Connecting the dots encourages bad thinking

Connecting the dots is one of those common metaphors that we don’t think about very much. When we do invoke it, however, it leads us astray more often than it helps.

The premise is that the elementary school activity of revealing a hidden picture by drawing lines from one numbered dot to the next teaches us something transferable about problem solving. The pleasure of reading mysteries and detective stories flows reinforces the same message. There are a series of clues lying about waiting to be found; rearrange and connect them in the right order to reveal the culprit or foil the terrorist.

When the bad guys succeed, we criticize the good guys because they failed to arrange the obvious dots into the now obvious order. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but that obscures a more important critique of the method and its premises.

Connecting the dots makes one of two assumptions about the end of the process. Either, there is a picture to be perceived when the dots are connected in the right sequence. Or, there is an answer to the story or riddle when the facts are arranged in order. Both of these assumptions lead us wrong in the real world. First, they presume a single, correct, answer; this works for puzzles and simple problems in math, nowhere else. Second, they presume a single, correct, ordering of the dots.

At best, which isn’t very good, connecting the dots is a label for retrospective sense-making masquerading as a problem-solving strategy. Possibly useful if your goal is to divert blame. Useless as a thinking strategy.

2 thoughts on “Connecting the dots encourages bad thinking”

  1. I agree with your assessment. Many problems are not puzzles but design problems: you don’t have a series of puzzle pieces that fit together only one way (perhaps obscured by many useless or irrelevant pieces that have been added to the mix), instead you have a collection of LEGO blocks that can be combined in many different ways. The challenges are: what do you want to create and what LEGO blocks can you add to your mix to reach “adjacent possible” configurations.

  2. “At best, which isn’t very good, connecting the dots is a label for retrospective sense-making masquerading as a problem-solving strategy. Possibly useful if your goal is to divert blame. Useless as a thinking strategy.” Very very good paragraph.
    The old ‘make the dots connect without lifting your pen’ exercise did seem to be useful in the moment is it allowed for a good discussion about mental models in frames. But you will make an excellent point about retrospective sense-making. ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.