Abductive Reasoning: Why You Shouldn't Give Up On Social Media Just Yet

Inductive reasoning dominates current business thinking. This is why people look to case studies and best practices for guidance in their endeavors. It also leads to the belief that strategic management is more science than art. But, this viewpoint is provincial in nature. Inductive reasoning can reduce risk, but innovation requires a leap of faith for which there is little evidence.

The flaw in relying solely on inductive reasoning has been widely discussed in philosophy. Just because something generally happens one way doesn't mean it's guaranteed to be a repeatable outcome. Inductive reasoning isn't fool proof. You can't always learn the truth from past observation. Or, as aptly illustrated by Bertrand Russell in his story of the Chicken:

A chicken wakes every morning assuming a farmer will feed it. Day after day it's fed by the farmer. This is a reasonable expectation. After all, it happens every day. The chicken believes that seeing the farmer means he gets fed. But, one day the farmer comes and wrings the chicken's neck.

This doesn't mean inductive reasoning should be removed from your strategic toolbox, but instead it needs to be tempered with the realization that nothing is ever guaranteed. Requiring proof something will work is the surest way to guarantee that you'll always be one step behind. There isn't a case study for something that's never been done before. Innovation requires a different approach to problem solving. It requires abductive reasoning.

Abductive reasoning is a term that was originally coined by Charles Sanders Peirce. He viewed the scientific process as starting with a guess based on observation and intuition. This initial guess is an example of abductive reasoning. It's an explanation for what might be -- not an explanation of what is, or of what's been.

This is the basis for innovation. There is no blueprint for doing something new. You can observe and learn from previous research, but at the end of the day, you have to make that initial leap of faith. You have to guess and then work to prove what might be.

Next time a client or executive comes to you and asks for something innovative, Remind them that true innovation can't be supported with case studies of previous successes. Social media marketing right now is undoubtedly hyped, but just because there aren't books full of successful case studies (beyond customer service related campaigns) doesn't mean it's potential has been squandered. Instead it means that you'll have to take a leap of faith and try something new. After all, that's the first step towards innovation.

Written by Adam Harrell on January 21, 2010


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Yeah I think that social media hasn't been fully harnessed, and in fact I think its just starting to have traction within business and search engine results especially with regards to real time search.

Hey Seth,

Great question. I think the key is approaching it realistically. Social Media generally incurs a small amount of monetary risk. The biggest risk isn't monetary, it's the risk of failure.

The first step is to set realistic goals around what you're trying to accomplish (customer acquisition, customer retention, brand awareness, or just establishing a new push channel, etc).

The second step is to make an educated guess on what you can do to provide value to your customers using the tools available. And it needs to be in alignment with the core goals you've already established.

The third step is making the leap, and measuring the response. What's working, what's not and then responding appropriately.

In short, you have to be committed in the face of non-success, and even failure. A eureka moment only happens after numerous failures. Innovation is never simple, or easy. There is no map to guide you.

seth says:

excellent piece. would be interested in reading your thoughts on how to approach social media testing w/appropriate risk reward balance-- and do it appropriately as opposed to doing it just cause its 'hyped'

Holt says:

Nice post!

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Adam Harrell