Last week I gave a talk in a class called Organizing for Innovation and Design, taught by Siobhan O'Mahony at Boston University. At the start of the class, I asked the students if there were any topics they wanted to cover specifically. They had read my bio, and checked out this blog, and one of the students wanted to understand the "method to my madness" in terms of my diverse educational background. They also were interested in my thoughts about continuing directly to grad school vs working before continuing their education.
During the course of my talk and Q&A, I managed to cover most of my thoughts on the multidisciplinary background - we were calling it the "patchwork education." In short, I feel that it is important to understand how different disciplines need to work together, and I felt I needed to learn about several of them in order to make better connections between them. My fields of study were engineering, design, and business, and rather than jumping between them, I fuse them together every day. Don't get me wrong, subject matter expertise is important, but innovation is not very successful when attempted by groups that live in isolated silos. Innovation requires making connections between seemingly disconnected disciplines.
By the end of the talk, I realized that I hadn't covered all the questions, so I sent Prof. O'Mahony an email with my follow-up responses, which included these thoughts on the multidisciplinary education question.
I would always recommend working before pursuing graduate education. My undergraduate curriculum was very multidisciplinary. If I hadn’t worked before pursuing my graduate degrees, I would have been blissfully unaware that most companies do not work in such a multidisciplinary way at all. Learning to navigate the silos, and exploring ways to bring them together was important in my MBA independent study thesis, which I would have missed out on if I hadn’t worked! This is how an education that appears to be a patchwork, actually becomes a quest to more fully pursue your passion.
Also, in terms of learning to combine creative problem solving and critical thinking skills, I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend taking a course or two in English Literature and/or Social Anthropology. My undergraduate minor was in English Literature, and in terms of learning how to discern what consumers mean from what they say, it was invaluable. In courses where you are expected to critically analyze the literature, you are learning to articulate the motivations of the characters beyond what is written, and to understand how the author is using language to create a mood or feeling. With Social Anthropology you are doing the same thing in terms of understanding cultures through their artifacts. The most important thing we can do through in-depth consumer interviewing is to develop an understanding that is deep enough that we can anticipate a consumer’s likely response to stimulus. (By stimulus I mean a new feature or product introduction, a competitor’s likely action, etc) You just don’t learn that in traditional Market Research – sorry!
I would love to hear from others who have pursued similar paths. One thing I know we will all have in common is that our experience in creating our own educational path serves us well as we connect seemingly disconnected silos in our careers!
Last year I wrote a post about abductive and adductive reasoning, and how they are important skills for innovation. A couple of months after I wrote it, I was in a discussion about the topic with someone who insisted that abductive reasoning is the only valid form of hypothetical reasoning. He pointed out that adductive reasoning isn’t listed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as evidence that it was an irrelevant term.
I had always thought that adductive thinking was not only relevant, but a necessary complement to abductive reasoning when speaking about hypothetical concepts. I'd like to go through my thought process for why it's relevant, and I'd love input from others about these ideas. For me it can best be summed up in a matrix to show how the types of reasoning relate to each other as I use them.
The matrix may be best explained with an example of Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree.
If we start with the inductive and deductive reasoning boxes, we see that the inputs to both are real, observable, linear, and provide reliable outcomes. So, if we observe that when an apple gets detached from a tree, it falls straight to the ground, we could draw the following conclusions.
By using inductive reasoning we would create a rule stating that when apples detach from the tree they fall straight to the ground. We could also easily apply this rule to anything that is unsupported in the air, will fall straight to the ground.
By using deductive reasoning, we could draw the following conclusion. If an apple became detached from the tree and fell straight to the ground, and I was standing underneath the apple, it would hit me on its way down to the ground. The application of this conclusion is what would make us uneasy if we were to walk under a crane lifting a heavy block.
The inputs to creating both the rule and the conclusion are observable and real. We can reproduce these situations and achieve predictable, repeatable results, which we would call a highly reliable outcome.
This is the type of reasoning and measurement that is highly valued in areas of business that are responsible for delivering reliable results. But is this the type of reasoning that led Newton to develop the idea that some force from the earth may be pulling the apple toward it? As with most new ideas, inductive and deductive reasoning are necessary, but not sufficient, to develop radically new theories.
If inductive reasoning creates a rule for what is happening, ie: the apple falls straight down to the ground, abductive reasoning is seeking to explain why that rule is true, ie: why is the apple falling straight down to the ground? Different hypotheses could be developed to explain why this is happening. Further observation could add another rule: the apple is falling faster as it gets closer to the ground. This additional information could rule out some hypotheses, and support others. Eventually a theory is developed that seems to be a likely reason why all of these rules are true. In this case, that there is a force from the earth that pulls objects toward it, later to be known as gravity.
If this theory is true, then what else could we conclude? This is where adductive reasoning comes into play. Adductive reasoning seeks to find plausible new conclusions based on the reason why a rule is true. In other words, what else could be true if there actually was a force within the earth that pulled objects toward it? It is this type of thinking that leads to different applications of the laws of gravity, eventually enabling us to determine the effects of different gravitational fields on our planet and others.
Where inductive and deductive reasoning produce outcomes with a high degree of reliability, abductive and adductive reasoning produce outcomes with a high degree of validity. That is, rather than seeking to set up an experiment that will produce repeatable results, it is necessary to set up experiments that help us see different aspects of our hypothesis. It helps us to more fully describe phenomena that cannot be observed, and instead needs to be inferred. Ultimately it helps us to know whether one hypothesis answers our question or solves our problem better than another hypothesis.
By now two things must be pretty clear as to where I’m going with this. First, I do believe that adductive reasoning is different from abductive reasoning. I have observed people who are much better at one than at the other. I have also observed people who have trouble with hypothetical situations in any capacity. This tells me that all four types of reasoning require slightly different skills, aptitudes, and/or ways of perceiving the world, that they are equally necessarily, and that none alone are sufficient in gaining a full understanding of new ideas. Second, I hope that this sheds more light on why innovation is so difficult in many companies. If a company is (as most companies are) responsible for delivering reliable, repeatable products and services, then they will value inputs that are real, observable, and yield reliable outcomes.
However, even though the conclusions drawn from abductive and adductive reasoning are not linear, they are certainly not without logic. This is what is difficult for many to grasp. While the measures may not be the same for new ideas, there should still be measures that ensure the validity of one idea over another. And these measures will be different from those used to measure day-to-day processes.
Think of it this way. What could Newton have concluded if his boss had suggested that he sit under 1000 apple trees to prove “with statistical significance” that his observation was correct?
I was recently asked to contribute a short piece to the blog section of a new website - OnInnovation. It's sponsored by the Henry Ford Foundation, and is intended to collect insights from innovators and thought leaders, and enable people to connect with their ideas. I thought it was a great idea, and one worth supporting. Below is an intro and link to my post:
Preserving Dignity to Drive Creativity
Posted August 10, 2010
We’ve all had the nightmares in one form or another. You find yourself at a podium and you forgot what your speech was about. Or you are at the office and realize that you aren’t wearing any pants. These nightmares are powerful reminders of our deep seated fear of exposing ourselves to the judgment of [...] Read Complete Post
I'd love to know what you think of the site. Does it have legs?
A few posts ago, I talked about how an organization's development and innovation processes should be different, as they have different goals. I then talked about how differences in perceptual skills are better determinants of successfull innovators than the organizational discipline in which they reside. At this point it may be useful to step back and look at the fundamental differences in the thought processes that enable people to be successful in the development and innovation processes.
As the development process requires a high degree of reliability and certainty, thought processes that involve inductive and deductive reasoning are most appropriate. Inductive reasoning determines rules by moving from specifics to generalities. For example, if every time we touch ice it is cold, we can then make a rule that all ice is cold. Deductive reasoning determines conclusions by moving from generalities to specifics. For example, if we know that all ice is cold and we are told that an object is made of ice, we conclude that the object will be cold. Both of these types of reasoning work hand-in--hand, and can be proven or disproven by observing or experiencing additional examples.
In contrast, the innovation process requires the creation of highly plausible hypotheses and solutions that are not readily observed or experienced - at least not in the current context. The thought processes most applicable in these circumstances are abductive and adductive reasoning. These types of reasoning require that intuition and creativity are applied to observed and experienced facts.
Abductive reasoning determines plausible hypotheses. For example, abductive reasoning would be used to determine hypotheses for why ice would be cold. Further investigation beyond external observation would be required to prove or disprove each hypothesis proposed. Adductive reasoning determines plausible solutions. For example, depending upon why ice is cold, we may develop new solutions for how to make ice. Each solution would need to be tested through experimentation. Both of these types of reasoning also work hand-in-hand.
We can see how different types of reasoning are applicable in different situations. We can also see how different types of reasoning are important in any functional discipline in an organization. Both innovation and development groups need multidisciplinary teams. When selecting people to work in either group, it's much more important to assess how they approach identifying and solving problems than which discipline they come from.
There is a lot of information out there about creativity; how to develop it, how to harness it productively, and how to nurture it within a company. What I see far less often, is how to hone critical thinking skills. As I've said before, I define innovation as, "Doing something new that adds value to the business." Creativity is necessary to explore new things. Critical thinking is necessary to recognize whether or not the new things will add value.
So far, one of the best ways I have been able to hone critical thinking skills is to start a "Salon." The American Heritage Dictionary defines a Salon as: A periodic gathering of persons noted in literature, philosophy, the fine arts, or similar areas, held at one person's home. Salons thrived during The Enlightenment period in the 18th century as a means to use reason to challenge previously accepted doctrines and traditions, and resulted in many humanitarian reforms.
For the last several years I have been leading informal Salon groups and I have found them to be invaluable in terms of sharpening my thinking. While I don't have any formal rules about how to set one up, I can offer a few thoughts about what has worked for me.
Start with a Pink Elephant There are usually a few issues that polarize people in a company. This polarization can bring discussions to a halt, as everyone avoids mentioning the pink elephant in the room. These Pink Elephants are often based on tradition or other immovable obstacles in an organization. Other good issues are when someone is exposed to new information that may cause a group to rethink how they perceive an issue. It's best to fully understand the implications of your position before a customer or client exposes the inconsistency.
Choose the right people Ideal candidates to join the Salon group are people who do not take discussions about issues personally, and who seek higher understanding of how to reconcile different points of view. The group should represent as much diversity as possible in how they think about issues, but similar in their openness to contribute new ideas or ways to combine existing ideas.
Seek higher understanding Salon discussions should seek to build frameworks for understanding an issue. These frameworks will often represent the different perspectives, and how they fit into the higher idea. This serves to reconcile differences, and provide rationale for abandoning ideas that are no longer useful. They should recognize the past usefulness of the ideas, and show how and why new circumstances require a change.
Don't try to solve everything The group should meet regularly. Allow enough time between meetings for people to "background process" the issues that have been discussed, allowing for new patterns to emerge. It's good if a meeting ends with open issues for people to think about, as these thoughts provide a good beginning for the next meeting.
Make it safe to say "dumb" things Recognize that the issues you are discussing have not been articulated clearly in the past. It will take many tries by group members to get the thoughts out. People may need to draw things, or write ideas, or try to build frameworks to illustrate what they are thinking. Expect that before the clarity dawns, there will be a lot of muddy articulations of ideas. It's good to encourage discussion of ideas that haven't yet been worked out. That's why you're here.
Push for clarity Ultimately the goal is to establish clarity on an issue, that can be described in simple terms. Often after a few sessions someone will say something that is instantly recognized by the group as the simple way to say what everyone has been struggling to describe.
These are just a few thoughts on what has worked for me. As I think of more I will continue to post new ideas. I think there is far to little written about the value of critical thinking, especially about how to use it as a way to make creative ideas work. I'd love to hear about what others are doing, and what has worked for you.
Seth Godin had a post today about creativity. In it he talks about how, for him, creativity is what happens at the edges of the normal routine. As such, what is creative for one person, may be rote routine for another.
Seth's post is a good reminder that creativity can take any form, and is not dependent on the tools or skills used in the process. It's easy to think of people with drawing skills as more creative than people with spreadsheet skills, but is that really true? I would contend that a photo-realist painting may exhibit extraordinary skill, but it may require less creativity than developing a spreadsheet for a new business model that disrupts an industry. And even then, the processes used to arrive at a finished product may require far more creativity than the uniqueness of the product may let on.
Every day, I see people making quick assumptions about creative ability based on initial observations. This is a good reminder to really engage people and ask how they arrived at their conclusions, why they made the choices they made or used the tools they used. I find that those answers usually change my initial perceptions, and I am able to find remarkable thinking in what superficially seemed mundane.
Certainty is the holy grail today. Everyone is looking for that spot of safe ground that won't fall away from underneath. Yet everyone also knows that the old, certain ways of doing business will no longer work. Innovation is imperative, and many companies are trying to embrace the challenge. I applaud this effort and will offer one important caution. Beware of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
People have been experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect forever, but the name has only begun to gain mainstream traction in the past year or so. The crux of the Dunning-Kruger effect is this: "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge." Why? Because the more you know, the more you realize what you don't know. When you realize what you don't know, it's more difficult to project confidence about being a master of a topic. That's why the masters of a profession usually exhibit the most humility and see all new projects as a challenge.
In fields that are rooted in certainty, people can often see through confidence that is the result of inexperience. In fields that are rooted in uncertainty, such as innovation, organizational development, some types of scenario planning, and others, there are no traditional benchmarks by which to judge the true level of mastery. The result is that the ones who sound confident can be incorrectly perceived as more competent. The people and organizations who will thrive in the future will be the ones who can embrace the uncertain challenges that lie ahead. Most organizations will need help with this, and here are a few points you should consider when evaluating potential partners.
When reviewing a presentation of work, understand that the end result is often obvious in hindsight, and the presentation will show the logical, linear path toward the answer. When probed with follow-up questions, the true master should be able to talk how the answer became obvious. The master should be able to describe the other potential outcomes and why they were not chosen. The creative tension that the team needed to wrestle with should become apparent, as well as how it was resolved. Paths that were subsequently abandoned, and the changes that were needed along the way may be discussed (as long is it does not violate confidentiality).
On the other hand, the poser will stick to the linear story. It will be neatly tied up in a bow. It will seem as if the work was obvious and tension free throughout the process. The hard work will be described more in terms of the volume of work rather than the intellectual challenge within it. The poser may tell you with absolute certainty what your answer may look like even before you start the project, or may want to skip the beginning of the project to evaluate some "clearly obvious" solutions from the get-go.
Think about how your organization chooses partners to take on these types of challenges. The most important thing to remember is that you are looking to work with people who exhibit competence in dealing with uncertainty. You are not looking for people who talk about uncertain challenges with certainty, regardless of how comforting it may feel in the moment. Don't succumb to the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Last week Brandweek had an article about Design Thinking, and I'll have to say it was a bit misleading. I'm not going to nitpick the article, but I would like to address a few points that I think are valuable to understand about the topic.
I should start by saying that I am a proponent of Design Thinking, just as I am a proponent of Business Thinking, Legal Thinking, Engineering Thinking, and Political Thinking. All are approaches to solving problems that have evolved to ensure rigor and best practices in their respective professions. Where it gets interesting is when a problem in one discipline benefits from an approach used by another discipline. The current buzz about Design Thinking is an answer to the business world's need to innovate. The current processes used to guide businesses don't lend themselves well to doing something new that can't be measured by current benchmarks. Designers regularly create new solutions that have no benchmarks, so taking a page from the way they work should be helpful to achieve these goals. And it is.
What gets misleading is when the distinction is blurred between an approach that is used in a discipline, and the work, skills, and deliverables expected of professionals in that discipline. If a business person uses design thinking to develop an innovative business model, the outcome is still a business model and the profession is still that of a business person. It does not mean they should be called designers, as they do not possess the skills required of a design professional. If a designer uses business thinking to make their designs more relevant to the business, they are still designers. The article references people with design backgrounds who are now in marketing roles. That would be called a career change.
Finally, it is misleading to narrowly associate tools with disciplines. The article associates ethnography with the way designers learn about consumers, and suggests that focus groups are more for business goals. This is just not true. Ethnography is a research tool, and is used when a deep understanding of consumer values is necessary to solve a problem. This could be a business problem, a design problem, or a pure science problem. If we are truly employing design thinking methodology, we are less worried about what tools we are using, and are instead doing whatever is necessary to achieve our goals.
I don't know who first coined the term Design Thinking (I've heard it was either Tim Brown of IDEO or Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Business), but Roger Martin's article is still the best I've seen in terms of defining the value of design thinking to a business. His article on Reliability and Validity is well worth the read. Reliability vs Validity.doc (42.00 kb)
Nov. 13 - Update today from Jess to clarify the attribution of who first coined the term Design Thinking:
As far as origins, Peter Rowe wrote a book called "Design Thinking" that came out in 1987. Not sure about earlier usage, but I'm skeptical of either Brown or Martin being the originator. Here's the Google Book result for Rowe's "Design Thinking"
The mantra that good ideas can come from anywhere is true. It is also true that some of the best innovations are inspired by solutions found in nature or other unrelated categories, such as George de Mestral's idea for velcro coming from burdock thistles.
What is not entirely true is that innovation happens by chance. While the solutions themselves were inspired by seemingly random occurrences, the fact that they were recognized as viable solutions is not random at all. Defining the conditions that would constitute a viable solution is hard work, and it is this work that separates successful innovation from fads or irrelevant inventions.
Companies are realizing that it is more important than ever to be able to innovate in meaningful ways. Many are scrambling to figure out how to solicit new ideas, or to figure out which new technologies will propel them into the future. I have seen very few who are developing new processes that will enable them to recognize viable ideas when they see them. And yet, it will be this skill that will enable long-term success from innovation efforts.
I wrote a post not long ago about how good design embraces constraints. Consistent with that idea, I would say that good innovation processes create the right constraints. When you think about your company's innovation processes, how much attention is given to developing the right constraints vs generating random ideas?
I talk a lot about consumer insight: how to learn from consumers, how to derive insights, and how to translate them into useful criteria to guide decision-making. I realized that I don't talk so much about how this connects to the design process, and I'll be mixing in more of that from now on.
I've often heard clients talk about holding back on the constraints because they don't want to hinder the creative process. While the intention is good, nothing could be further from the truth. The creative process depends upon constraints. Figuring out how to manage constraints is what creativity is all about. Having a blank slate to design whatever inspires you is what fine art is all about. It may be fun and interesting, but it most likely won't help to achieve your business goals.
Next time you're working with a designer, remember that it's your job to let the designer know about all the constraints to the process ahead of time. Along the way some of these constraints may be challenged or made irrelevant, and that's part of the creative process at work. If you don't do this, the designer will create their own constraints, and what gets designed may not be relevant to your business at all. At that point everyone's time has been wasted.
Also remember that you don't need to decide what the answer is, and have the designer just draw it up and make it pretty. Design is about problem solving. Problem solving needs constraints. Otherwise it's just decoration, and that's a different task altogether.