In the last post in this series, I explained how cultures can define how we think, whether we think more in terms of from ideas to applications or from data to ideas.
There is another big way in which our culture will dictate how we think and this is whether we’re going to chunk down our thinking, that is divide bigger things into more manageable tasks, or weather we look at things in a systemic way, looking at the whole picture.
As with a lot of things each method has its advantages and disadvantages.
In the West, we are usually taught from a young age to think analytically, to breakdown big problems or tasks into smaller ones. It is a mainstay of all problem-solving techniques. The rationale for that is that it will be more manageable and probably less daunting. However, doing that, it is very easy not to realise the consequences of one small tasks on the whole area and sometimes that single smaller task can have devastating effects. It can also bring you into a wrong direction in terms of your overall goal.
Think in terms of an ecosystem for instance. Having this kind of thinking is looking at one species that is getting a little bit too invasive. Thinking analytically will be bringing in a predator to eat that first species without looking at all the potential consequences. And then you realise that that first predator well, not only preys upon the species you wanted it to prey upon but will also prey on other species and begin to wreak havoc in your ecosystem. So, what do you do if you keep with that same type of thinking? You’re going to bring a predator of the first predator you introduced and so on. Basically, that kind of thinking will not look at the big picture.
I contrast, in a lot of Asian cultures for instance and some other cultures too people tend to think looking at the whole picture. This has advantages because you don’t lose sight of your end goal. On the other hand, it can have the disadvantage that things can look rather daunting and it can be difficult in some cases to design a way forward to reach that end goal.
In terms of our ecosystem example, it means that you look at everything that could be done and assess their global consequences, which is good, but then maybe have difficulties prioritising what to do. The good thing is that although our culture has sent us into one direction or the other in terms of this thinking, it doesn’t mean we cannot think the other way. We can practice and learn to think differently. We need to be aware of this thinking and how it affects what we want to achieve. We need to learn to be able to adapt our thinking to the context. It is good for instance that a project manager is very analytical: it allows the manager to plan the project. However, at the same time, the manager needs to be able to think systemically because the project always fits into a wider organisation.