Abductive thinking


How is it that some people seem to be natural innovators?

What naturally innovative people do to create ideas from scratch is to change their level of thinking. 

I only realised this a few years back when a client I was working with questioned the “creative leaps” I was making. It wasn’t until I couldn't adequately explain the “how” that I realised I needed to find out how I was making those leaps.

Gregory Bateson, anthropologist, linguist and author of Steps to an Ecology of Mind, was a pioneer in abductive thinking, which is the discovery of rules or patterns of an idea in one context and then applying those successfully in a different context. Abductive thinking taps into the patterning system of the mind, which allows us to classify information, objects and ideas.

The different levels of classification we use for thinking are known as the “logical levels”. If the context of a subject we think about is rather abstract and generalised, such as “furniture”, it means the thinking tends to be at a higher logical level. The more specific our thinking about something (e.g. an armchair). the lower the logical level. Not originally intended as a creative thinking device, the “logical levels” are essentially our brain’s way of grouping and sorting thoughts, words and ideas so they make sense - to others as well as ourselves.

When we are stuck for fresh ideas, we have often limited our thinking to one logical level of thinking and therefore one level of ideas. For example, if we were trying to design a new kind of telephone and only applied a constructive thinking approach, we would more than likely be very constricted in what we could come up with. By looking for variations and modifications and including portability, size, shape, hands-free options, we may end up with some worthwhile yet not necessarily brilliant or outstanding ideas. Our idea generation is stuck on one logical level, and this excludes us from many of the other options possible.

By expanding and moving between the levels of thinking, however, we can change the source of our ideas and increase the number of new, fresh, creative combinations. As Bateson discovered, abductive thinking has the potential to generate fresh perspectives, ideas and solutions. One way to “change it” is to discover the context of the object you are looking at and then apply it in another area by moving upwards and then sideways on the lower level. So how can you use the logical levels to become more creative, especially when you don’t want to waste time classifying everything? Remember the telephone? We want to come up with some ideas for a new, better telephone. Unless we can change our level of thinking we’re limiting our ideas.

Becoming familiar with the library

One way of thinking about this is to imagine you are organising your creative thoughts like books on a shelf in a library. The shelves in this library are different to an ordinary library. However, the library shelves are a way of classifying information: the higher the logical level, the more abstract and theoretical the information becomes so the books on philosophy, politics and theories of design, for example, would be placed up here. The shelf directly above the telephone shelf is at a higher logical level. The lower the shelf, the more concrete the content of the books, and the cookbooks and DIY home handyman books would be found down here. While the higher shelves contain books on non-tangible and abstract concepts and topics, the lower shelves contain books describing physical and material objects.

So the shelf we are looking at is the shelf of telephones. Now looking at this shelf is still rather abstract as there are many different phones, which are defined on the level below: mobile phones, satellite phones, phones with cords, cordless phones, etc. Our thinking on this logical level is limited by the books on these ideas for phones, so we probably will only come up with ideas or variations of phones that have already been done.

The telephone books on the shelf below describe the models that exist in physical and material form, i.e. Nokia 6322, Sony cordless home phone, etc. To create ideas for a new phone, we ask ourselves one of the following questions: “What’s the principle or philosophy behind it?” or “What category/group does this phone belong to on the level above?” The answer to this question is ‘communication device’ or even “system.” Let’s just check in for a moment. Notice how ‘communication device or system’ is more abstract and theoretical than “phone”; it is also more inclusive as there are many more choices available and possible.

So let’s stick with “communication device or system.” Now that we are on a higher logical level, we have fewer limitations and more freedom in our thinking and ideas generation. Obviously, a communication device or system is not what we were looking for, but we can use this higher logical level as a source of inspiration and then use this inspiration back down on the lower logical level. In fact, when we use the higher logical level for inspiration we find we will not end up at the same limited shelf section as before on the level below. We will have shifted to the shelf at the side as well. So all of a sudden we may find ourselves in the fax or email book section. 

Before we move back down, we need to ask ourselves: ‘What do we want the device or system for? What do we want it to do? How do we want it work?’ and, most importantly, ‘How else can we achieve this?’ On our communication system shelf the answers might include: communicating face to face, using sign language, using body language, signalling using flags, using music, touch, smell and Morse code. All of these are communication systems that we can now use to provide us with some new combination sources to create some fresh ideas for a new phone.

To come back down to a lower shelf and lower logical level, we ask ourselves questions such as, “How does this exist?” or “What is a physical representation/ form of this?” We can now start to apply parts of the higher logical level to our telephone. Some ideas that start to flow may include:

  • a mobile phone screen that flashes a certain colour to signal the importance of the call, e.g. red for emergency, blue for important, green for conversation (an idea taken from the signalling system using coloured flags)

  • a phone that emits a chemical fragrance to reflect the content of a message, e.g. the smell of roses for romance, the smell of freshly printed money for business

  • a phone that vibrates a certain way depending on who’s calling (Morse code).

This is a skill that anyone can apply because you are a world class innovator.



Nils Vesk

Founder of Ideas with Legs | Innovation speaker | consultant | author

nils vesk