Not Even Wrong – Thoughts on levels of abstraction

October 2014
London – The Hoxton

I have at times been accused of “being too logical” in my thinking, not allowing for other world views than the logical one. I can understand why such accusations exist, yet I am not entirely sure that those who claim that my disposition lean too much towards logic quite understand logic. I suspect at times that when they say “logic”, they mean “think”, with the opposite being “feel”.

I suspect that this is said by people who in their minds feel that they place higher faith in “intuition” than they believe that I do. With your permission, I will float my intuitive idea that several of these appeals towards the intuitive that I’ve come across have been nothing less than under-the-surface accusations leveled towards me to mask sloppy thinking.

I have on occasion found myself in situations where ideas have slipped through bouts of prioritization and ended up existing in my world as “a thing we’re doing”, and on examination the people behind these ideas cannot really explain what the idea means. And it follows then, that these people lack a shared understanding of what it actually is that they’ve prioritized. And yet, they still managed to prioritize this idea above all other ideas. And when I say that they cannot explain their own idea, I’m not talking about granular details of how the proposed idea might work. I’m talking about a lack of really high level understanding, as in: IF we do X THEN we believe Y will happen AND that outcome is desirable to us because Z.

If you cannot clarify at least this much inside your own head, then you cannot really make an informed decision about it. Perhaps, one might argue, it is the problem that the proposed idea is assumed to solve that is really being prioritized? If that was so, I would be happy as a clam. But I fear we’re not so lucky.

Could it be that a proposed solution to a problem is necessary in some quarters in order to explain and understand the problem itself? In some weird sense, that would be like a wonderful new version of backcasting, which could probably be a fun way to generate ideas. But alas, I’m pretty sure that’s not what’s going on.

This forces the question: which level of abstraction are you comfortable dealing with? What would make sense to me would be to make a full stop with the prioritization of ideas at the highest level of abstraction and start prioritizing problems we want to solve. Or, if you’d rather work from another angle, prioritize the outcomes we want to reach.

The levels of abstraction could be ordered in an hierarchy like this:

  • Highest level: What do we as an organization assume is our most important problem to solve?
  • Mid Level: Which outcomes do we assume solves this (these) problem(s)?
  • Low Level: Which actions do we assume takes us towards this outcome?

At a team level, you might have come so far as to have the team and the sponsors prioritize wanted outcomes – described in terms of effect. This works well, but we can do better. Usually, the team is at the lowest level of abstraction, and inevitably, the highly intelligent people in the team will wonder about the reasoning that took place at the higher levels of abstraction. Especially in a capacity constrained system (as all systems are) where the notion of alternative cost has been established as a way of thinking. So I think that techniques and methods like impact mapping and the like can be rather disruptive, once the thinking takes hold. It puts pressure higher up in the organization, because in traditional organizations, the highest level of abstraction is the domain of “top management”.

So, desperately searching for a red thread here. What I’m saying is this:

If you still work in a top managed organization and feel how the people “below” you in your hierarchy is starting to ask rather intelligent questions, please don’t tell them to think less and be more intuitive (like you). Intuitive is not the same as sloppy thinking. Believing that you can cover up your lack of clear thinking in the guise of intuition is #notevenwrong.

As I see it, you have two options:

1. Read up. Shape up.
2. Involve the teams in “all levels of abstraction”-problems.

In my mind, both options will eventually take the organization to a better place, but I do most certainly favor option number two.

Forward: Defining a desired future state and then closing the gap is what I would call a core Systems Thinking practice. Another way – and some would say a better way – to tackle things would be by way of Complexity Thinking – which we will have to return to in another post.

Earlier post on Not even Wrong

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