Lately the notion of “abductive reasoning” has been cropping up in a few conversations I’ve seen around knowledge management and governance. Credit seems to go to Dave Snowden for introducing the idea to the KM community (in this post), with credit to Max Boisot for what sounds like a lovely and productive dinner. Gordon Ross reminded me of it in a comment to my last post on best practice.
I thought it would be interesting to provide a bit of background on how a different community of thinkers has been tackling this issue, and for quite a long time now. I am referring to the community of “design studies” researchers in the UK, whose roots began at Cambridge in the late 1960’s.
I am sure there are many threads to this puzzle I am leaving out by focusing on the Cambridge School, but this is the one I am most familiar with and offer it to the community as a potentially useful kick-start for a larger historiography of the term.
The roots of “design studies”
The interest in the use of abductive, analogic and intuitive problem-solving has major roots in the “design studies” movement of the late 1960’s and 1970’s. This movement started in the UK, primarily thanks to the work of Leslie Martin and Lionel March at the Cambridge Centre at the Cambridge School of Architecture.
March and Martin were at the head of a generation of scholars seeking to systematise and understand how architects and designers thought about the world. This paralleled research into cybernetics and artificial intelligence in the states by Herbert Simon, but for some reason it seems that there was a critical confluence of design thinkers in the UK at that time, and most of the literature around “how designers think”, induction, abduction, etc. seems to come from this period.
A couple of key books and journals from this field are, “How Designers Think“, “Designerly Ways of Knowing“, “arq: architectural research quarterly“, “Design Studies Journal“, and to a lesser extent these days, “Environment and Planning, B”. I am also partial to the early work of Bill Hillier (one of my early mentors and MSc tutor), such as several extremely important chapters in “Space is the Machine” on design, knowledge, and the scientific method.
The key ideas
The original intention of this group was to understand and document the design process. The hope was that if you understood how architects and designers perceived the world, you could replicate this in computer or expert-systems (and then do away with or “improve” the designer).
Because replicability was one of the key goals, a natural sciences approach was taken to observing designers. A lot of controlled experiments were set up in laboratories to test “design problem solving”, most of which failed miserably. This led to a more ethnographic approach, including some of the first anthropological approaches to knowledge elicitation that I’ve ever seen.
What they found was that,
“Scientists adopt a problem-focused strategy and architects a solution-focused strategy.” (Lawson, 1979)
“The scientific method is a pattern of problem-solving behaviour employed in finding out the nature of what existis, whereas the design method is a pattern of behaviour employed in inventing things of value which do not yet exists. Science is analytic, design is constructive.” (Gregory, 1966)
This places a heavy emphasis on action, testing, and observation, in that order, and highlights the essentially creative nature of design.
Nigel Cross, who is still teaching at the Open University, suggests that design is,
“a process of pattern-synthesis, when the solution is not simply ‘lying there in the data’ but has to be actively constructed by the designer’s own efforts.”
You can see how this relates to the notion of abduction. Peirce suggests that, “the whole fabric of our knowledge is one matted felt of pure hypothesis confirmed and refined by induction.” This is very similar to design. In other words,
“[Architects] learn about the nature of the problem largely as a result of trying out solutions, whereas the scientists set out specifically to study the problem.” (Lawson, 1980)
Schum notes that if Peirce is correct, “new ideas emerge as we combine, marshal or organize thoughts and evidence in different ways.” Because the design method is fundamentally exploratory, it is about hypothesis generation based on the most uncertain and sketchy forms of data. It uses both abductive and constructive reasoning to show “what might be”, instead of deductive reasoning to show “what is”.
Relevance to organisational change and complexity governance
What designers do is get a quick estimate of the situation and begin to test its parameters by immediately creating options – generative a raft of options and seeing how they perform – and then gradually weaning them down to a satisfactory one.
In sensemaking terms, designers continually and rapidly “Probe-Sense-Respond”, using bold and forceful hunches that help them both define and influence the problem towards an agreeable solution.
This strategy works extremely well in complex, uncertainty and adaptive environments. The great structural engineer and design Ted Happold, one of co-designers of the Sydeny Opera House, is quoted as having said,
“I have, perhaps, one real talent: which is that I don’t mind at all living in an area of total uncertainty.”
This has vital implications for change management and strategy. The first is that analysis cannot proceed action, the problem and solution evolve together, and the only intelligent way to move forward through uncertainty is through hunch formation, experimentation and creative hypothesis testing.
The second is that there is often no right answer. This relates to another aspect of design, the one which makes it commercially successful. Design is persuasive.
To demonstrate this, Herbert Simon recounts the story of the Tugendhat House in Czechoslovakia, designed by Mies Van Der Rohe in the 1930’s. The client wanted a conventional house and when he showed the surprising design to the client, he didn’t like it. Mies is recounted as having said,
“He wasn’t very happy at first. But then we smoked some good cigars and drank some glasses of goof Rhein wine… and then he began to like it very much.”
Another famous British designer, Denys Lasdun, is quoted as having said,
“Our job is to give the client… not what he wants, but what he never dreamed he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognizes it as something he wanted all the time.”
This means the job of the organisational designer is to provide clients with both a method and a vision for how to proceed in complex, uncertain and dynamic environments.
What the “design studies” literature argues is that design both explorative and creative, and that having tools which help you explore the world and better understand the outcomes of your creative actions will produce both higher quality exploration and more effective functional impacts.