Martin’s Weblog

Welcome the 21st Century: Think Softly

Life is becoming increasingly faster and more complex – the scale, scope and inter-connectedness of things in unprecedented Although IT hardware and software provide both causes and solutions the most important factor to life in the 21st century is within ourselves –  “wetware” or the way we think.

I’ve identified 2 “dimensions” of thinking which I think are important, one dimension is Hard Vs Soft thinking while the other dimension is Reductionist Vs Holistic thinking.

Hard thinking

You could almost call this concrete thinking – it’s a bounded, engineering style characterised by the application of existing definable, quantifiable, specific concepts and processes. In a nutshell it is thinking “inside the box” and applying known rules and procedures.

Soft Thinking

You could almost call this abstract thinking – it’s an unbounded, integrative and creative style characterised by insight and judgement. In a nutshell it’s “Wicked” thinking “outside the box”.

Reductionist thinking

This is characterised the use of analysis to simplify, predict and control. It’s a mechanistic approach and application of rules and procedures. In a nutshell it is thinking about the details.

Holistic thinking

This is characterised by the use of intuition and interpretation to see patterns, connections and relationships. In a nutshell in is thinking about the big picture.

People are naturally more comfortable with different styles of thinking and can apply different styles or mix of styles in different contexts. Different contexts and problems are better suited to different styles of thinking – use the right one and things can fit into place – use the wrong one and things seem like hard going and can result in stress, anxiety and dysfunction at both personal and organisational level.

The current UK MPs expenses news could be used to illustrate styles of thinking. Administration of expenses claims should have used hard reductionist thinking – analysis and application of procedures without creativity. The MPs in question seemed to be applying soft reductionist thinking – creative “accounting” and application of procedures to claim they did nothing wrong and it was all within the rules. It’s not easy to find hard holistic thinking but you could argue that those like Ed Milliband who argue parliamentary reform in terms of changing procedures are using hard holistic thinking. Those who argue for more radical political changes from proportional representation through to Government 2.0 ideas in the Us Now film would seem to be thinking in a soft holistic way.

As events, organisations and individuals become ever more interconnected (networked) then hard, reductionist ways of thinking become increasingly out of tune, inappropriate, unable to cope and even dysfunctional and damaging. Most often hard reductionist thinking just doesn’t see the rich bigger picture, opportunities and emergent properties of new systems until they are run over by them or left stranded.

Soft thinking is essential to cope with life in the 21st century with its increasingly Unthinkable , interconnected, fast, complex, chaotic, emergent, and unpredictable behaviour.

Soft thinking is essential to thrive in the 21st century – soft reductionist thinking is essential for innovation (to find the application of existing things in new ways) and soft holistic thinking is essential for invention (to create entirely new things).

Later in this series I hope to explore “soft” in education, technology and business.


May 25, 2009 - Posted by | culture, future, society

1 Comment »

  1. Reminds me of concepts ive read elsewhere under headings such as quantitative vs qualitative or process mode vs free flow mode of working on a problem

    Comment by Maggie | June 2, 2009 | Reply

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