of keeping their passions from reducing the effectiveness of their listening.

And part of doing that short-circuiting is repetition.  Make yourself listen again and again, and the varying contexts of your listening will lead you to hear better.

But iteration is more than mere repetition.

It’s not just asking the same question of your audience again and again.  It’s asking different questions.  It’s asking the same question in different ways.  It’s asking the question in a way that prompts a short answer and then asking it in a way that prompts a long one.  And then asking it a third time in a way that brings out an answer that contradicts one or both of the first two.

Iteration is repetition that adapts.  Iteration is paying attention to how people respond to your actions, and then changing the way you do things.  Changing how you listen.  It’s asking the question a fourth way, even though you’re pretty sure you understand where the other guy is coming from after the first three.

And it’s not always going with what works.  When it comes to listening, nothing works every time.  There is no simple system that, if you memorize its steps, will always get you listening more effectively.  Any “five steps to effective listening” is just going to wire particular thinking patterns in your brain; and listening is about subverting those thinking patterns, not replacing one hardwiring with another.

Iteration is about toggling your brain.  It’s not about finding ways of removing constraints or thinking outside the box.

It’s exactly the opposite.  It’s about recognizing the way(s) in which you process incoming information, and then forcing yourself to choose different ways.  It’s about constraining your thinking more rather than less.

This is part of the genius of Edward de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats”.  By providing a method where you can switch from “emotional” (Red Hat) to “pointing out problems” (Black Hat) to “collecting information (“White Hat”) modes of thinking and so on, you subvert the usual suspects that “gut feeling” and “critical thinking” and “research” might otherwise draw you to naturally, even as you still reap the benefits of each.

But much as I like the Six Hats method, I don’t always use it the same way.  And I don’t always use it.

Sometimes I’ll substitute one of the thinking methods of Genrikh Altshuller’s TRIZ.  Or I’ll do a heavy dose of Socratic method in the manner of my law school teachers.  Or I’ll just do an open-ended one-minute class assessment.  (“Take one minute and a piece of paper, and answer the following question:  what’s working in class, what’s not?”)

I love mind-mapping, and so I often use it as a note taking method while I’m reading a student paper or conferencing.  But I don’t always use it.  Sometimes I’ll strive to put everything in a nice linear outline.  And still others I won’t use keyboard or pen at all, instead just focus on leaning toward or away from the speaker.

It’s not about always going with the gut and taking things on faith.  It’s not about always using the scientific method.  It’s not about always being linear or always being nonlinear.

It’s about sometimes choosing to emphasize particular thinking muscles as you strive to listen and sometimes choosing others.  And it’s about being very aware of your own preferred ways of thinking and interacting with students/prospects, and then being aware about when you use each of them.

It isn’t about thinking in the right way.  It’s about always being aware that, despite the particulars of your hardwiring, you can still choose which mode of thinking to emphasize at a given moment.  As long as you regularly make thinking about how you are thinking a conscious part of your thinking.

“Always” is the enemy of effective listening.  Any always will just privilege different usual suspects.

“Sometimes, and sometimes not, and being conscious of which it is at the moment” — that’s the key.


“Traditionally in Mind Mapping, the branches are read from 12 o’clock clockwise, so for the moment, we will assume this is the way we want them organized.”
– from NovaMind “Tutorial 4 — Arranging and coloring your Mind Map.”

Mind-mapping software, to my mind, resides near the top of the “1000 cool things about the Internet age.” It has come to the point that were I forced to give up either my word-processor or mind-mapping software, I’d give up the word-processor.

Most of what I use Word for now I can do fairly easily with just a text editor and the ability to Google for the appropriate HTML tag. In fact, much of the time now I do. Right now I have seven TextEdit documents open, and zero Word documents.

But it’s a rare day indeed when I don’t have one or more mind-map files open. Right now, it’s three files using NovaMind and one using MindManager. (It’s still early. By the end of the day, I’ll probably have twice that.)

The reasons I use mind-mapping software so much are legion, far too many to go into in a blog entry, even one of the length I usually put out.

[Advertisement: Stay tuned, though. Iterative Listening should be releasing a special report on the value of mind-mapping before this month ends. And I hope to follow it with a more extensive e-book sometime next year.]

But I do want to talk about one of the cool biggies that differentiates mind-mapping software from word-processing software. I don’t know why — whether it is because it is mature technology with close to 30 years of development and tweaking behind it, or because both its developers and users tend to be hardwired with the same 20th-century ways of thinking — but word-processors have a pretty annoying learning process associated with them.

Think of it this way — how many times over the years have you been frustrated by your word processor because you want to do something (perhaps some kind of formatting) and you can’t figure out how to do it without a bit of slogging through menus and help files and WordForDummies books? That in fact is how we always approach our word processor: we already know we want to do X in Y way.

Now, that’s sometimes the case with mind-mapping, too. Otherwise, you wouldn’t see a sentence like the one quoted above from a NovaMind tutorial. Most mind-map programs are like NovaMind are indeed set up to portray your thinking in this clockwise fashion.

However, notwithstanding such “default” features of the software, which you would think would encourage users to find and conform to “usual” ways of thinking, mapping software enables exactly the opposite. There is hardly a week goes by that I don’t discover a new situation in which the software can be used or a new way to use the software in a particular kind of situation.

Here’s a partial list of the possible uses of mind-mapping for business copywriters, for example: brainstorming a new project; fleshing out the picture of a prospect; outlining a letter; managing an ongoing project; making a presentation to a client. And within each of these areas, you get an amazing increase in flexibility for “how to do things”, flexibility that doesn’t distract you from the projects at hand but instead speeds things up.

Take me.

When I first started with mapping software, it was as a brainstorming tool. Then I discovered that Inspiration (the first mapping program I used, and still one I use for a lot of different projects) allows you to toggle between “diagram” and “outline” mode, and soon I was using the tool to prepare lecture outlines. This morphed into a way of putting together syllabi for new courses.

Then I started finding different ways of linking — to other maps, to non-map files like pdfs, jpgs, and docs, to the Web. Now complicated projects like the Technology and Education book or a major marketing presentation use multiple maps, linked in all sorts of ways.

I use mapping to do a ten-minute SixHats exercise. Or ust to jot down three or four semi-connected ideas on a project I’m not going to be working on for some time — I don’t really want to be distracted from the work at hand, but I also don’t want to lose those ideas in the the interim. And in no more time than it takes to write a post-it note, I’ve created and saved a mini map of connections for future reference, and then I’m back to the day’s main tasks. (Since starting this blog entry, I’ve added two of those post-it-note equivalents.)

I’m using the collaborative potential of web-based mapping via programs like MindMeister. And in the last two weeks, I’ve discovered new ways of organizing notes to projects (Curio), tracking the progress on a project (both NovaMind and MindManager), and ways of making presentations that will knock the socks off those tired and boring Powerpoint things (using either NovaMind or Curio). I’ve always felt a bit guilty that I haven’t mastered more of Powerpoint. But I don’t think I’m going to bother. Powerpoint looks to be less important than Word now.

Oh, I still don’t know why so many people (and software developers) want the default of maps to proceed in that clockwise direction. But since it’s pretty easy on almost all of the programs to re-arrange map branches as I want them, I don’t think I’ll worry about it much.

I’m too busy having new ideas and discovering ways to develop them.

Like clockwork, even.



I’ve long thought of myself as a non-linear thinker.

But in reality, the distinction between “linear” and “nonlinear” thinking is often a false dichotomy.  Yes, I am very much non-linear in the way I make connections between pieces of information.

As evaluations from many of my more linear-thinking students have put it, I go off on a lot of “tangents”.  Personally, being non-linear, I don’t think of them as tangents.  “Tangent” is invariably being equated in the critic’s mind with “irrelevant” or “unconnected to the stuff that matters.”  But when I bring them up, most of the time anyway, I either see them as very much connected or, at least, very much want the students to think of them as connected.

But as I was working on the proposal for a presentation I hope to make at the American Creativity Association conference next March, I realized that part of my skill set is knowing when linear thinking is better and when non-linear thinking is better.

As I do with any project of significance, I was using mind/idea-mapping software to help flesh out my plans.  In particular, I was working on this map.

draft mindmap

The particular content here isn’t important.  I’m just mapping part of a proposal; and I have no idea whether my actual proposal will include anything like this, or for that matter, whether I’ll even end up submitting a proposal at all.  What’s important is the thinking mode the organization of the map suggests.  It may have lots of cute map links and graphic formatting, but what it is is an outline of points and subpoints.

This is not Wade being non-linear.  This is highly linear thinking in action.  And at that particular moment in the project, a linear thinking mode was more appropriate.

Yet between now and the proposal deadline (just over 2 weeks from now — help!!), there are going be several moments when I’m going to have to toggle my brain between linear and non-linear modes.

Indeed, that need to toggle between the linear and the non-linear is one reason I’m such a big fan of mapping software like MindManager (the program used to construct the map abvoe), Inspiration (still my default), or MindMeister (best for online collaborative mapping).  Information can be re-organized from linear to non-linear, or vice versa, with very little effort.

Understanding doesn’t follow that quick, of course.  But the technology highlights the conversion, and thereby it possible to be a lot more efficient at convincing my brain to “switch gears”.

Mind-mapping software isn’t the only way to toggle your brain.  But it’s a valuable one.

Because whether your default is “linear” or “non-linear”, there are going to be times when you are going to have to go away from your default.  And unless you have something to help you do it, be it a technology like this kind of software or something else, your brain isn’t going to toggle.

(More later: I’m hoping to have an “Iterative Listening LLC Special Report” on brain toggling done and ready to offer to company customers by mid-January; and so you’ll be hearing about brain toggling more than once on this blog as I work through the argument and evidence of that white paper.)

All content of this blog, except comments added under names other than "Wade," are copyright © 2008, 2009 Wade E. Shilts