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Need a powerful way to solve problems? Then this is for you!

"Elementary", he said.

“Elementary”, he said.

This is a blog about reasoning, as it applies to solving complex problems in organisations. For those of you about to switch off, give it a chance.  You’ll be surprised to find out that there is a lot of academic posturing over something that is actually just a whole lot of common-sense…and something that resilient organisations are doing anyway!

All too often in organisations we are faced with unstructured problems, fuzzy situations, where we do not know enough to test a hypothesis (to apply deductive reasoning).  I have heard a lot lately about the need to perhaps tackle problems using abductive reasoning; one good conversation was with Dave Snowden, over a beer at Paddington station.

The thing is, this.  The debate over deduction, induction and abduction is just a bit silly – apologies to the academics, but I’m speaking from a perspective of problem solving in organisations.  Each approach can be debated and the bones picked over through endless academic debates (seriously, I’ve had to do it and I would love to tell you its fun…).  I’m a pragmatist and you know something, I just want to solve real problems!

So, I’m going to throw my hat in the ring.  First, and I’m sorry if this sounds overly academic (throw it out at your next team meeting and watch as everyone looks at you as if you have lost your mind!), I want you to consider Hypothetico-Deductive Reasoning (HDR) – the oft-ignored little brother of the ‘big 3’ (Abduction, Induction, Deduction). That out of the way, I’ll explain what this means (with a smattering of supporting evidence, which I’ll then link to one of the most popular models for problem solving in soft systems).

The ‘reasoning’ we apply when solving complex problems in organisations (without even thinking about it) is the same reasoning that is applied in scientific enquiry (in the main, we just don’t realise it)…Please feel free to consider yourselves business scientists from here on out (let’s start a new trend…rip up your business cards, with your ‘manager’ label, and re-brand yourself as a management scientist).

“At its most basic level, scientific method is a simple, three-step process by which scientists investigate nature. Begin by carefully observing some aspect of nature. If something emerges that is not well understood, speculate about its explanation and then find some way to test those speculations” (Carey, 2004,  p. 719)

This is what I think, when we are faced with a problem we look for patterns, or unanswered questions, towards developing a hypothesis, which we then set out to test; the findings compared against predictions, allowing further tests to compare and contrast findings against alternatives until a clear hypothesis is identified and tested.

“Inductivism was replaced more and more consciously by the so-called hypothetico-deductive method. According to this method the first step is to ‘speculate,’ as Darwin called it, that is to generate a hypothesis. The second step is to conduct experiments or gather observations permitting the testing of this hypothesis” (Lawson, 2005, p. 718).

Now, have a read of this next part and you tell me, is this not what you do on a day-to-day basis when solving complex problems in organistations? The hypothetico-deductive approach uses the following steps: Observe a puzzle; develop a theory, construct a theory on probation; test the theory; compare findings to those that were predicted and recalibrate the theory on probation accordingly; generate a hypothesis through tests where findings are repeated on more than one occasion and where competing alternatives are tested and discarded.

There is a suggestion that this is about hypothesis testing and therefore you could argue that it is nothing more than ‘deduction’.

“…Science best advances when fact are gathered with an eye towards eventual integration with theory….What we see then is that in actuality the method that perhaps characterizes the reasoning of the practicing scientist is neither purely deductive or purely inductive” (Lerner, 2002, p. 12)

This actually brings about a more palatable reasoning process for organisational problem-solvers, through what has been termed ‘inductive- hypothetico-deductive’ reasoning.

“Immersion in the specifics of the data to discover important patterns, themes and interrelationships; begins by exploring, then confirming; guided by analytical principle rather than rule; ends with creative synthesis” (Patton, 2002, p. 41)

Now consider this, if you are a systems thinker, if you solve complex problems in a fuzzy world, if you believe in soft systems, then you are probably already using this method!  In my opinion, the most popular soft-system based consulting methodologies are founded in the seven steps of Checkland.s Soft Systems Methodology (SSM).

Now for the little bit of magic, let’s take HDR and align it with Checkland’s SSM and see what happens:

Hypothetico-deductive Reasoning Step SSM Stages
Making an initial puzzling observation Stage 1:  The problem situation unstructured
Using analogical reasoning to develop a theory Stage 2:  The problem situation expressed
Develop a hypothesis on probation Stage 3:  Root definitions of relevant systemsStage 4:  Deriving conceptual models
Conduct the test Stage 5:  Comparing conceptual models with the ‘real world’
Compare predicted and observed results Stage 6:  Defining feasible, desirable changes
Recycle the procedure until a hypothesis is generated, tested, and supported on one or more occasions and its competing alternatives have been tested and rejected Stage 7:  Taking action

Mix this with Palchinsky’s principles for ‘experimentation’ and ‘scalable failure’ and you are well on your way to being an internal consultant!  Hang on just a mo, then you won’t need people like me…sometimes I really need to consider why I blog this stuff in the first place.. Ho hum 🙂

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One comment on “Need a powerful way to solve problems? Then this is for you!

  1. Jennifer Briggs
    January 7, 2013

    Interesting stuff and yes, I think a lot of us are doing this already, but I also think (to speak frankly) a lot of us are skipping the “Conduct the test. Compare predicted and observed results.” Or, we’re spreading this out over longer periods of time than necessary. We make a prediction, take action, observe results months or years past the time we should and then finally (maybe) readjust. We would all be better served by staying on track and not skipping integral steps.

So, what do you think?

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This entry was posted on January 7, 2013 by in Complexity, problem-solving and tagged , , , , .
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