Thinking outside the lines: linear strategic planning versus adaptive strategic thinking

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Are you confined to thinking inside the lines? There is a real difference between Sun Tzu's strategic methods and the deterministic planning model of problem solving. A useful way to describe this difference is to contrast the linear thinking of planning with the adaptive loop. Planning works with objects who cannot resist our plans. The adaptive loop works with other intelligent agents, people who have their own goals and who make their own decisions based upon the comparisons that they make.

The post linear world

We live in an increasingly "post-linear" age where working with people making their own decisions is more important than working with things, but much of our world remains trapped in the linear paradigm. Today's world is increasingly dynamic, unpredictable, and competitive requiring more and more adaptive methods to identify and utilize its opportunities, but linear planning produced tremendous gains in material wealth during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by focusing on what could be predicted and controlled.

The success of planning in working with objects has made a deep imprint on how we are trained to see and cope with problems. This success has been real but it was restricted to the areas where control was possible. The first publicly held corporations were the railroad companies, which gained control of the rights of way. Because they had control, they were organized around a linear hierarchical model not an adaptive networked one. Mass production was made possible by the assembly line in the controlled environment of a factory. The objects that moved along the line were under control, and the people working on the line were controlled as well, treated much like objects. The success of linear thinking established it as the primary form of problem solving, especially because that form of thinking has been memorialized, and perhaps entombed, in our educational system.

Solving strategic problems in the larger, dynamic uncontrolled environment are still occurring everywhere, within organizations and among them, but it is the big successes of planning, like the Manhattan project in science, that are remembered and promoted. We discuss the limits of planning elsewhere on this site, but in this article and the ones linked below, we look at the problem of how linear thinking has been so firmly entrenched in our worldview and education system.

The Rise of Linear Thinking

Over the last hundred years, the conceptual basis of strategy as an adaptive thinking was undermined by The rise of linear thinking* as a way of seeing the world was based upon the deterministic physics of Newton. This mechanistic view of the universe lead to mass production, a mass economy, and the devaluation of individual human choices, but it also greatly improved human wealth and living conditions. However, the success of the deterministic worldview also created the need for something more. Increased competition creates more and more choices in the market. Automation replaces blue-collar factory work with a new generation of decision workers.

The basis of our educational industry is the factory model principles of linear thinking*. Our school system was built around the idea that people had to be programmed to follow orders and a standard way of behaving and thinking. Indeed, in education today, linear thinking is equated with logical thinking. However, as the educational institutions increasingly lose touch with the realities of today's world, people are taking more and more responsibility for mastering the knowledge they need.

More choices equals new methods

2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu recognized the value of linear thinking, but he also recognized its limits. He taught competition as adaptive thinking because it constantly adapts to changing situations. This type of thinking is increasingly demanded by a world of constant change and instant information.

In Sun Tzu's model, linear thinking and adaptive thinking are complementary opposites. Both require the other and create the need for the other. In providing training in Sun Tzu's methods of adaptive thinking, we are not rejecting linear thinking or its benefits. We are merely attempting to fulfill the needs for a new kind of training in a world where the value of linear thinking is declining and the value of adaptive thinking is rising.