Balancing Linear and Nonlinear Thinking in an Entrepreneurial Setting

Imagine how entrepreneurs differ in their thinking from people running larger businesses. Linear thinking means a person thinks sequentially. Nonlinear thinking is different because no order exists in how a person thinks. I remember a situation I had highlighting the difference in these ways of thinking. Entrepreneurs embrace a more balanced approach employing both linear and nonlinear thinking skills.

To explain, I remember when I went to residency training for my doctoral work when an professor placed us in teams for a project. I had one member of my team with a military background. Although I found my previous experience with military people positive, I had a different experience with this particular person.

In my experience as an educator I taught several classes at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California and always found the people in my classes ready and willing to learn. I believe the military training these people received made them disciplined and develop good study habits. I found military students usually completed and turned their work in on time.

The gentleman in my residency class, who I shall call Mr. Roboto, gave me a different experience. Although Mr. Roboto eagerly wanted to take on the project, he quickly assumed the leadership, and dictated terms of the project. The suggestions from other people on the team he quickly dismissed in favor of his own ideas. Reflecting on this experience, I found this person’s approach highlighted linear thinking. Everything Mr. Roboto did expressed the “my way or the highway” approach and gave me a new appreciation of military thinking.

As a seasoned entrepreneur, I had a hard time dealing with Mr. Roboto because he dictated and never listened to anyone else on the team unless they agreed with him. Entrepreneurs often have more nonlinear thinking skills and thrive in a team setting, but Mr. Roboto put himself at the top of the chain of command and did not accept ideas from other team members. I found the approach Mr. Roboto took stifled creativity and more in line with the approach taken by a larger business.

In my studies, I found a better balance between linear and nonlinear skills is more desirable in my area of focus on entrepreneurship. Groves, Vance, and Choi (2011) found entrepreneurs have a greater balance between linear and nonlinear critical thinking skills and more education contributes to improving the balance.

My experience highlights some of the differences in how entrepreneurs think, organize a culture conducive to creativity, and lead. Entrepreneurs normally reject command and control settings and value more flexible organic settings. Mintzberg (1980) described entrepreneurs favoring adhocracy. Adhocracy relies on mutual adjustment in a decentralized, lively setting seeking harmonization. Masood, Dani, Burns, and Backhouse (2006) explained leadership in an adhocracy as visionary, innovative, and risk-oriented. Entrepreneurs collaborate and guide workers using continuous feedback loops.

A hierarchy culture stresses more formal setting and policies guiding what workers do. The hierarchy culture focuses on stability, predictability, and efficiency. Formal rules and policies are the glue holding the organization together (Masood et al., 2006). Mr. Roboto embodied the hierarchy culture, which clashed with the adhocracy culture I worked in as an entrepreneur. Mr. Roboto relied on command and control and avoidance of risk.  No wonder I had such a difficult time in this group.

Entrepreneurs balance linear and nonlinear thinking and a good education helps the entrepreneur employ the right thinking to the proper problem. Entrepreneurs avoid all or nothing thinking and value collaborating with a team. Are you a linear thinker or do you have what it takes to balance linear thinking with nonlinear thinking? Please  leave a comment. Learn more.


Groves, K., Vance, C., & Choi, D. (2011). Examining entrepreneurial cognition: An occupational analysis of balanced linear and nonlinear thinking and entrepreneurship success. Journal of Small Business Management, 49(3), 438-466. doi: 10.2307/259034.1999-08070-001 10.2307/259034 10.1287/orsc.9.5.543.

Masood, S., Dani, S., Burns, N., & Backhouse, C. (2006). Transformational leadership and organizational culture: The situational strength perspective. Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers — Part B — Engineering Manufacture, 220(6), 941-949. doi: 10.1243/09544054JEM499

Mintzberg, H. (1980). Structure in 5’s: A synthesis of the research organization design Management Science, 26(3), 322-341. doi: 0825-1909/80/2603/0323^1.25


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  1. #1 by Tom Eakin on June 7, 2012 - 7:32 am

    My experience with hierarchical organizations indicates they become more rigid due to what I call the “island effect” which results when the power needed to drive the organization’s ability to provide quality goods and services (information, authority, decision-making, etc.) does not reside in the processes which create the value. In hierarchical organizations, education and technical expertise are often stressed as priorities for career development and because there is a hierarchy, the mindset that one must move up in the organizations to be successful results in people focusing on checking off the boxes on their professional development list with the intent of being promoted. Because the “grew up” in this type of setting, they’ve been conditioned to think that now that they are in a position of power, their job is to exert it in a manner they control- information is not shared because doing so might reduce the value of their power, decisions are made based on expert power rather than the facts regarding situations and without considering how the decision might translate practically at the user-level. To multiply this effect, and to create the miles of ocean between the islands, each department has it’s own hierarchy, based on subject matter expertise (quality, manufacturing, marketing, sales, accounting, etc.) which is guarded like resource rich territory. Redundant work is created such as forms with departmental titles at the top are created for the same purpose. For example, I define an “incident” as anything that occurs within the organization that has an impact, positive or negative on its ability to achieve it’s plan for excellence.
    Examples might be a safety incident- an injury, or a quality defect, etc. Often within organizations one will find multiple “incident reports” focused on an area of expertise when what is really needed is the facts surrounding :who, what, when, where and why (root cause) so a solution can be implemented to reduce the probability it will recur as much as is reasonably possible. This tells me only one “incident report” is necessary and the solution must not reduce risk in one area, let’s say to reduce quality defects, if it increases risk to an unacceptable level in another.

    I find when the focus is placed where it is most critical- the processes which comprise the activities within the organization in which value is created under the best circumstances, or lost under less-than-best conditions, the islands tend to disappear. When a process-focused team works together to solve a problem, they can find a solution that is going to provide the best results for all areas of concern (safety, quality, etc.) and has a better chance to be user-friendly so the people who need to do the job can get back to their value-added activities as quickly as possible.

  2. #2 by Edward M. Sibley on June 7, 2012 - 9:08 pm

    The article by Dr. Harris and Tom Eakin’s comment are to me right on target. I would add that the concept of the “profit motive” when pursued in a unidirectional manner further rigidly cements the dictatorial/lineal processes of the firm and its relationships with its employees and customers. Worth while suggestions and ideas are destroyed wholesale when faced with the classic remarks that the reasons to avoid any change are composed of 1) we are making money leave it alone, 2) it will cost too much and 3) it won’t increase the profits of the firm. These three comments destroy any creative thinking of the employees of the firm or any input from customers. The great management theorist, W. Edward Deming, was extremely critical of this kind of thinking, because it flew in the face of his main mantra “of constantly and forever improving production.” Deming’s mantra allowed ideas to flow upwards, get additional input, and be implemented all for long range survival of the firm. May I suggest as proof of this idea that the Japanese cameras took over the market from the Germans? The Japanese were implementing Dr. Deming’s idea. They also used the same idea in other areas of commerce of which the reader will be well aware of.

    • #3 by APG Academy of Entrepreneurship on June 8, 2012 - 6:10 pm


      Thanks for the comments! Linear thinking results in what Schumpeter termed “creative destruction.” We need more balanced thinking right now.

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