In engagements with clients/customers, my work often includes system envisioning: facilitating the description of a collective desirable future (on a horizon of maybe 1 to 3 years out). Once a group has converged on a future state or vision, moving forward is merely a matter of will. Defining that future state, however, is more art than science. In addition, with many more businesses operating as service systems, getting a handle on the invisible work that will be performed can be a challenge. Work practices will coevolve with new technologies in ways unfamiliar to experiences to date.
In discussions with my colleagues, differences between their engagement approach and mine became clearer. I understand and appreciate the process-based methods (e.g. process consultation by Ed Schein) used by large consulting teams, but my typical engagement is now timeboxed to a few weeks elapsed time, with just a few interviewers. Some executive sponsors may ask for an interview guide in advance of coming onsite, but I don’t use a formally-structured guide. The context for 60-to-90 minute interviews are light — we want people to talk about time-intensive activities and annoyances in their jobs — and generally find that interviewees would be happy if small adjustment could be made so that each would have to do less work.
Reflecting on these methods, I’ve seen a pattern of three stages in this approach:
- (1) Induction: Rather than coming in with a preconceived model of how work gets done in a particular business, let those closest to the activities speak freely. From the data collected, converge on common patterns in issues and/or problems that can be reviewed, validated and prioritized for resolution.
- (2) Abduction: Test the feasibility and desirability of various alternative paths and/or options. The future could be a small step from current practices, or a bigger leap where some discomfort may occur. Evaluation of the preferred future state is subjective, coalescing around sensemaking with a variety of perspectives being voiced.
- (3) Deduction: Once the desired future state is clear, then constructing a roadmap to get from the current state is relatively straightforward.
This whole idea has been expanded in a paper, “Envisioning Innovation in Service Systems: Induction, Abduction and Deduction”, presented at the ISSS Brisbane 2009 meeting, and now posted on the Coevolving Innovation Commons. Here’s the abstract.
An initiative to transform or redesign a service system can be centered on envisioning a future that may be explicit or implicit, shared or tacit. When that future represents a discontinuous change from the current state, detailed analysis from a single frame (e.g. process modeling) may mislead or confuse collective choices and priorities.
Four envisioning engagements – across a variety of service businesses – are reviewed as case studies to surface commonalities in approach. Success in the engagements has largely been attributed to the sequencing of consultations into sequential phases of induction, abduction and then deduction. Challenges to adoption of this three-phase approach are outlined, as a departure from current practice in envisioning innovations.
Following an inductive style of description, conclusions are presented with theoretical saturation of research concepts based on the philosophy of phenomenology.
The levels of skills required to successfully execute this approach aren’t clear, so I won’t claim that the method is universally replicable. In addition, techniques are unlikely to scale when the engagement team gets large. For more details, see the full paper.