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Abduction through entanglement

November 12, 2022

Abduction is the process of forming an explanatory hypothesis. It is the only logical operation which introduces any new idea; for induction does nothing but determine a value and deduction merely evolves the necessary consequences of a pure hypothesis (Peirce, 1998, p. 216)

What seems to be the case is that there are, in nature and correspondingly reflected in our processes of thought, great regions within which abductive systems obtain. For example, the anatomy and physiology of the body can be considered as one vast abductive system with its own coherence within itself at any given time. Similarly, the environment within which the creature lives is another such internally coherent abductive system, although this system is not immediately coherent with that of the organism (Bateson, 2002, p. 134).

A few things came together to stimulate this post (and it’s the first I’ve done in the quotation series for a bit), and to be clear it is about the role of abduction as a type of logic rather than kidnapping or alien capture!  The series of webinars that Nora Bateson and I have been running have skirted around the subject since we started them but the subject came more to the fore last week in the latest episode.  I also read Nora’s collaborative article on Ready-ing in preparation for that and the two quotes above are extracted from that article.  Then a day or so ago Beth posted an excellent summary about SenseMaker® (although I deny the rubber stamping she references)

SenseMaker® is frequently described as a mixed methods approach or a combination of qualitative and quantitative techniques: the objectivity of statistics backed up by the explanatory power or narrative.  Its least powerful, but most used approach is an alternative to traditional survey techniques but its more powerful use is in decision support where it provides an answer to what was described to be over two decades ago in Washington DC as the problem of abduction.  When challenged by more traditionally minded qualitative researchers, who seem stuck in an inductive paradigm, I often make the point that SenseMaker® is an abductive, not an inductive tool which if it does nothing else makes them realise we are talking about something different.  As it happens I started writing this post on a flight to DC, my first trip to the US since Covid.  I’m finishing it in a hotel by Reagan Airport with my luggage somewhere in the system following a cancelled flight yesterday.  Hopefully, I make it to Dallas today!  The return to DC was to provide the opening keynote at KM World along with two workshops.   It was also a chance to catch up with two of my favourite sources and friends, namely Alicia Juarrero & Gary Klein together with a lot of other friends in the KM space.  I also ran an open session at GMU on using SenseMaker® and the entangled trio’s method for Peace and Reconciliation.  All before attempting to move on to Dallas for a masterclass, a client meeting and a truncated weekend with old friends.

So what is ‘the problem of abduction”?  Well, Abduction is sometimes described as the logic of hunches and the problem is how to determine which hunches are coherent and which are not, which are worth investigating and which should be abandoned.  If we take Peirce’s idea of it as hypothesis generation then the problem is how do you choose between multiple coherent hypotheses?  Not only that, how do you decide which are coherent and which are incoherent in the first place?  The question in DC all of those years ago came in the context of counter-terrorism where decision-makers – and in this case, I was in a small meeting with a former National Security Advisor (NSA) – are faced with multiple competing hypotheses and have to choose which to take seriously, SenseMaker® evolved out of that question and its MassSense version which both generates hypotheses at scale and also allows us to see patterns in multiple hypotheses.  That allows us to determine a quantitative measure of coherence as well as making outliers visible early enough in the decision process to exploit or disrupt.  Another related issue that influenced the early design of SenseMaker® was the need to create more balanced and, somewhat ironically, in some contexts purposefully biased training datasets for machine learning algorithms; I tend to deprecate the use of the word ‘Artificial Intelligence, let’s call it what it is.

I’ll return to these subjects in future posts, but here I am really picking up on the Bateson quote rather than an extension of that by Peirce. Her focus is how to get to see things from different perspectives and to gain a better sense of interdependency.  Metaphor is a method for abduction;  seeing how the pattern in one thing (or things) gives new insight into another.  One of the strengths of Nora’s Warm Data lab approach is the way it achieves this..  For those who don’t know we have been cross-training people from the Warm Data and Cynefin/SenseMaker® communities over the last few years and have done our first projects together, a collaboration which will expand in the future.  Our views on abduction are similar in particular on the role of aesthetics in the adductive process and we have complementary approaches. But we are attempting to manage abduction at scale and without facilitation.  Another aspect of that is to see abduction through an entanglement of networks as a way of avoiding the information processing limitations of Ashby’s Law.  I’m leaving that one hanging for the moment and will post on it in the future.

Entanglement is a significant theme in our work and my recent post on the use of the Genba version of SenseMaker® with Entangled Trios is but one in a long series on this subject.  I should also make it clear that I am not committing the 101 error of assuming you can take quantum entanglement from particle physics and apply it to social systems, let alone combine it with what I have called faux-Buddhism or more recently faux-Daoism  I am using entanglement in the more general sense oat a biological scale – think mango swaps and fishing nets.  This builds on earlier posts such as the Mycorrhiza series and that on Siphonophorae; hopefully, the terms alone will encourage you to click on the links!

There are also some personal links here.  As many readers will know I have a mild form of dyslexia.  It’s why there are a fair number of spelling errors in these posts – I literally don’t see them unless the spell checker picks them up.  I remain grateful to those who let me know of such errors privately and I am tolerant for a time of those who do it publicly!  One of the features of my form of dyslexia is that we constantly make connections between apparently unconnected things and can’t understand why other people can’t see what to us is self-evident.  And to be honest, it can be very frustrating at times both for me, and those who would prefer to focus on what is clear.  Neither is right or wrong by the way, sense-making requires both and we need to do a lot more with diversity than most leadership and other competence models would permit.  One size very rarely fits all, but if you were to believe the myriad of books on What makes a Great Leader and so on you would think you can roll them off an assembly line.

Now, most people will remember from childhood those puzzle books where you were shown a line drawing of a park and asked to find the kitchen utensils hidden in the drawing.  Because you are told they are there you find them, if you were not told then you would not see them and would simply pass by.  This links to a key aspect of human sense-making namely the need to trigger attention to something that falls outside the norm of expectation.  In the canon of our work, this is called Anticipatory Triggers and is something SenseMaker® was in part designed to do and in various ways along with a body of methods:

  1. The use of high abstraction metadata in SenseMaker® focuses you on seeing a pattern in the statistics and then looking at the underlying narrative and observation.  Those have been interpreted in similar ways.  With multiple people signifying the material then the number of potentially novel coincidental or rather serendipitous discoveries increases.  For that reason, and others I depreciate or rather live with, the practice of looking at the stories directly other than as a result of seeing a statistical pattern.
  2. The general approach we created for exaptive discovery, described as radical repurposing in the EU Field Guide, in effect brings together existing capabilities and customer needs or other issues through that metadata.  The level of abstraction (and this is one of the roles of aesthetics in human evolution) means that seeing connections between things is not confined to the obvious, and thus triggers novel thinking.   This approach is part of the wider complexity-based approach to design thinking that emerged from a set of retreats over the years before COVID and which we are now lTheCynefinCo 2022 Nov 11aunching – the first masterclass was in Sydney a few months ago. We plan them in Europe and the US next year.  Our retreats are also starting up again, by the way, the current theme will be education and you can reserve the dates as shown, booking will open soon.
  3. We’re also looking at taking the ideas in entangled trios as a method and shifting that to what I might call entanglement at scale using SenseMaker®.  That will involve multiple mechanisms by which different experiences can be combined in novel and unexpected ways to suggest novel and unusual connections between the apparently unconnected.  More on that next year I hope.
  4. The Triopticon method, especially of augmented by the Genba version of SenseMaker® is designed to bring together. different knowledge bases.  In that mode, the ‘eagles’ are the senior people in their field, and the ‘ravens’ are more junior people who manage the synthesis of that knowledge.  That mix of master and apprentice, or better journey(wo)men, means that we break common assumptions about the nature of things.
  5. Our new HEXI approach (which has been more successful on launch than we anticipated so the next stage will take a little longer than expected) works on the principle that complex systems scale by decomposition and recombination in new contexts.  The last training programme on this will be in Bristol next month and that will also see me teach the Estuarine Mapping approach of my recent blog posts.

Now there are more approaches, but all of them are about creating processes that link and connect people and things in novel ways, largely without facilitation and at scale.  Managing for serendipity, triggering emergence. Overall Abduction is of critical importance in dealing with uncertainty and the term needs to be understood and used, other than in the context of Alien abduction!


Entangled snakes cropped from an original by Tina Nord and I”m not sure it’s the best image, but it was too good to ignore.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.
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