Now for our next trick – the “leap of abstraction”

At times of change it is tempting to try and move as quickly as possible and to apply what has been used elsewhere (as, in the best possible faith, a shortcut to success). This approach appears plausible, efficient, even sensible, but is it effective?

Look before you leap: if we make assumptions that new approaches are appropriate, we could drag people in the wrong direction!

Recent blogs on ‘facts’ and ‘knowledge’ (see ‘Change and the Knowledge Iceberg‘, ‘Beyond the Obvious‘) point out the danger of doing the obvious when in reality we should be looking for deeper knowledge to inform the ‘ifs, whys and hows’ of change. The problems arise when we make change decisions incorrectly, thereby cycling into ‘mindless change’ (Macdonald 1998). Mindless change is both destabilising and demoralising for staff and, for the organisation, damaging in terms of performance and waste.

At a recent conference, a renowned plenary speaker lamented that most of our management and leadership practice is based on 50-60 year old theory whilst the world has itself  ‘moved on so much’ in the meantime. This may seem  reasonable (there might be changes in the nuances of perception, decision-making and brain structure in human beings in the multi-media, instant-access society that has developed since the 1990s), but in my view that does rather ignore at least the last 50,000 years of  social development in homo sapiens. Good ‘management’ theory (which reaches back several decades further than the 60-years suggested by that speaker) considers basic human functioning and psychology, the dynamics of human organisations, the design of work and the mathematics and physics of output. These fundamentals apply as much in a call centre as they do in a coal mine, factory, or classroom. New ways of looking at these things may not necessarily be better nor, indeed, helpful.

What we need to examine is whether the practices we choose to apply today are based on good, ‘sound’ theory. What is ‘good, sound theory’ ? It involves ideas that hold up under scrutiny over time and are consistent with other theories (which themselves also stand up over time). The best way to test theory is by applying actions and testing evidence. In this sense, to paraphrase Deming, there is nothing as practical as a good theory; it informs actions which offer predictable outcomes. Acting on knowledge is better than second-guessing (Seddon 2005).

Unfortunately this rarely occurs. What usually happens is that ideas or practices are applied without being tested against good theory, or even against a good evidence base. A common example is when one organisation copies the things that other organisations are doing, without understanding either the impact or effectiveness of the practice as experienced by those other organisations. Some organisations label this as ‘benchmarking’ to make it appear systematic and informed, but it often merely involves the organisational equivalent of ‘cutting and pasting’; a form of wishful thinking.

Peter Senge (1990) calls this type of loose thinking a ‘leap of abstraction’ : “leaps of abstraction occur when we move from direct observations to generalizations without testing,” Senge includes the following behaviours as ‘leaps of abstraction’:

  • Assuming you know what people want (students, staff, etc.) without actually asking them
  • Fixing a problem without identifying its causes nor measuring how the process is performing
  • Blaming people for mistakes without understanding how the overall system is performing
  • Developing strategy with little knowledge of competitors, market, risk, or internal capability
  • Jumping on the latest management fad in the hope that it will improve things for your team

If we are managing change, the ‘leap of abstraction’ can be particularly problematic as it will demotivate the very people that we want to take with us on the change; colleagues, clients, users and partners. It will also undermine our own credibility. If we don’t have credibility in the things we do, we erode one important ingredient for successful, sustainable change – trust.

Read more on change:Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

MacDonald, J. (1998) Calling a Halt to Mindless Change, Amacom, UK.

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

Senge P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, Doubleday, New York.

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