Dot Versus Line Thinking

September 17, 2008  

A while back, Seth Godin wrote a piece that I just read this morning. It is entitled, “In the face of change, the competent are helpless.”

He said that, “Competent people have a predictable, reliable process for solving a particular set of problems. They solve a problem the same way, every time. That’s what makes them reliable.”

He continued, “Bob Dylan, on the other hand, is an incompetent musician… unlike a truly competent musician, Dylan never delivers a song the same way twice. No, Dylan isn’t competent. But he is brilliant.”

He then went on to say that because competent people are reliable and solve a problem the same way, every time, they cannot handle change.

Although I personally do not like the use of the words competent versus incompetent, I agree with his underlying message. In some respects, this is his version of my expression, “Expertise is the enemy of creativity.”

The more you know something, the more difficult it is to do it differently.

The point is, the more you focus on doing things right, the more difficult it becomes in the long run to do the right things. The ability to adapt and change is one of the most important competencies of any organization. In the name of “quality,” quite often, adaptability is thrown out the window.

Here is an excerpt from my “24/7 Innovation book,” originally written in 2002. The last three paragraphs describe my perspective on the two primary thinking styles: “dot” and “line” thinking.

Excerpt from 24/7 Innovation Introduction

In the static world of previous years, traditional business success could often be attained through efficiency and effectiveness. Get to a dominant position in the marketplace, and ride it. But in today’s age of change, as soon as you achieve success, someone is nipping at your heels, learning your unique strengths and planning to take a portion of your market. The only way to succeed is to have the ability to change, rapidly and repeatedly. This requires perpetual innovation from you and your entire staff at all times.

But it became clear to me in my consulting activities that most companies are stuck in outmoded ways of thinking. I am always amazed at the high quality of people employed by companies around the world. And I am even more amazed at how little most companies tap into the creative potential of these employees. Rigid policies, prescriptive processes, political infighting, and fragmented organizations have stifled innovation for too long.

Innovation 24 hours a day 7 days a week is no mystery: It’s the ability of an organization and the people in it to come up with new ideas to satisfy the changing whims of ever-fickle customers without any special stimulation and without interruption. I am not referring to the backroom sources of innovation we have all known and loved in the past. I am referring to pervasive innovation. Innovation throughout the organization, everywhere, every day, by everyone — 24/7, as we say in modern parlance. To a point where it’s as natural as breathing.

Innovation is not random. In fact, it emerges best when there is a structure to nurture it. Much like jazz in the world of music. I have been playing the saxophone since I was seven years old, and although I play all types of music, jazz is my passion. I love jazz because it is heavy on innovation (“improvisation” in musical terms). Just as innovation is not random, improvisation not random. There is a simple structure to jazz, like 12 bar B-flat blues. It has a rhythm, chord progression, and tempo.

As the Rough Guide to Jazz says, “Improvisation is the art of playing without premeditation, rather than necessarily ‘making it up as you go along’… Most jazz performances are less than 100 percent improvised, and some may be less than 5 percent improvised and still be good jazz: it is the spirit (or illusion) of spontaneity which communicates.“ Businesses need much the same to succeed. Simple structures to foster innovation to emerge. But jazz is much more than just improvisation; it is the fruit of the activity of a group of people. It is not a solitary pursuit. Jazz musicians play solos with their band, but they rarely give concerts on their own. Jazz is a social activity, and so are businesses.

Rather than operating like a jazz band, many businesses are run more akin to classical symphonies (my “other” instrument is the bassoon, played in symphonic orchestras). The classical musician plays a long, elaborate composition written by someone else, a composition that leaves little room for interpretation. The composer (usually someone who is dead) has written elaborate compositions (detailed workflows, policies, and procedures), placed them neatly in binders, and expected the employees (the musicians) to follow them by rote. Even if people could follow these compositions, by the time they learned the score, the music would have to be changed.

Dot Versus Line Thinking

This difference is “dot” thinking versus “line” (not to be confused with linear) thinking. The “dot” that most people operate in is focused on activities, computers, people, or departments within a company. It is the lines, the interconnections and interdependencies between the dots, where innovation emerges. Innovative thinking comes from making connections. Connections between dots. Connections between ideas. Connections between companies. Or connections between industries. Focusing on the lines frees an organization to improve within the guidelines of the simple structure.

The power of focusing on the lines and connections is illustrated in a conversation I heard between two colleagues, Brad and Lisa. They were talking about why some people seem to be more innovative and insightful than others. Brad, who is one of the most lateral/creative thinkers I know, asked Lisa, “When you are learning or reading or experiencing something new, what is the main question in your mind?” Her response was, “I ask, what does this mean?” And that is what most people would say. Most people first try and understand the situation, and then see how that relates to other things they know.

Brad said his first question is always, “What is this like?” He compares it to other things he knows. From that he can then derive meaning. And in doing so, he is able to leverage relationships from the domain with which he is familiar and translate them to the new domain. This is what appears as an “insight” to someone else. It is not about intelligence or knowledge. It’s about being able to understand quickly. Even with little knowledge on a given topic, an innovative person is able to connect the dots, and leverage something else he already knows about. This is what organizations (and individuals) need to do. Connect the dots.

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6 Responses to “Dot Versus Line Thinking”

  1. Dr.YKK on October 16th, 2008 6:32 am

    Einstein is a dot think (lone thinker). Edison is a line thinker. He works in teams. Which one is better?

    It is great to get creative in labelling thinking styles. Hower, whilst doing so I think we should not fall into a trap of labelling that one is better. It is just that different people have different thinking styles. It is more about preferred thinking styles rather than a better thinking style.

    Being aware of differentt hinking styles is a great step towards unleashing creativity. Hence your article is a super mind unzipper!


    Chief Mind Unzipper

  2. Stephen Shapiro on October 16th, 2008 8:03 am

    Dr YKK,

    Great to hear from you as always.

    You are absolutely right. No one style is better than the other. In fact, that is the idea behind my Innovation Personality Poker – we need ALL of the styles to be successful in our innovation efforts.

    There is a difference between being a “dot” thinker and being a “lone” thinker. Dot thinkers get their answers based on knowledge and expertise. Einstein i many respects, is a “line” thinker because his greatest theories were devised through metaphors. Read the excellent book, “Einstein’s Dreams.” Obviously though, Einstein was brilliant.

    if someone can be both a dot and line thinker, that is ideal. But that is not very common.

    As an aside, if you read the book “Blink,” it is only the dot thinkers who can make those snap decisions. Too many people who read that book made incorrect conclusions. You can only make a decision in a blink of an eye if you already have a deep knowledge of that domain.

    Thanks again for your comment!

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