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Beware of linearity: The shortest distance to your future may not be a straight line

Also in this compendium: Rethinking humility, apologies and honesty in a Trump world

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

But perhaps not in business.

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The problem is that concept – call it linearity – dominates our thinking as we tackle problems. "Western thinkers are so habituated to thinking in terms of linear models that we allow them to inform not just what we think, but the fundamentals of how we think. Little wonder. Linearity is a critical and – apparently – inherent part of our cultural DNA," Ryan Mathews, CEO of Black Monk Consulting, and Jim Singer, a partner at A.T. Kearney, write in the Ivey Business Journal.

They say such horizontal thinking underlies strategy, with chevrons, arrows, and Gantt charts assuming everything – even in a world of political, economic and digital disruption – moves in straight-line fashion. But it doesn't and such thinking, they argue, "rarely succeeds, especially over the long haul."

Here are five fatal flaws they cite in the linear model:

– It is demonstrably wrong: The predictable rarely happens. "Take this simple example: Based on our experience with past technologies like the steam and internal combustion engines, computerization was supposed to eliminate paper, reduce person-hours, and create a surplus of leisure time. Anyone still want to sign up for any of those assumptions?"

– It assumes past is prologue: The thinking is that event A leads to event B which in turn is the foundation of event C. But they insist there are tens of thousands of examples of why this is wrong, especially in business, not that those examples slow us down. "Perhaps the most limiting aspect of a linear view is that it assumes a predictable end state and therefore incorrectly eliminates any and all potential alternative conclusions. If you assume you know the answer, why bother asking the question?"

– It diminishes discontinuities: Unexpected exponential change happens and can create much greater growth and profits than simply betting on trends.

– It imposes old patterns rather than discovers new ones: It's the kind of thinking that led traditional food retailers to believe they had nothing to fear from Wal-Mart or bookstores to argue that what people wanted was a better in-store shopping environment.

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– It minimizes the role of feedback in an interconnected world: At the heart, linearity assumes we are passively and placidly moving to a more or less inevitably predestined end. "Perish the thought of establishing a dialogue!" they say. "A non-linear view of the future assumes a bit of randomness and chaos, of fuzziness, feedback, and interaction, and, as such, opens up vast new horizons of possibility."

It's not easy to forsake linearity, they concede. But it's essential to guard against slavishly following its tantalizing direction. Start by reading trade journals from another industry or studying a topic you have no interest in. Look for the less obvious interconnections around you. Think like a songwriter: Choruses and bridges signal a break with the preceding verse or the patterns that come before. But a true bridge, unlike a chorus, never repeats. They urge you to look for bridge moments rather than assume past is prologue.

2. Rethinking humility, apologies, and honesty

After Donald Trump's election, consultant Susan Fowler is beginning to question some of the leadership truths we hold dear.

For example, in Good to Great, management researcher Jim Collins seemed to prove conclusively that the corporate leaders who took the top companies to greatness combined humility with determination. Well, Donald Trump likes the word great, but humility is not him. "It makes sense that a humble leader is also an empathetic leader who can relate to people's feelings and better meet their needs. I wonder, Jim, are we wrong about this?" she writes on Smart Brief blog.

Ken Blanchard wrote a book called The One Minute Apology. It included this advice: "Apologize not for the outcome, but because you know you were wrong and it's the right thing to do. Every one-minute apology makes you more aware of how much your behavior affects others." Perhaps Mr. Trump didn't read that book. Ms. Fowler wonders if perhaps apologies make people look weak and are thus counter-productive: "I wonder, Ken, should we apologize to all those leaders who have fessed up to making a mistake or for being imperfect?"

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Leaders are supposed to tell people the truth rather than what they want to hear. But fact checkers found Mr. Trump consistently at odds with the truth. And his supporters didn't seem to care, assuming leaders lie anyway. TV host Stephen Colbert used the term "truthiness" to cover believing something that feels true even if it isn't supported by fact. Says Fowler: "I wonder if truth-telling matters when people are interested in bigger issues?"

She also wonders, in this unique political season:

– Do a leader's values really matter?

– Does trust matter?

– Is there a difference between being authentic and saying whatever you're thinking in the moment?

– If people can benefit from a leader's self-orientation, is it okay to be self-serving?

Overall, she wonders if anything we've believed about leadership is true.

3. Moving beyond Your Most Important Thing

One of the highly touted productivity approaches is to tackle your most important thing (MIT) at the start of the day. Get it done before the chaos of the day overwhelms you.

But productivity writer Cal Newport, a Georgetown University computer science professor, feels the approach is insufficient – calling it "amateur ball" while the professionals play a more textured game.

The problem is that it implicitly concedes that most of your day is out of your control. But someone who plans every minute of their day and every day of their week will inevitably accomplish far more high-value work than someone who identifies only a single daily objective. The key, he feels, is to put enough buffers in your day to handle the unplanned stuff that hits you. With those slices of times and a spirit of adaptability you will find your work life not as unpredictable as you assume.

"More importantly, you'll also likely discover that a proactive schedule that requires multiple on-the-fly adjustments is still significantly more productive than the MIT approach of tackling one pre-planned task then relinquishing the reins to whomever happens to be filling your inboxes at the moment," he writes on his blog.

"In other words, don't settle for a workday in which only an hour or two is in your control. Fight for every last minute. Even if you don't always win, you'll end up better off."

4. Quick hits

– Columbia Business School Professor Rita Gunther McGrath says in her e-newsletter that we are dealing these days with two management control systems and that is overwhelming us. The first is traditional bureaucracy, which we have yet to bury. The second is the horizontal system of networks, communications and instantaneous messaging that occupies so much of our work life.

– The yeasayer, says entrepreneur Seth Godin, is the opposite of the naysayer, somebody who will find 10 reasons to try something, embracing the possibility of better. Could that be you?

– Check e-mail at the top and bottom of the hour, advises trainer Dan Rockwell.

– When travelling, carry less stuff, advises blogger James Clear. In reducing what you take, consider weight and usefulness. When faced with two useful options, select the lighter one. As well, opt for items that have multiple uses.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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