Home » Archive » Abductive thinking — not about kidnapping

, written by Jeremy. Read the commentary.

I love design, even if my vanilla background and black text don’t prove it. In grade five I discovered that Ms. Faulkner gave A’s for illustrated stories and B’s for the plain text version. By 13 I knew that ladies preferred a poem to shouted declarations of undying ardour. My early conviction that design was distinctive kept me following design even when I wandered off into the “real” things of life (like regression equations, Brownian motion, and sodding elasticities of substitution).

This month’s issue of Fast Company does a bang-up job of laying out the intersection of design and business.

In the article they chat with Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business. Martin’s short on the future of commoditity goods and services. China and India are going to pound to dust any company that tries competing on price and cost. He asserts that future prosperity depends on the ability of entrepreneurs to create “elegant, refined products and services.” Martin says, bottom line: “Businesspeople don’t just need to understand designers better — they need to become designers.”

Presently the core differentiator between business person and designer is imagination. Imagination is a juggernaut meta-human skill. You can get a computer running business simulations, cross-referrencing case studies but there are two key areas that remain the sole domain of humanity: cognitive synthesis and imagination. Imagination lets designers see problems and opportunities in the abstract where commodity builders see things in the linear progression of basic mathematics.

I’ve written before about Robert McKee, a screenwriting lecturer, who distills stories to their essence. Every great story maintains a sense of mystery and an element of imminent loss – a challenge. Martin agrees and believes innovators need to take hold of the mystery — the abstract challenge — and create a solution.

The trick is breaking up the problem so your imagination can engage. When you see a challenge you’ve faced before you immediately defer to old tactics. To be innovative you need to break up the line of numbers and analysis and bring back the mystery.

Martin says the key is a combination of inductive and deductive reasoning — abductive thinking. Abductive thinking is “suggesting that something may be and reaching out to explore it.” It’s like the hypothesis of the scientist or the suspicion of the detective — instead of acting on what’s certain, bet on what’s probable.

In the article Martin charges business schools to take a position in the design-based economy. He criticizes MBA’s for only producing linear thinkers when “the real challenge lies in getting better and better at a different thing: devising clever solutions to wickedly difficult problems.”

Martin, the Rotman School, the the Ontario College of Art & Design, the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design, and Stanford University are building programs to combine analytical thinking with horizontal thinking — thinking based on intuition, experimentation, and empathy.

This is a great move but maybe MBA’s are the last places to do it. I’ve raved before about A.H. Maslow’s view on education and the need for a new kind of human. This is a move in the right direction but why try to teach adults to be creative after we’ve pounded it out of them in high-school? If we’d affirm the natural desire to innovate and create early we wouldn’t need to build new business schools.

Well, I do see the point. Who’s going to lead us while we try to fix the elementary school system? So, I’ve started working with two entrepreneurs in this area. First is Heliotrope which is dedicated to magination’s tremendous importance in our lives. And then a design and communication strategy group here in Ottawa (note their newsletter “SIFT” is not me or mine … but you can’t blame them really — it’s plainly a terrific name).


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