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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Linear Thought

Various concerns have been raised about Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, previously described as "disruptive" by a former Pentagon official, and now the subject of heated investigation and speculation around his short-lived role in the Trump administration, his alleged links with Russia and other countries, and his alleged obsessions about various topics.

According to the Guardian, US and UK intelligence officers were also anxious about Flynn's capacity for "linear thought".

I guess most people will interpret this concern as "insufficient capacity". When I searched for "linear thinking" on the internet, I found a number of pages that contrasted linear thinking with various forms of supposedly bad thinking, such as "fragmented thinking". I also found pages that tried to divide people into two camps - the scientific "leftbrain" types who think in straight lines, and the artistic "rightbrain" types who think in circles.

However, systems thinkers might be concerned about someone at that level having too much capacity for linear thought. (As one might be concerned about someone's capacity for gossip or deception.) In a previous post on this blog, I defended Flynn's former boss, Gen. Stanley McChrystal (labelled an "ill-fated iconoclast" by James Kitfield) against the claim that he was not a systems thinker. (This claim was based on a remark McChrystal had made about a subsequently notorious systems dynamics diagram. I argued that McChyrstal's remark could have been made either by someone who doesn't get systems thinking, or at the other extreme by someone who really gets systems thinking.)

The question here is about greater or lesser capacity for various kinds of thinking, because I'm trying to avoid the fallacy (identified by @cybersal) of categorizing people as this or that type of thinker. She rightly insists on seeing systems thinking not as an all-or-nothing affair but "as a lens to be applied in a particular type of situation".

By the way, Flynn himself has appeared on this blog before. In January 2010, using the lens of organizational intelligence, I reviewed his report on Fixing Intel. While I was sceptical about some of his recommendations, I can affirm that the report showed considerable capacity for systems (non-linear) thinking. Make of that what you will.


Links

Phillip Carter, What is Michael Flynn's game? (Slate, 31 March 2017)

Luke Harding et al, Michael Flynn: new evidence spy chiefs had concerns about Russian ties (Guardian, 31 March 2017)

James Kitfield, Flynn’s Last Interview: Iconoclast Departs DIA With A Warning (Breaking Defense, 7 August 2014)

Stanley McChrystal, The military case for sharing knowledge (TED2014, March 2014)

Stan McChrystal, Career Curveballs: No Longer A Soldier (22 April 2014)

Greg Miller and Adam Goldman, Head of Pentagon intelligence agency forced out, officials say (Washington Post, 30 April 2014)


Related Blogposts

A Job Description for Systems Thinking (November 2009)
Making Intelligence Relevant (January 2010)
Understanding Complexity (July 2010)

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