Thinking About Thinking (Part 2/3) — Computers, Lists, and Creativity

In Part 1, we defined linear and non-linear thinking. I’d like to re-emphasize that this post is NOT pitting linear versus non-linear thinking, but rather defining them so we can now look at how they work together. While what we’ve discussed applies to any field of innovation, they say to write about what you know; therefore, we will be focusing on how they come together in product development to increase the creativity and robustness of the solutions we create.

As the business efficiency publication iSixSigma reports:

There have been attempts to improve new product development and software development by applying Lean manufacturing tools such as value stream mapping, Kaizen, 5S (sort, simplify, shine, standardize sustain), flow and bottleneck management, agile thinking, etc. Many of these attempts waste time, are met with resistance, fail to address true root causes and may be short lived. Why? Because complex creative processes include unpredictability, engineering judgments versus hard data, a high degree of informal activities underlying a formal process, and fuzzy cause-and-effects in space and time. The philosophy of continuous improvement is applicable to any business, but improving highly complex processes requires nonlinear thinking, creativity and adaptive improvement methodologies.

When we first developed insEYEte, it was built as a tool to help us apply our design process to our clients’ projects. We had no idea that our process was fundamentally similar to the Design Thinking approach that was being developed just down the street from us in the Darden Business School!

As a whole, the Design Thinking framework challenges individuals and companies to ask 4 questions:

What is? — What if? — What wows? — What works?

Establishing the status quo and figuring out what is requires a lot of the linear thinking in the form of data collection and analysis. However, non-linear thinking should be deeply rooted in the process of choosing which data to collect, as it is imperative to maintain a holistic view regarding the entire system within which a concept is being developed.

Taking this data and analyzing it for trends helps set the stage for focusing brainstorms around the question of what if. This is where possibilities and creative solutions are extracted from observations of the previously collected data. Non-linear thinking and free-flowing thought are vital to this brainstorming process.

As these solutions are further refined, they can be broken down into a series of hypotheses that the design thinker can test to determine what wows. This step leverages non-linear brainstorming to generate testable assumptions (i.e. small hypotheses), but also requires the use of linear testing and prototyping methods.

Finally, in defining what works and choosing a solution to move forward with, linear logic is necessary to make sure that implementation of the concept goes smoothly. And while we hope that the plans are robust, as product developers we must stay nimble during their launch. As Robert Burns said “The best laid plans of mice and men / often go awry” — and it takes a lot of creativity and quick wit to solve the inevitable yet unexpected problems that will arise.
Along every step of the way, there is a healthy symbiosis between linear and non-linear thinking. The mark of a strong product designer is knowing which tool to use and where it is most applicable. Cultivating an environment where the flow between these tools and techniques is seamless allows all those involved in the product development cycle to create better and more holistically relevant solutions.

Hopefully, the concepts of linear and non-linear thinking are clearly defined, as well as how they come together in creativity and product design. In the final part of this series, we will share some non-linear brainstorming techniques that Elegant Solutions uses to serve clients!