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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Gentlemen start your engines: Mystery...Heuristic...Algorithm!!!

It is said that innovation is about seeing the world not as it is, but as it could be.

Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, says in his new book
"The Design of Business"The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage, that as a concept, 'design thinking' has been evolving only over the past decade. This discipline "constantly seeks to strike a balance between reliability and validity, art and science, between intuition and analytics, and between exploration and exploitation". It is about applying the methods of the designer to the operation of business and the most crucial tool used is that of 'abductive' thinking.

Business practice however, has long operated on the basis of 'deductive' or 'inductive logic'.
You know, if A and B always produce C, then when you see C, you can deduce that A and B had been present in the making of C. Deductive reasoning moves from the general to the specific.

And inductive reasoning works from the specific to the general, but it does not always ensure the truth. Eg, If every time I drop a ball it bounces, and all balls are spherical objects , then I can infer by a process of inductive reasoning that all spherical objects bounce.
(If this is also deductive, somebody tell me please).

This analytical approach to business is what produces the facts and data which will be used to generate the same reliable results.When businesses find a method
(ie, a "heuristic") for doing things which will consistently produce the results they desire , they refine that method down to an "algorithm" (ie a set of documented procedures which, when strictly followed, will consistently produce the same result). ( "Heuristic" and "algorithm" are Roger Martin's lexicology).
An example would be the art of burger-making, refined to a process that McDonalds replicates in every restaurant.
And this way of doing business has consistently worked for most notable successful corporations.
That is, until it does not work any more.

It is inevitable that over time the values, tastes, needs and wants of people will change. The only constant of time is change. So while a business model and the algorithm that expresses it, will produce profitable returns in the foreseeable future, it will not work indefinitely. Businesses have looked to the results of the past in order to develop systems which will lead to predictable results in the future. And this approach works very well until customers start to behave differently as they become exposed to new knowledge and start making different choices.
There comes a point when the processes that you build are no longer valid or enough, for the times.
Roger Martin adverts to the necessity of feeding the “knowledge funnel” with new ideas to forestall the stagnation of business.
How he puts it is, we need to explore the next ‘wicked problem’, the next ‘mystery’ after having developed our star business idea through the funnel from mystery to heuristic to algorithm. This unfortunately is where most businesses become complacent and rest on their laurels. They cease to dream and wonder “what is the next great mystery?” Having worked through the knowledge funnel and honed the great idea down to an algorithm, the thinkers and designers should then be able to pass that algorithm on to those who can simply implement it (and who are less well paid). This releases the drivers, the dreamers and the innovators of the business to put their minds to ‘what next can we dream up”. Now they have the time to look at the trends that are developing in the world and observe how it’s influencing the desires of customers and people generally, who may become the next market for the next great product or service.
This idea of wondering what could be, rather than using past data to deduce or induce the next logical solution, is the form of reasoning that is termed ‘abductive logic’. Martin credits Charles Sanders Peirce, one of the early American philosophers, with using the term "abductive logic". This form of reasoning is not to declare a conclusion to be true or false, but to “posit what could possibly be true”. So abductive reasoning is concerned not so much with what conclusions the data point to, but questions what is missing, or what just does not seem right, in order to make new inferences about what could be. And these design thinkers intuitively ‘feel’ that this idea will work, but don’t have the data to support it. ( Obviously not, because the idea has not been proved yet. It will not be until some time in the future).
Design thinkers therefore seem to be the greatest nightmare of all those logical people in a business, who have worked very hard on designing the ‘systems’. Worst of all is the notion that an intuitive idea may fail as much as it may succeed.
So the two camps would seem to be unhappy enough together in the same room. But yet they need each other for the business to innovate, become efficient, and grow. Somebody has to imagine the future because it does not look like anything in the past. And the systems the analytical types have put in place are absolutely vital for the business to move from the heuristic to the algorithm stage which will streamline processes, add efficiencies and cut costs.
So how shall ‘the ‘twain meet’?
Why, by learning to speak the language of the other of course!
How difficult could it be for designers to learn to talk about GANT charts and schedules and risk avoidance?
And just how difficult is it for the analysts to talk about flaky things like intuition, and dreams, ideas, and (even more flaky) emotions?
(Well it’s very difficult I imagine since I can never even remember what a GANT is, and I’ve been hearing the word often enough. I have to google it again. Oh right...I spelled it wrong!).
Nonetheless, Roger Martin identifies an inherent weakness in the business models of the day. It just makes sense. All ideas become stale after a while and therefore we need to look into the future and imagine what could be.
At the risk of sounding flaky, in 1963 a great man said: “I have a dream…”.
And in 2009 another man took an oath of office.
But it does not take 46 years for businesses to move from the mystery (the dream) to the heuristic to the algorithm.
Does it?


  1. Very well written, though I don't agree much of what Roger Martin says. I am not very sure as to whether he understands design at all or how a design takes shape. He lectures and writes to entice the business world.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement Dibyendu De.
    I am new to blogging and your comments will motivate me to continue here.

  3. What do you think about recursive logic of design proposed by Yong Zeng?
    Zeng, Y. and Cheng, G. D., 1991, On the logic of design, Design Studies, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 137-141.

  4. Celine thanks for the reference to Zeng's paper. I am not sufficiently mathematically inclined to be able to make sense of his equations, and neither am I from the design discipline (law is my training).

    However as I begin my journey into exploring the concept of design as it applies to business, I look forward to learning about the views of others on this fascinating topic.

    Recursive logic according to Zeng's explanation certainly has validity to explain the concept of design thinking. He says that 'only when each atomic design and the recursive resolution of the problem remains true, the final design proposal becomes true'. I have no doubt that there are many designers who can attest to the the design process unfolding in this manner. However I firmly believe that creativity also springs from the well of intuition at times, in a way that defies explanation. How many of us have experienced 'knowing' , 'having a hunch' or been driven to write that poetry or create a piece of art , to which other people are drawn. Some great business ideas come to us out of the blue and work without having had the benefit of recursion.
    So while there may be a 'recursive logic of design' I do not think it is the only logic of design.
    That's my non mathematical take on a mathematical proposition.

  5. Everything that I believe in related to design thinking is fundamentally based on principles from Roger Martin, and yet when I recently wrote a review of his book, I discovered with extensive email exchanges with him that he does not agree with how I've interpreted what he's said. His book for me was a bit disappointing compared to everything of his I'd read previously: