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From “Design Thinking” with Love: Use Abductive Reasoning to Flourish in Uncertainty

As a business leader, you understand just how challenging the past few months have been due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Right now, businesses around the globe are undergoing a modern exodus – the so-called digital transformation – fast-tracking us from the old world to the new.

While there is still a lot of uncertainty about the coming months, business decisions still need to be made, even in the absence of information and certainty.

So, how can you embrace the digital transformation of your organization, and achieve breakthrough while information is scarce? Well, the answer lies within a common Design Thinking principle used to solve uncommon problems. It is the least-known type of reasoning. It is called abductive reasoning.

The 3 Types of Reasoning 

You may be wondering… what exactly is abductive reasoning? Well, let’s take a look at the two more popular forms of reasoning first: deductive and inductive reasoning.

Deductive Reasoning

Deductive reasoning is the most popular form of reasoning. It’s the type of reasoning used in math and physics. You essentially begin with a general hypothesis, then gather evidence to prove its validity.

This type of reasoning is commonly broken down into the millennia-old question: Is Socrates mortal?

The question is answered by the assertion of a general rule ending with a conclusion. In the example, the order is:

  1. All men are mortal.
  2. Socrates is a man.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

In business, this is the type of thinking your finance department uses to plan its annual budget. For instance, if your company estimates 20 million in revenue, in order to generate 5 million in profit, you’ll need to invest a maximum of 15 million into raw materials, staff, operations and marketing.

Inductive Reasoning

The second most popular type of reasoning is inductive reasoning. This type of reasoning uses experimentation to come up with a hypothesis.

In business, inductive reasoning is commonly used within marketing, and specifically, within the customer insights team.

For instance, you might take a survey of a number of customers, where you find that 72% of survey respondents who purchased a certain product were under the age of 30. You could conclude that teenagers and young adults are a better target market for that product than the older generations.

Inductive reasoning begins with specific observations, oftentimes with statistical analysis, and ends with a likely conclusion, rather than a certain conclusion.

Abductive Reasoning

Compared to deductive and inductive reasoning, abductive reasoning is a form of reasoning where you make hypotheses based on incomplete sets of information.

Simply put, abductive reasoning is all about making educated guesses to come up with the most likely solution despite having only little information available.

This type of reasoning is how doctors often come up with a patient’s diagnosis. For instance, a doctor may hear that his/her patient’s symptoms include increased mucus production and regular coughing at night and in the early morning. This may lead him/her to conclude that the best explanation for these symptoms is asthma. [Please note this example bears no medical validity.]

Abductive reasoning isn’t just used by doctors. It’s also been used by many infamous scientists to form their hypotheses, and it’s also how most designers work. Believe it or not, but abductive reasoning is the technique used by the fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, to solve his cases. (!!)

The interesting point about abductive reasoning is that two different reasoners can come up with two different solutions based on the same set of incomplete information. Different people with different experiences, backgrounds and knowledge bases will return different results. Diversity, anyone? 🙂 And this is what makes this technique, if we may say so, so special.

Abductive Reasoning Meets Design Thinking, or vice-versa

Abductive reasoning could be thought of as “the argument to the best explanation”, as described by the design strategist, Jon Kolko. It’s the best guess that makes the most sense, based on prior experience and the information available.

So, how does abductive reasoning collide with Design Thinking?

“Design synthesis is fundamentally a way to apply abductive logic within the confines of a design problem.” (R. Coyne, Logic Models of Design, 1988).

When your organization is faced with a problem, you need to be able to come up with solutions that actually work, or at least make sense and point in that direction. But sometimes, you need to solve a problem when there just isn’t much information available. And that’s probably the point in time when teams will reach out to ideation processes known to drive innovation – and here comes Design Thinking.

Thereafter, a diverse team of people – often cross-functional in nature – will gather in agile rooms and wreck post-it havoc around the walls. They are doing Design Thinking – everyone says. In fact, this is what’s happening: the diverse work- and life experiences of the people in that room are being combined with the information available to help shape a good enough conclusion to the problem – the sudden solution that comes like a flash that some people like to call insight.

Abductive Reasoning is a fundamental building block of Design Thinking. It lays at the heart of creative problem solving. What some may consider creative brilliance in coming up with business solutions, isn’t simply an act of genius. It’s a learned practice.

Fine-tuning abductive reasoning is a skill that can be developed over time. Many traditional businesses fail to understand this, preferring the statistical comfort of inductive reasoning and the conclusive certainty of deductive reasoning. However, if your organization is to come up with creative solutions with incomplete, or scattered information, such as in the times of the pandemic, you’ll need to let go of certainty in decision making.

Using abductive reasoning as a part of your strategy design will ultimately help further your organization’s digital transformation. Without embracing this backbone of Design Thinking and applying it to a wider range of problem-solving scenarios, it will be extremely challenging to carry your organization forward into the “new normal”.

Tips for “Abductive Thinking”

More organizations are beginning to embrace abductive reasoning as a way to accelerate their organization’s digital transformation. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

1. Accept Uncertainty as a Pre-Requisite for Innovation

It’s rare that a great idea is ever proven ahead of time with statistical evidence. When working your way towards your next solution, remember to challenge typical explanations, actively search for new data points, and continue inferring into new realms.

If you want your company to flourish, you need to embrace abductive reasoning as an equal to deduction and induction.

2. Don’t Forget About Technological Constraints

The reality is that solutions must be found within the sweet spot where the desirable meets the viable and the feasible. And technology, or better said, the depth of technology availability, use and adoption will play a crucial role here. And this statement has internal as well as external validity. That is: is your organization AND/OR your customer-base there yet?

To illustrate that, take a trip back to the 90s, when software experts inferred from the explosion of internet usage that everyone would do all their shopping online in no time. However, this wasn’t yet possible at a time when both back-end infrastructure and online security were still brand new, leading to failure.

3. If it doesn’t add value, ditch it! ASAP

When designing a new product, service, or strategy, you need to remember that it needs to make sense, business-wise. It can be easy to get off-track and come up with a creative solution that’s backed by some kind of technological benefit only.

However, if it doesn’t solve an urgent problem that needs solving now, then it’s futile. At the end of the day, the beauty of Design Thinking is in the solutions to real problems that make users’ lives easier.

One example of this is the “Apple Newton”, touted by Apple as the world’s first portable, pocket-sized data assistant. When it launched back in 1993, it failed immediately (Medium). Why? Because it didn’t solve a real, major problem, especially compared to the price it demanded. Laptops were already available that solved the same problem easily. The Newton didn’t create any new value on the market.

4. Seek to Achieve Balance in Reasoning

When it comes to utilizing abductive reasoning, there’s a fine line to over-complicating things. Remember that it’s not helpful to over-indulge in thinking when there are clear observations, data points, and conclusions that can guide us.

Instead, seek to achieve balance within your reasoning.

Successful leaders understand abductive reasoning is scarce in the modern world, and take it upon themselves to help their organizations embrace it. They aim to use both conclusive logics based on data and intuition to reach into the realm of what could be leading to success.

Embrace Abductive Reasoning to Flourish during the Pandemic

Despite the uncertainty of the current pandemic, leaders are still faced with the challenge of decision-making and coming up with creative solutions on the fly even though there’s lack of information available.

Design Thinking is an agile way you can achieve ideation by using abductive reasoning when full sets of information simply aren’t available. It’s also a way you, as a leader, can fast-track your organization through the digital transformation taking place right now while offering an edge-up on the competition.

Having said that, I can only add, with

  1. All problem-solving ideas are unproven hypotheses.
  2. Using abductive reasoning is a problem-solving idea.
  3. Therefore, using abductive reasoning is an unproven hypothesis.

Have fun listening to and following yours and your peoples’ insights! 🙂

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