Abduction: a pre-condition for the intelligent design of strategy
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A division manager explores possible explanations for some unexpected news about competitor and customer behaviors. A criminal investigator examines the evidence from the crime scene and a psychologist’s report about the accused person, seeking as she goes an explanation that fits all the facts. An archeologist sifts through fragments of pottery trying to find an explanation that would tie all the ancient pieces together in a coherent way. A commander attempts to devise the best explanation for conflicting reports of recent enemy behavior. United Nations investigators attempt to explain facts collected about the weapons development programs of a nation. What do these situations have in common? They are all examples of working from a limited set of data or evidence to come up with the best possible explanation, a kind of thinking that is known to psychologists and philosophers as abduction. Abduction is about making inferences from information that is surprising or anomalous, which are both very typical in strategic decision making. Strategists can gain a lot from knowing how to use abduction well. Great decision making is based to a significant degree on skills that are not commonly recognized. One misconception, for instance, is the belief that the art of good decision making lies in the exercise of choosing – but the final choice is only as good as the set of alternatives chosen among. Designing a good set of alternatives to choose from, and seeing new possibilities, is foundational, as the article in this issue of Journal of Business Strategy by Friedel and Liedtka (2007) demonstrates. Abduction goes even deeper. Conjuring up solutions to design problems is a well-recognized skill of great designers, but their ability to devise new ways of looking at the problem in the first place is key as well. This is where abduction comes in. The genesis of new designs, whether industrial, architectural or strategic, lies in the initial guesswork that designers do about the nature of the problem they are facing. It lies in making inferential leaps from a collection of raw data about a design situation to some plausible hypothesis about the underlying issue. Detecting what the problem ‘‘really’’ is – this is the starting point for creative design. This guesswork is important because it informs which range of solutions is considered and sets the boundaries for the kind of option ultimately chosen. Abduction, it turns out, plays a critical role in design thinking and is a process frequently integral to problem defining. Problem defining, in turn, sets the stage for possibility thinking. Therefore, good abductive thinking is a pre-condition for intelligent designing. Strategists, then, need to pay much more attention to the process of abduction and how they come up with tentative guesses about the problem situations they face because these guesses are a vital part of the process of designing strategy. Without high quality explanations about the bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion of information we face today, there is no ground on which to build strategy for a new future.
The article of record as published may be found at http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/02756660710760935
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