Sense Making Practice 02: Spot Leaps of Abstraction
Making Sense Exercise 2: Spotting Leaps of Abstraction

Sense Making Practice 02: Spot Leaps of Abstraction

Our very strengths in abstract conceptual reasoning also limit our learning, when we are unaware of our leaps from particulars to general concepts – Peter M. Senge

Abstraction is one of the fundamental strategies for survival. It enables us to take decisions within the glimpse of a second without the need to consider all details. Though it is important to spot leaps of abstraction. We will only benefit from general concepts when we maintain the ability to consider particulars to learn and improve.

Learning is essential for our personal development. Learning is key for any kind of organisation that is seriously interested in sustainablility. Learning means understanding underlying concepts and being able to evaluate them in a bigger context. Learning means being able to adapt to new experiences and a changing environment

While we have become extraordinary facile in abstracting by applying simple concepts, the leap of abstraction can hinder us from learning by understanding particular concepts. We need particular concepts to challenge generalization 

When putting a simple concept in place for many details, we also tend to start reasoning in terms of this concept. This would lead directly from observations to generalization without testing. Generalizations become axiomatic and we risk to treat concepts like facts.

Many aspects of our work are related to data and dashboards are put in place to measure and improve performance. If we make it the only source for decisions without considering other aspects anymore, it narrows down our world. Abstraction will come by itself without even making it a concept. 

While facts are static, underlying systems are not. Treating generalizations as facts ignores dynamics and constant change and leads to wrong conclusions. A need for inquiry is fundamental to work with generalizations successfully.

As generalization help us to act very efficiently in many situations, we must not start to question everything. Albeit before working with a generalization you should do a quick cross check:

  1. ask yourself what you believe about the problem space, the nature of the use case, how people are involved in general and specifically
  2. ask yourself what data is used for the generalization and if there is any other important data you might left away when abstracting
  3. ask yourself if you can accept inaccuracies or misleading assumptions in particular aspects when using the generalization for making devisions

If the answer to the last question by any means is no, there is no point in proceeding with the generalization. You will need to adapt by starting further inquiry and change your assumptions or considering other data accordingly. You might even have to drop the generalization if you find out that there is no solid fundamentals anymore.

Being able to accept inaccuracies will make you faster


“Our rational minds are extraordinarily facile at “abstracting” from concrete particulars—substituting simple concepts for many details and then reasoning in terms of these concepts. But our very strengths in abstract conceptual reasoning also limit our learning, when we are unaware of our leaps from particulars to general concepts.” (aus “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization: First edition (Century business)” von Peter M. Senge)

“Leaps of abstraction occur when we move from direct observations (concrete “data”) to generalization without testing. Leaps of abstraction impede learning because they become axiomatic. What was once an assumption becomes treated as a fact.” (aus “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization: First edition (Century business)” von Peter M. Senge)

“until we become aware of our leaps of abstraction, we are not even aware of the need for inquiry. This is precisely why practicing reflection as a discipline is so important.” (aus “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization: First edition (Century business)” von Peter M. Senge)

“How do you spot leaps of abstraction? First, by asking yourself what you believe about the way the world works—the nature of business, people in general, and specific individuals. Ask “What is the ‘data’ on which this generalization is based?” Then ask yourself, “Am I willing to consider that this generalization may be inaccurate or misleading?” It is important to ask this last question consciously, because, if the answer is no, there is no point in proceeding.” (aus “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization: First edition (Century business)” von Peter M. Senge)