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The Anti-Circle Bias

A colleague once encouraged me to make my powerpoint graphics linear, because then people will better understand them. “Show them where they are on the line, how much progress have they made, what is left to be completed.” But complex systems are not linear, and life is not linear, so why must we show oversimplify into a straight line?

Our worlds are circular and cyclical, let’s show it that way. The universe is made up of circles, orbits, planets, rotations, why do we insist on imposing lines on them?

Circular Hand Gestures. In public speaking, they tell you to limit your hand motions to straight lines. Circular hand motions are said to give the impression that the speaker is unhinged. This advice has created a lot of stiff, boring speakers. If something is a circle, use a circular motion. Be free!

The Linear Sinkhole. For years I created a sinkhole using traditional project management techniques. I found that I had to keep fudging the plan and reports to keep up with what was really happening. Red flag! We know that testing will find bugs that we need to fix, yet the plan showed development followed by test. Where was the fix cycle? And we forever worked towards deliverables while the real work that needed to get done was not completed. The team would ask “Should we work on the software or the deliverables?” We created a sinkhole waiting to happen, where there was a thin covering of deliverables and reports, but underneath was a giant hole. And holes, by the way, are round.

When we create representations of the world that are so far from reality, we then start operating in a phony parallel universe where we try to make the model true. Why? Because our project plan and reports had to be communicated in a straight line. We hid the circles underneath for fear that someone might think circles were inefficient.

Agile uses circles to show the iterative nature of sprints and daily stand-ups.

The Spiral. Many paradigms have adopted a spiral as a compromise between lines and circles. I have mixed feelings about spirals. It’s a stepping stone, acknowledging the cyclical nature of work while also showing forward movement. What’s missing is the closed loop of the circle, the circles in a spiral never actually connect. The gear metaphor works pretty well but fails to show forward movement. If someone has a better metaphor, the world will be forever grateful.

Hair Circles. I have curly hair, considered career-limiting in many places. For many years, fashion magazines warned that if women wanted to advance in their career, they had better cut it short or straighten their hair. Curls were said to convey lack of seriousness. “Who needs all those circles on your head? It makes you look like a crazy person!” I wear my hair long, and curly. You wanna pit Mother Nature against Corporate Bosses? My money is on Mother Nature.

Find a place in your world that is being forced into a linear model, that wants to be circular. How can you change the visual representation into a circle?

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