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Non-Linear Agendas and Linear Thinking

Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue

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Part T of Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue: Collection of papers and notes, problems and possibilities on the new frontier of high-risk gatherings concerning social development (1991).


There is increasing expression of regret at the prevalence of "linear thinking". By this is meant any ordering of concepts which is sequential between (or within) subdivisions but contains no loops linking non-proximate elements in the sequence. Such linearity constitutes a method of ordering experience which is recognized as crude in relationship to the complexity of the environment.

Linear thinking is reinforced by many of the conventional responses to constraints on presentation of information:

  1. The necessarily linear sequence of: words in sentences, paragraphs, sections, and chapters in documents. (This is only slightly modified by the device of parallel columns of text).
  2. The linear schemes for numbering subdivisions of any structured document or thesaurus.
  3. The sequential ordering of words of a speaker at a meeting.

The agenda of a meeting conforms to this pattern of linearity in the sequence of agenda items. Even the use of parallel sessions or sequences of sessions maintains the linearity. There are no particularly satisfactory procedures to ensure cross-fertilization between sessions and convergence on new levels of significance or synthesis.

An interesting alternative to the conventional representation of an agenda by items in a linear sequence having a beginning an end, is to treat the sequence as circular, so that the end joins the beginning. The agenda items are then associated with points on the circumference, through which the meeting may progress sequentially.

This raises the interesting questions:

  1. Should the subdivision of the circumference into agenda items constitute a complete set as implied by this approach - thus "exhausting" the topic? And does it, if only by an "other matters" item?
  2. Should the last element in any such sequence link back to the first - "closing the loop"? Or is the relationship between the beginning and the end unclear and, if so, why?

For more complex agendas, with distinct themes considered to be complementary or in some way related, one circular sequence may be subdivided for each such principal theme. But rather than separating the circles, they may then be represented as overlapping, such that the related agenda items in different thematic circles are at the points of overlap. Since such circles necessarily overlap at two points, one can indicate the priority of theme A over B, and the other the priority of theme B over A - necessary conditions for functional interweaving.

In order to move beyond this simple representation of non-linear interconnectedness, the communication links between non-adjacent items, necessary to preserve the topology of the representation, may then be inserted. This permits the agenda to be represented as a 3-dimensional configuration of functionally related items in which the necessary relationships to maintain the integrity of the configuration are explicitly indicated.

This procedure has the advantage of challenging any simplistic comprehension of the verbal description normally used to identify individual agenda items. Then the meaning to be associated with such descriptors emerges to a greater extent from the position of the items within the configuration. The latter also raises useful questions about the relative importance of agenda items possibly leading to the combination or subdivision of some of them.

Clarifying the non-linear relationships between the agenda items can guide conceptualization and action concerning the relationship between meeting sub-division (into groups, commissions, etc) and any attempt at synthesis in plenary.

Configurations of the kind described may also be considered as representing functional subdivision through the subdivision of a spherical surface area rather than a line. From this point of view, the implications of subdivision by triangulation (the basis of topographical survey techniques), rather than by linear subdivision, should be considered. The former respects relationships, the latter ignores them.

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