Much has been made that schools today are struggling to outfit students with the skills they need to succeed once they enter the workplace. The speed of technology-driven transformation led the World Economic Forum in January 2020 to call for a ‘global reskilling revolution.’
42% of the core skills that we need for existing jobs will have changed by 2022. Nearly one-third of jobs worldwide will need to be reskilled in the face of technological change.
These problems can be mitigated with a different educational tack. Students should be given the tools of knowledge instead of focusing on the specifics of the information. The latter’s value can shift over time, but the former will always give you the ability to learn and adapt to new circumstances.
One such tool that’s been sorely neglected so far is abductive reasoning. In fact, few people outside of domains like philosophy have ever heard of it. It’s time for that to change, and train yourself in this skill to boost your career prospects.
Introduction to abductive reasoning
What is abductive reasoning, and why isn’t it being taught in schools? In general, the American educational system doesn’t teach formal logic to students. Moreover, most students are only exposed to the dominant forms of logic, deductive, and inductive reasoning.
Deductive reasoning moves from the general to the specific. Inductive reasoning goes from specific observations to generalizations. These two modes of thinking are practiced routinely, not just in schools but in professions at large.
On the other hand, abductive reasoning is concerned with making “logical leaps of the mind.” Its concern is with making the most plausible inferences from anomalous observations.
Because abductive reasoning doesn’t deal in terms of certainties or absolute declarations of truth, it might seem to be of little interest to students, educators, and adult learners. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Succeeding in a wicked environment
We like to deal with solid facts and simple scenarios, especially when learning. Dealing with such parameters makes it easier for us to grasp concepts and apply them.
However, in the real world, complexity balloons. Chemical reactions between atoms or simple molecules are easy to predict. But biological molecules and their interactions are another matter, which is why drug companies need precise biochemical kinase assays to screen results. And if organic compounds are complicated, what more of interpersonal relationships, ecosystems, and societies?
Perfect information is often impossible in real-world scenarios. Most of us live and work in so-called ‘wicked’ environments. They are full of incomplete, contradictory, and changing variables, often across layers of information that might not be visible to participants.
This is a problem because organizations are often running on dangerously high levels of complexity. From top to bottom, they are composed of individuals who are trained to think in deductive and inductive patterns only.
Abductive reasoning offers us the ability to reason imperfectly, arriving at a plausible ‘best guess’ and acting on that. Yet, at the same time, it’s a modal form of thinking that leaves you open to wonder. It doesn’t rule out the possibility that new information can come along to overturn assumptions.
These three forms of logic are vital to success in a wicked environment. Only together do they form a complete mental toolbox. And since abductive reasoning is often the missing ingredient, you can set yourself apart by training in this aspect.
Entering a dialogue
If schools don’t teach abductive reasoning, and business leaders aren’t formally trained in it, how do you even improve this skill?
The first step you can take is to be on the alert for outliers and anomalies. Think of the infamous ‘black swan’ problem. Centuries ago, all Europeans had ever seen were white swans. In 1697, explorers saw the first black swan in Australia. Subsequently, through the works of Nassim Taleb, the term came to mean highly improbable yet impactful events.
Deductive and inductive reasoning both fail to account for black swans. Only abductive reasoning can take them in stride. Unusual observations should prompt you to revisit previously held assumptions and come up with a new plausible explanation.
The other way you can hone this skill is through the practice of argumentation. Argumentative learning isn’t just good for the way it invokes social interaction and improves your communication skills. It requires you to have an open mind and be receptive to the ideas put forth by the opposition to defend your own better.
Like argumentation, abductive reasoning puts you in a state of mind, similar to having an open dialogue. It keeps you on your toes, constantly learning and revising assumptions, finding practical solutions, yet never settling on something as definitive. It’s the tool your career needs to thrive in a constantly changing, wicked world.