Designing and Sensemaking: Taking the Leap

Ever had to find your way in the dark by stepping your feet out in front of you to find the next step or avoid unseen obstacles? Part of what you were doing was going on trust and your gut feel, right? Most time you found your way without any major catastrophes or broken limbs. How did you do it? By taking small tentative steps and not rushing through the dark you avoided a potential mishap. A small win in the big scheme of things and no small achievement. Perhaps this careful exploration is something you could apply in your management practice.

What you are about to read will (I hope) help you understand how design capabilities can turn uncertainty and the unknown into success.


So, now, in the business environment, often the future is an unkown entity. Complexity produces many options or paths and there is usually no obvious sign-board to point you in the right direction. How best to make sense of this complexity and make the right decisions?

Abductive Leaps: Trusting the Process

Sensemaking is defined as “a motivated, continuous effort to understand connections (which can be among people, places, and events) in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively” (Klein, Moon, and Hoffman).

Designers are known to be able to seemingly make sense of tricky challenges and produce elegant designs that are usually far more than veneer. Somehow they seem to magically produce solutions that have utility and usability all packaged into one desirable solution.

So how do designers do it?

Synthesis and the Visualization

Designers learn how to synthesise complexity and focus on the right elements by un-cluttering messy problems. This is done by grouping, visually the contextual research to understand what is happening. This “Visualization” is an important element of the process that helps designers make the connections that enable intuitive leaps, often in the right direction.

According to Jon Kolko, synthesis requires a designer to forge connections between seemingly unrelated issues through a process of selective pruning and visual organization. This process necessitates a large wall or room on which to place post-its, diagrams, photographs and even artefacts. By doing this patterns emerge to actually help see the connections and relationships that we would otherwise not normally see.

Abductive Reasoning

Abductive reasoning is best coined by the phrase “How might we…”. It is the next step into the unknown once having researched a challenge. It assumes that previous solutions to the problem may not work and new ones will need to emerge. Jon Kalko states that abduction is “…the hypothesis that makes the most sense given observed phenomenon or data and based on prior experience”.

Abduction is a logical way of considering inference or “best guess” leaps. Combined with Synthesis and Visualization, Abduction best describes the process of applying a creative, original solution (without knowing whether it will work or not) at the outset.

Abduction therefore, is the ability to look at and interpret what is happening and chose the most plausible option that will potentially lead to a desirable or preferred outcome.


Finding the right way becomes a matter of trial of error. Typically in organisations, failure is considered terminal. So, making the right decisions and lowering the impact of failure is essential. Prototyping and failing early and failing smart are other “designerly” approaches that managers and teams can use to de-risk the innovation process.

Design Capabilities are fast becoming an essential element for organisations to embed as the rapid rate of change accelerates over time.

Design Thinking come of Age

Much has been written about Design Thinking and how it can help with innovation. Harvard Business Review recently announced that Design Thinking has “Come of Age”.

See link here to article in HBR:

Design Thinking Comes of Age

Accepting Ambiguity

The above article describes how accepting ambiguity is considered an important element of the process of finding new solutions. It outlines the elements of a Design-centric Culture and highlights that in fact, many organisations are grappling with this exact challenge, i.e, transforming culture. Why is this happening? Why is culture an important area for CEO’s to monitor and nudge in the right direction?

Here are some of the reasons:

  1. The future is uncertain
  2. Customers have more choice than ever
  3. Start-ups and their disruption factor
  4. Traditional autocratic systems don’t seem to work anymore
  5. Staff are looking for more job satisfaction
By now you might be wondering what relationship abductive logic has with innovation and/or entrepreneurship:

Entrepreneurial Flare

One element that is perhaps not written much about is entrepreneurial flare. What is it that entrepreneurs do that keep them ahead? How did Steve Jobs know to push the right buttons that made sure the Apple computer would fly, to take the steps to help Pixar to succeed or work out that people would want an Ipod with a music service.

How do guys like Steve, find their way in the dark? Peter Sims talks about this in his book “Little Bets” where he describes how entrepreneurs take more risk and perhaps venture quicker into space where no one has gone before or where others are too reticent to go.

See Google’s video here for Peter Sims insight on taking risks:

Peter Simms’ Little Bets talk at Google

Adbuctive Leaps or Little Bets

So, back to finding your way where no one has gone before (whether in the dark or not). As described, an abductive leap is basically your best guess at what might work or put another way it is a little bet. Peter Sims found through studying entrepreneurs that they were more succesful than others because they were willing to take a risk.

Entrepreneurial flare and abductive reasoning go hand in hand

So, what Peter found is that succesful CEOs (or innovators) take more flying leaps of faith than those that don’t. Now, if one combines this, with a culture that can live in ambiguity, that tolerates failure, that encourages experimentation and that give people autonomy to solve problems by exploring (and researching) what might be, you have a stong formula for success.

The point we are making here is, that Abductive Reasoning should become part of the organisations culture, and that the culture to make these Leaps of Faith should be established and encouraged.

Thus Abductive Reasoning is an important element in a formula of Design Capabilities that should be nurtured and cultivated to help organisations innovate and design a more desirable future for themselves and their stakeholders.

Uncovering insights and co-creating

As mentioned above the Design Thinking process supports abductive thinking by de-risking innovation. It helps multi-disciplinary teams find solutions by uncovering insights and building rapid prototypes to test what works. This lowers the burden on the entrepreneur (CEO) and supports iterative innovation.

So, next time you need to take a step in the dark toward something new, exciting or innovative, think about how you might best make sense of the mess, synthesize, visualize and then make an abductive leap.

You never know what new opportunities might arise by adopting a designer mind-set!

Robert Bloom is the founder and Managing Partner of DesignThinkers Group South Africa, based at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. DesignThinkers is one of the leading “design-aligned” Innovation Agencies facilitating organizations around the world in making the transition from being strictly product oriented to being service oriented and human centred. Follow-us on