The Quantumization of Customer Insight

The Quantumization of Customer Insight

Dr. Mark Szabo

A recent Twitter thread asked people to explain quantum computing in one tweet. The winner said something like, "Computing is a light switch. A normal one is on/off. A Quantum one is a dimmer. Those nuances make it faster.” Customer insight is bring quantumized, as nuances in behaviours and attitudes become more findable and and also more important to brands. Two recent articles tackle this from different angles.

Interbrand’s 2019 report ( really shakes things up with their idea of “iconic moves.” This might be this decade’s version of disruption.

The idea behind iconic moves is that the approach of brand positioning as a way to make sense of a competitive landscape is outdated because people now move faster than businesses. This reality is driven by an enormous range of choice, erosion of loyalty, speed of adoption and the blurred lines of product categories. By the time a brand figures out its positioning, customers have long since moved on.

The real nugget with this article is that businesses are increasingly less defined by industrial categories and more by the needs of the customers they serve. If brands are the relationships with their customers, it stands to reason that brands that move with their customers will replace sectors as a unit of analysis. Iconic moves, then, are the steps a brand must take in order to stay close understanding the user need and stay nimble enough to meet those needs in short order.

This thread is picked up in the Harvard Business Review article, “The Dangers of Categorical Thinking,” by Langhe and Fernbach ( When we make decisions we’re naturally hard-wired to put information in buckets because that helps us make choices in the face of complexity. When it comes to market segmentation, for example, those buckets get in the way of our ability to pay attention to the very kinds of nuance in customer needs that Interbrand’s iconic moves approach says is so critical.

Langhe and Fernbach go on to outline some practical ways to avoid being “on/off switch” with your categories and more "dimmer switch" with nuances. Interestingly, the recommendations are very similar to the Interbrand approach.

The common theme with both articles is the requirement of putting user need front-and-centre in every decision. This sounds great, and nobody is going to openly argue with doing that. However, this principle is honored more in the breach than in the following. There are simply too many manifestations of our basic human nature embedded into our organizations. Unless a brand has a relentless focus on the customer and obliterates everything in its path, the old ways will creep back in.

Before you know it you’ll be back to positioning your brand based on three customer segments that make life easy, but miss the critical nuances that your competitors are seeing.

Will you keep up?

Energy Disruptors Panel

Here's a quick overview of my upcoming panel at Energy Disruptors: "Protecting the Energy Sector's Achilles Heel."

Ethics Are Gross

Admit it, the title of his post gave you a slight feeling of discomfort.

I’m pretty sure a bunch of folks just zipped right past it because of the word “ethics.”

I’ve been thinking about the ethics of persuasion lately. As a professional persuader this is obviously an important topic for work, but as a consumer of technology it’s also something that impacts me.

And you.

The real problem with ethical persuasion nowadays is the fact that ethics are no longer much of a consideration in our postmodern society. The very idea that I might think something is ethical or not runs counter to the culture of “whatever works for you.” By separating ourselves from any sense of consensus-based behavioural norms, even talking about ethics sounds quaint at best, or like imposing oppressive morality at worst. That’s probably why you felt a little blip with the topic.

So what? The problem is that this leaves us vulnerable to any unethical persuasion that tech companies hit us with all. If nothing is right or wrong, we are defenceless against bad actors and people who don’t have our best interest at heart.

Even if you don’t like “ethics,” it’s still okay to stand up for yourself and how you want to be treated.

Online, or IRL.

A Manifesto for Meaning-Based Design

A renewed age of meaning is upon us and, interestingly enough, those creating digital experiences have a unique opportunity to lead the way. Here's why.

The market economy has enabled us to lift ourselves from basic subsistence to the point we can worry about whether the next flavour of Doritos will be sufficiently stimulating to our palate, whether this bottle of truffle oil is properly infused, or whether we can sculpt our bodies to just the right level of attractiveness. We are discovering, however, that everything is not enough.

The search for meaning has always been a focus on humankind. Contemplating the finer points of one’s place in the universe, however, tends to get clouded when you’re wondering if you’ll have enough to eat tonight. As we’ve increasingly brought ourselves and others out of poverty, we are free to think these higher-order thoughts.

This is not new.

When something stands the test of time, that simply means that millions of people have grappled with it and found it worthwhile; to the point where they want others to benefit from it. Tradition does not hamper progress, it gives progress context.

What is new, however, is that while we were busy chasing the satisfaction of our every material whim, we made the mistake of disconnecting ourselves from the human traditions that accompanied us for millennia as we grew and developed. This is tragic because something doesn’t get to be a tradition unless it’s awesome. When something stands the test of time, that simply means that millions of people have grappled with it and found it worthwhile; to the point where they want others to benefit from it. Tradition does not hamper progress, it gives progress context.

Many of us are without context now.

As a result, we are scrambling to replace the millennia of accumulated human wisdom that we summarily torched, in order to find ways to combine that lost meaning with what we buy. Case in point is Colin Kaepernick’s arrangement with Nike. When Nike started as a brand they focused on performance and excellence. If you bought Nike products, you signalled to yourself and others that you valued high-performance. Kaepernick was an odd choice because he was, by all accounts, a mediocre-performing NFL quarterback. By the standards of the rest of us mere mortals he is an amazing athlete, but by standards of excellent performance, he was not even near the top of the heap. By choosing him as a spokesperson, Nike signalled that high performance was no longer a priority. Something else was.

In Kaepernick’s case, his value is rooted in his public protest against injustice. Justice, like beauty and fairness, is in the eye of the beholder. If you ask people what they think his protest was about you will get a wide variety of answers. Kaepernick’s protest is a veritable Rorschach test of wokeness, where each person can bring their own interpretation to it. That’s the genius of Nike’s support. If the protest were only about police brutality, that would be too narrow for a wide-ranging brand like Nike.

Kaepernick’s protest is a veritable Rorschach test of wokeness, where each person can bring their own interpretation to it. That’s the genius of Nike’s support.

As we buy more and more according to our values as a way to feel good and to signal what we believe to the world, it becomes increasingly difficult for brands to get the right tone. It is already very difficult to imagine someone who would buy a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte after having lunch at Chick-fil-A on their way to the gun range, all while wearing the latest Nike sneakers. The future does not look any less fragmented.

So what’s a brand to do?

Let’s take a quick trip to Germany to see if we can find some answers.

In the early days of the Ulm School of Design, the concept of “form follows function” took root. At the time it was quite radical because it put the needs of the user front-and-centre in the design process. Before that, the focus was on the needs of the manufacturer - what was efficient, cheap, and scalable. By bringing the utilitarian needs of the user earlier into the design process, designers of all types were able to factor in the needs of the end user before putting pen to paper. Consider this quote from Jørn Utzon, designer of the Sydney Opera House: “The most important thing is that you are able to imagine a life lived by people before you begin to design the house.”

For years, designers of digital experiences like websites, social media platforms, online games, etc., have used this approach to inform their work. By spending time and effort to understand the needs of the user, these designers are able to create website taxonomies, content, and information architecture that fits closely with what the user needs to accomplish.

The problem is that nowadays this is the equivalent of providing properly-infused truffle oil. It’s fantastic. It’s appreciated. It’s even expected. But it’s no longer enough.

Back to Germany again for a moment.

The role of a designer is to take a wide range of inputs and needs and incorporate them all into something new and useful. As the form-and-function crowd discovered, bringing the user needs into the process enabled a better synthesis of inputs because it brought more considerations to the table from the start. In his groundbreaking book, The Semantic Turn, Klaus Krippendorff one-upped his former Ulm School colleagues. Krippendorff said that a designer must look beyond the utilitarian needs of the user and focus on the meaning the product brings to a user’s life. By focusing on what a thing means to someone (i.e. semantics) a designer is able to take even more into account than the immediate use of the thing. By infusing the design process with meaning, the end result not only matches the needs of the user functionally, but it also meets their need for meaning in their daily life. Not only that, it actually creates new sources of meaning for people.

Nike got that right, and everyone else needs to figure it out now in our own sphere. Turning to the design process outlined by Krippendorff is a great start. The process, pictured below, essentially outlines the additional layer of thinking required to ensure the additional layers of meaning are incorporated into the design process.

Krippendorff, K. (1989).  On The Essential Contexts Of Artifacts Or On The Proposition That “Design Is Making Sense (Of Things).”  Design Issues, 5(2), 9–39. Retrieved from

Krippendorff, K. (1989). On The Essential Contexts Of Artifacts Or On The Proposition That “Design Is Making Sense (Of Things).” Design Issues, 5(2), 9–39. Retrieved from

In a form-follows-function approach, the designer will focus on the left side of the system. In a meaning-based approach, the designer will incorporate the various components of how meaning is created and derived by the user. The elements of this are straightforward if you look at it from an insights perspective. How does the user act on the artifact we create? What context does is play in their life? How do they make sense of it and include it as part of their daily life? What existing meaning does this address create for them, and what new meaning does this create that they didn’t know they had in the first place?

These additional layers of analysis map back to the product semantics, (i.e. the inherent qualities of a product that signal meaning), which can be thought of as the third person in the process along with the user and designer. There is much more to this analysis and how to make it work day-to-day, but this should provide a good overview.

This is all well and good, but what does this have to do with digital experiences and those who create them?

The ability to create compelling experiences that help users accomplish more things is rapidly becoming a commodity. More is expected. More is demanded.

Those who create digital experiences are already very comfortable incorporating hard data into their design process. Digital experiences have always been driven by data, both in the sense that they are based on technology, but also in the sense that they stir up incredibly rich information about the users themselves. When users interact with digital experiences they leave a rich trail of information about their behaviour, attitudes, decision drivers, and their very lives. For digital experience designers, this has always been part and parcel of their process. To date, this has proven to be a barrier to entry for non-digital designers and consultancies trying to succeed in the growing digital experience industry. Whereas they may be comfortable with design or with data, neither has lived and breathed in an atmosphere where both are intimately commingled. A communications agency may have Noserings and Ponytails, but they don’t have a culture of coding. A consultancy may have Solution Architects and Quant Jockeys, but they don’t have artists. 

All that is changing, however. While this has giving digital experience designers a competitive advantage, it will not last forever unless they are able to leverage what they’re good at - combining art and data - to incorporate deeper layers of meaning. The ability to create compelling experiences that help users accomplish more things is rapidly becoming a commodity. More is expected. More is demanded.

Meaning is demanded.

The opportunity for digital experience designers now is to use their ability to leverage data in the design process and expand that “data” to include information about how users bring meaning to their world using what is created for them. Practically speaking, that means the data teams that support strategy and design need to ensure that they continue to examine HOW people behave (using site analytics, social listing, marketing science, etc.), WHAT is of interest to them (using SEO), but also WHY they do what they do (using primary research).

The old fable of the blind men and the elephant is a metaphor for what digital experience designers face today. In the fable, a group of blind men try to describe an elephant using only their sense of touch. The one at the trunk describes it as a large, anaconda-like creature. The one by the leg describes it more like a tree trunk. The one at the tail describes it as a small twig. Each of them is right, but in context, they are wrong. Data can be like that. Without a complete picture of the user from various perspectives, the chance of parsing out the true nature of the meaning at play is thin at best.

Part of the challenge around organizing data and the resulting insights is having a single organizing principle to start from. This is where meaning-based design can be very powerful. Not only does it meet a very real and pressing societal need, but it is a fantastic way to guide any design process. By constantly asking what meaning a product needs to have, and what new meaning it can create, a team can focus its activity from the start of a design process to the end, and afterwards as the design is continually evolved and optimized.

Great designers constantly ask themselves one thing throughout the design process: What are we paying attention to as this evolves? If we answer that question with “What will this mean to people?”, we will accomplish amazing things.

Will this usher in a bold new future where digital experiences bring the meaning people crave to replace the time-tested wisdom of humanity that we have thrown away in our rush to actualize ourselves?


This is simply a process for ensuring that meaning happens in design, but it will never be a way to decide what that meaning is. That’s part of the age-old dance we all do as we grapple with the world around us. We may find that the wisdom we’ve thrown out may be worth re-kindling; at least in part. We may also find that chasing our own urges and desires or the latest woke-ism provides us with enduring satisfaction. You never know. 

Regardless of where things lead, we can be certain that those creating digital experiences will serve society very well if they can make sure to keep up with the importance of our immutable dance with meaning and provide a process for meaning-based design.

Dr. Mark Szabo runs the research studio for Critical Mass, one of the world’s leading digital experience design agencies.

digital transformation is cultural transformation

From my perspective digital transformation is actually cultural transformation that needs to happen at three different levels.

TECHNOLOGY: We have seen digital transformation mature over the last five years or so because we can know exponentially more about our customers. And because we can know more, we are expected to do more with it. Customers have always expected to be treated as individuals, and now as large players effectively leverage deep data to create tailored digital experiences, expectations are very high for all brands.

OPERATIONS: Digital transformation that only looks at technology is destined for failure, however, because an organization’s digital presence is an outward manifestation of its inward condition. If internal processes and systems are not organized around the needs of the customer, technology will only bring that into stark relief for everyone to see. In an era of open brands and high expectations of trust, this is not recommended.  

ADAPTABILITY: Digital transformation is still not finished when you have adopted the latest technology and married that with supporting internal processes because the technology will have changed before too long. As the saying goes, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Unless the organization has a culture of strategic adaptability it will be vulnerable to the whims and changes of the tech as it evolves. 

NOW WHAT? If digital transformation is actually cultural transformation, you will want to lean towards a team that is more on the cultural side than on the technical side. Technology is easy, humans are hard. The team will need to be able to speak the languages of business process, lean methodology, strategic planning, group facilitation, digital strategy, change management, financial services, law, systems thinking, creative management, and persuasive communications.

revisiting the MVP

It might be time to revisit the idea of the Minimum Viable Product, because we're in danger of losing its power to help us fail fast/fail cheap. 

In Eric Ries' book The Lean Startup, he describes the MVP as, "that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort." 

In other words, the MVP was meant to be an ethnographic research tool. However, it is starting to turn into a cost-cutting measure to create bare minimum digital experiences.

The three big challenges with qualitative insight research are that people fabricate answers, they are not necessarily experts in what they’re being asked, and they have no basis for a vision of the future state. This is why digital qualitative research has long-since gravitated towards ethnographic research, where you observe and draw insights from actual behaviour. 

The point of the MVP is to create an experience that is real enough to elicit the kind of behaviour from which you can validly draw insights. It’s a great way to fail fast, fail cheap.

Now that we are 7 years along since The Lean Startup was published (an eternity in the digital space), we often confuse MVPs with Betas. In other words, there is increasing pressure to create what I call a minimal acceptable product (MAP); one that we can feel just comfortable with to launch. In the rush to create a MAP, we often skip the MVP. The problems with this are as follows. 

Skipping the MVP can mean skipping the kind of research necessary to get the experience right in the first place. We have come so far in the world of digital ethnography’s ability to mobilize online behaviour to help reach business objectives, it would be tragic to let that fall by the wayside. Tragic, and expensive. 

Jumping right to the MAP without sufficient user insight runs the now-obvious risk that, not only will the experience be stripped-down and underfunded, it will also not address the real needs of the user. 

The whole point of the MVP is not just to validate the experience we want to create, it is also about uncovering hidden needs that no one had noticed before. Is there really a net benefit to foregoing those nuggets of strategic insight in our rush to get things out the door? Spoiler alert: No. 

Last, rushing right to MAPs can give us a false sense of cost-effectiveness, because it often feels like we got to the solution by both reducing planning resources and keeping the scope under control. However, if the experience created is all wrong to begin with, the initial cost savings will quickly disappear in the swirl of poor results. 

We should revisit the MVP for what it was intended in the first place: a tool to help uncover the kind of insights we need in order to fail fast and fail cheap. 

how lawyers and designers think alike


Defeasible and Abductive Reasoning: A Common Foundation for Lawyers and Designers



This essay explores the commonalities between defeasible reasoning and abductive reasoning and argues there is a basis for common ground between legal reasoning and design thinking. There is a finality to both law and design: Judgments must be rendered, contracts must be executed, cases must be settled or tried. Similarly, products must be manufactured, buildings must be built, and advertising must appear. The underlying challenge for both law and design is how to reach a level of certainty despite the reality of incomplete information at, and subsequent to, the final decision point. Not surprisingly, this common challenge has spawned common reasoning approaches, and therein lies the opportunity for mutual dialogue.

Defeasible Reasoning and Law

Defeasible reasoning reaches conclusions that are acknowledged to be contingent on its antecedents remaining unfalsified. By definition, defeasible reasoning is non-monotonic, in that the truth statement may not survive the addition of a new antecedent. Prakken and Sartor (2004) describe it as follows: “The conclusions of the reasoning process do not grow inevitably as further input information is provided.”[1] According to Prakken and Sartor (2004) the concept of defeasibility was introduced to legal theory by Hart (1951)[2], when he adopted the real property concept of defeasible interest to a legal argument fraught with contingencies.[3] They go on to describe three aspects of defeasible reasoning: inference-based, process-based, and theory-based.

Inference-Based Defeasibility

Inference-based defeasibility theories examine the information at hand and make judgments on which conclusions are, or are not, appropriate on the basis of that information alone. [4] Pollock (1995) refers to defeasible reasoning as the resolution between two conflicting desired outcomes inherent in human reasoning: “Beliefs are adopted on the basis of arguments that appeal to small sets of previously held information, but the beliefs can later be retracted in the face of new information.[5]

McCarthy (1987) refers to this as a problem of qualification,[6] and Peczenik (1989) reaches a similar conclusion: “It should enable a legal agent to form judgments on the basis of the knowledge he has, and the thinking he is presently able to do, and correct (and possibly withdraw) such conclusions as soon as he is able to take into account further legally relevant information.”[7]

Hage (1997)[8] takes the perspective of balancing antecedent reasons, the stronger of which is meant to carry the day, but Prakken and Sartor (1996)[9] and Pollock and Cruz (1999)[10] prefer the approach of recursive, iterative “argument games,” in which legal conclusions are arrived at by judging which conflicting antecedent reasons create the strongest inference through the process of a “dialectical interaction of competing inferences.”[11]

Process-Based Defeasibility

In an element unique to legal reasoning, the outcome of the battle between antecedent arguments will be influenced by the procedural aspects of the legal system, which will regulate the shifting burdens of proof, evidence admissibility, etc. An analysis based on pure logic will not always be sufficient.[12] This does not appear to be directly relevant to commonality with design thinking, however it is worth noting that formal process forms an essential part of legal defeasibility.

Theory-Based Defeasibility

Inference- and process-based defeasibility both deal with the application of a theory to a specific issue or set of facts, whereas theory-based defeasibility deals not with the application of a theory, rather the choice between theories.[13] Theory-based defeasibility “results from the evaluation and the choice of theories which explain and systematise the available input information: When a better theory becomes available, inferior theories are to be abandoned.”[14]

The choice between theories harkens back to discussions of philosophy of science, including Popper (1959), Lakatos (1978), Thagard (1992) and Kuhn (1962). [15] Prakken and Sartor (2004) make the case for a measured approach to theory change, given the importance of consistency and predictability in the law, with the objective being the notion of coherence, defined by Peczenik (1997) as: “The more the statements belonging to a given theory approximate a perfect supportive structure, the more coherent the theory is.[16]

Abductive Reasoning and Design

Just as defeasible reasoning undergirds certain streams of legal thought, so does abductive reasoning form the basis of certain streams of design thinking, per Martin (2009),[17] Martin (2010),[18] Dew (2007), Kolko (2010), Tuzet (2006),[19] etc. Abductive reasoning leads to a conclusion that is openly acknowledged as being one possible outcome of many. Aristotle characterized abduction as a probable, minor premise extrapolated from a certain, major premise, and modern logicians have layered on a focus on the “importance of reasoning from causes to effects.” [20] Stated as a syllogism:

“The surprising fact C is observed. But if A were true, C would be a matter of course. Hence there is reason to suspect that A is true.”[21]

As Gabbay and Woods (2006) argue, abductions are “justifications of use without being evidence of the truth of the hypothesis in question,”[22] and in that sense abduction is inherently pragmatic. In fact the power of abduction lies in its ability to explain phenomenon, make predictions that are empirically verifiable, simplify existing explanations, and unifying laws and theories that otherwise may not be seen as consistent.[23],[24] Abductive reasoning is well suited for tackling wicked problems,[25] AI, computer science, philosophy of science, belief dynamics and legal reasoning.[26]

Abduction is also used in designing business strategy, industrial products, architecture and related fields. From Dew (2007) we have: “The genesis of new designs […] lies in making inferential leaps from a collection of raw data about a design situation to some plausible hypothesis about the underlying issue. […] Therefore, good abductive thinking is a pre-condition for intelligent designing.”[27] Kolko (2007) defines this type of “design synthesis as an abductive sensemaking process of manipulating, organizing, pruning and filtering data in the context of a design problem, in an effort to produce information and knowledge […],” [using methods that emphasize] prioritizing, judging and forging connections.”[28]

Common Ground

The material presented indicates that there are indeed similarities between defeasible and abductive reasoning, and it is argued that there is common theoretical, logical and philosophical ground between defeasible reasoning as applied to law, and abductive reasoning as applied to design. Both modes of reasoning are non-monotonic, and they both lead to particular outcomes while accounting for uncertainty. Defeasible reasoning makes decisions which are openly qualified as being contingent on antecedents remaining unfalsified, and abductive reasoning makes decisions which are openly qualified as being one possible solution of many. Not only do that have commonalities, but one may actually be a subset of the other. For example, from legal perspective Gabbay and Woods (2006,)[29] and Thagard (2004)[30] argue that abduction is important to legal reasoning, and from a design perspective Dew (2007)[31] states that one major characteristic of abduction is defeasibility. 

Future Research

This conclusion opens a wide range of future research. Are there opportunities for legal thinkers to learn from the processes used by design thinkers, and vice versa? What implications might that have on the practice of law or on judicial process? What meta-theory might be appropriate for holistically combining the two types of reasoning, and what implications might that have for the alignment of other seemingly disparate theories? The time appears to be right for inquiries of this nature, and there sufficient commonality from which to start.



Buchanan, R. “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” In The Idea of Design, edited by Margolin, V. and R. Buchanan. Boston: MIT Press, 1995.

Dew, N. “Abduction: A Pre-Condition For The Intelligent Design Of Strategy.” Journal of Business Strategy 28, no. 4 (2007): 38-45.

Gabbay, D. and Woods, J. Advice on Abductive Logic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Hage, J. C. “Reasoning With Rules.” An Essay on Legal Reasoning and Its Underlying Logic. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1997.

Hart, H. L. A. “The Ascription of Responsibility and Rights.” In Logic and Language, edited by A. Flew, 145–66. Oxford: Blackwell, 1951.  

Kolko, J. “Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking: The Drivers of Design Synthesis.” Design Issues 26, no. 1 (2010): 15-27.

Kuhn, T. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Lakatos, I. “Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes.” In I. Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, 8–101. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Martin, R. “Design thinking: achieving insights via the ‘knowledge funnel’’’, Strategy & Leadership 38, no. 2 (2010): 37-41.

Martin, R. The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press, 2009.

McCarthy, J. “Circumscription—A Form of Non-monotonic Reasoning.” In Readings in Non-monotonic Reasoning, edited by M. L. Ginsberg, 145–51. Los Altos, Cal.: Morgan Kaufmann, 1987.

Peczenik, A. “The Passion for Reason.” In The Law in Philosophical Perspective, edited by L. J. Wintgens. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1997. 

Peczenik, A. On Law and Reason. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1989.

Peczenik, A. The Basis of Legal Justification. Lund: Infotryck, 1983.

Pollock, J. L. Knowledge and Justification. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. 

Pollock, J. L., and J. Cruz. Contemporary Theories of Knowledge. Totowa, N.Y.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1986.

Popper, K. R. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London: Hutchinson, 1959.

Prakken, H. and Sartor, G. “The Three Faces of Defeasibility in the Law,” Ratio Juris 17, no. 1 (2004): 118-39.

Prakken, H., and G. Sartor. “A Dialectical Model of Assessing Conflicting Arguments in Legal Reasoning.” Artificial Intelligence and Law 4, 331–68.

Thagard, P. Conceptual Revolutions. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Thagard P. “Causal Inference In Legal Decision Making: Explanatory Coherence vs. Bayesian Networks.” Applied Artificial Intelligence 18, no. 3/4 (2004): 231-49.

Tuzet, G. Projectual Abduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.


End Notes

[1] H. Prakken and G. Sartor, “The Three Faces of Defeasibility in the Law,” Ratio Juris 17, no. 1 (2004): 118.

[2] H. L. A. Hart, “The Ascription of Responsibility and Rights,” in Logic and Language, ed. A. Flew, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1951), 145–66. 

[3] Ibid., quoted in Prakken and Sartor, “Three Faces,” 121. 

[4] Prakken and Sartor, “Three Faces,” 125.

[5] J. L. Pollock, Knowledge and Justification. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995), 40, quoted in Prakken and Sartor, “Three Faces,” 119.

[6] J. McCarthy, “Circumscription—A Form of Non-monotonic Reasoning.” In Readings in Non-monotonic Reasoning, edited by M. L. Ginsberg, 145–51. Los Altos, Cal.: Morgan Kaufmann, 1987, quoted in Prakken and Sartor, “Three Faces,” 119.

[7] A. Peczenik, “The Passion for Reason.” In The Law in Philosophical Perspective, ed. L. J. Wintgens (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1997), 77, quoted in Prakken and Sartor, “Three Faces,” 119.  

[8] J. C. Hage. “Reasoning With Rules.” An Essay on Legal Reasoning and Its Underlying Logic. (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1997), quoted in Prakken and Sartor, “Three Faces,” 123.

[9] Prakken and Sartor, “Three Faces,” 121.

[10] Prakken and Sartor, “Three Faces,” 121.

[11] Ibid., 123.

[12] Ibid., 128.

[13] Ibid., 136.

[14] Ibid., 130-131.

[15] Ibid., 130-131.

[16] A. Peczenik, “Passion,” 196, quoted in Prakken and Sartor, “Three Faces,” 132.

[17] R. Martin, The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage. (Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press, 2009).

[18] R. Martin, “Design thinking: achieving insights via the ‘knowledge funnel’,” Strategy & Leadership 38, no. 2 (2010): 37-41.

[19] G. Tuzet, Projectual Abduction. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006): 156-160.

[20] D. Gabbay and J. Woods. Advice on Abductive Logic. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[21] Ibid., 190.

[22] Ibid, 190.

[23] Ibid., 190.

[24] It can be argued that this paper is an example of the latter case.

[25] R. Buchanan, “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” In Margolin, V. and R. Buchanan, eds., The Idea of Design (Boston:MIT Press, 1995): 3-20.

[26] Gabbay and Woods, Advice, 199.

[27] N. Dew. “Abduction: A Pre-Condition For The Intelligent Design Of Strategy.” Journal of Business Strategy 28, no. 4 (2007): 38.

[28] Kolko, J. “Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking: The Drivers of Design Synthesis.” Design Issues 26, no. 1 (2010): 27.

[29] Gabbay and Woods, Advice, 199.

[30] P. Thagard. “Causal Inference In Legal Decision Making: Explanatory Coherence vs. Bayesian Networks.” Applied Artificial Intelligence 18, no. 3/4 (2004): 249.

[31] Dew, “Abduction,” 38.


Copyright (c) 2011 Mark Szabo

laws v. values

My letter in the National Post, March 15, 2017:


Holding newcomers (one of which I once was) to the standard of our values is wrongheaded. Values are in the eye of the beholder so they're uncertain, undefined, and changeable. A better approach is to simply ensure newcomers intend to abide by our laws, which are certain, clearly defined, and change only through the political process. Laws are the values on which we all agree. Let's start there.


time saving method for note taking

While working on my PhD I came across a great way to take notes on articles and lectures, and remember the content for future use in writing or exam prep. 

The Cornell system is basically a love letter to your future self: "Dear future self who is about to start writing or studying for an exam, here are the main nuggets of what you've read so far, all clearly laid out and cited. Now all you have to do is organize them. You're welcome." 

Using a specific template (attached), you take your notes in an organized fashion: 

1. The big part is for NOTES: Take raw notes in class or as you read something. 

2. The space at the left is for THOUGHTS: Pull out the important ideas or themes later as you review your notes, or as they occur to you in the moment. This helps solidify the ideas in your memory for the long term. 

3. The space at the bottom is for CONTEXT: Use that for making connections or asking yourself questions like, "How does this fit with that other thing that I read?" or "Make sure to add this to the analysis on that thing from yesterday." 

PRO TIP: Cite the page numbers in your notes as you go! It's easier to pull quotes and ideas from an article from your notes rather than the text itself. Try to ensure you never have to re-visit the article again. When you go back and write, it makes a huge difference to have the direct quotes and ideas in the notes, WITH THE PAGE NUMBERS. That alone will save you hours of drudgery. Treat this as a note to your future self: "Dear future self who is about to start writing, here are the main nuggets all clearly laid out and cited. Now all you have to do is organize them." 

NOTE: I'm told that you'll remember things better if you write them out by longhand, and my experience bore that out. Things I tried to type got lost in my memory, but the things I wrote out (including my notes) stuck with me for the long term. 

Using this approach saved me hours of drudgery, and I hope this helps you too. 

Good luck! 

- MZ 


More details: 

don't tweet - meet! complexity theory explains why mass communications don't always work in conflicts


Mass and social media communications are rarely effective at resolving conflicts because they try to address the problem at the system level, but the problem is at the level of individual interactions.


We've all seen it. Those painfully earnest ads, tweets, and posts by project proponents who are convinced that, gosh darn it, if people just understood "the facts" about their project they would climb on board and stop opposing it. Look at how many jobs we'll create! Look at how good we are at cleaning up our mess after the fact! Look how important this is to our economy! Look how many females/under-represented groups our industry employs! Or my favourite one: Look at how much worse the other proponents/industries/groups are! 

Mass and social media communications are important but they usually don't work to alleviate direct conflicts, because not only do they miss the actual source of the conflict, they usually just end up reinforcing it. Here's a helpful way to think about it. 

Scientists who study complex human conflicts from a systems (i.e. big picture) perspective often liken them to natural phenomena, like a flock of starling birds who fly in formation in an ever-changing, dynamic pattern that you can never hope to predict. The flock seems to be an entity unto itself, beyond the individual birds themselves. The birds are just focusing on the others in their immediate perimeter, not on what the flock is doing as a whole. Similarly, human conflicts can be thought of as the result of patterns of interaction that also take on a life of their own, very much like a flock of starlings. In the case of difficult conflicts those patterns are stable, but also destructive, like a group of starlings that refuses to engage with the others and just plows through the whole flock. 

Intuitively, this makes sense. Longstanding conflicts that have a heavy emotional or value-based component can be destructive, and enduring, despite the fact that they're counterproductive to most everyone involved. This is because natural systems like human conflicts take on lives of their own, where the conflict itself is often much larger than the individuals involved intended it to be. Some call it herd mentality, swarming, or self-organization, but whatever you call it, the reality is that difficult conflicts are often much bigger than what the people involved intended.

What is not intuitive about this approach is the idea that you cannot expect to change a conflict by focusing your effort at the big picture level; any more than you can hope to catch a flock of starlings with a net. You need to focus your effort on the changing the patterns of interaction that created the conflict in the first place. In most conflicts, that means you need to find the parties who are actually diametrically opposed to each other (as opposed to those who are merely influencers), and shake up their existing patterns of interactive at the individual level

Mass and social media communications are rarely effective at resolving conflicts because they try to address the problem at the system level, but the problem is at the level of individual interactions. For example, if an environmentalist has decided that corporate energy extractors are focused on profits more than protection, mass communications about jobs and economic impact are only going to reinforce that - not make it go away. Similarly, if an engineer thinks that eco-warriors don't understand basic thermodynamics and the efficiency of close-to-the-source combustion, communicating the virtues of electric cars that are actually fuelled by coal-fired electricity is not going to be persuasive either. 

Mass and social media communication have their place, but they are blunt instruments. Don't bring a sledgehammer when you need a scalpel. If patterns of interaction are the source of difficult conflicts, then more nuanced, direct approaches (engagement, mediation, co-creation of strategy, etc.) are called for in cases of direct conflict. Don't tweet - meet. 


Go deeper: 

Coleman, P. T., Nowak, A., Bui‐Wrzosinska, L., Bartoli, A., Liebovitch, L. S., Musallam, N., & Kugler, K. G. (2011). The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts (1st ed.). New York City: PublicAffairs.

Vallacher, R. R., Coleman, P. T., Nowak, A., & Bui-Wrzosinska, L. (2010). Rethinking intractable conflict: The perspective of dynamical systems. The American Psychologist, 65(4), 262–78.

Musallam, N., Coleman, P. T., & Nowak, A. (2010). Understanding the spread of malignant conflict: A dynamical systems perspective. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 16(2), 127–151.

abstract: PhD thesis on strategic planning in environmental conflict


This dissertation addresses the problem of how to make sense of environmental conflicts in a way that is both practical enough to direct strategy and comprehensive enough to encompass the full range of the conflict. I make three contributions towards solving this problem. First, after examining the literature from several different disciplines, I determine the attributes required for an effective sensemaking framework for environmental conflicts and further conclude that the Graph Model of Conflict Resolution (GMCR) meets those criteria. Specifically, the framework should be multidisciplinary, include a systems approach, allow for non-rational behaviour, embrace multiple theoretical constructs, facilitate an iterative resolution approach, and utilize one of several methodological approaches to account for time series data. Second, using Northern Gateway as an example, I develop an approach for simplifying a complicated conflict into the kind of inputs the GMCR is equipped to handle, resulting in broadening its application to conflicts that are more nuanced than currently researched in the literature. Third, I support further research by recommending how to improve the choice of decision-makers in the model, suggesting a protocol for primary qualitative validation of the model using subject matter experts, outlining parameters for use in iteratively refining the simulation model, clarifying limitations of the GMCR approach, and suggesting opportunities for further research. I conclude that a useful way to make sense out of a complex environmental conflict is to, counterintuitively, simplify it in the context of the participants’ next unilateral decisions, and use the GMCR approach to determine possible future states of conflict equilibrium. 

Link to Thesis 

an iterative approach strategy development

Strategy is a process, not an end state. It's a process that creates clarity of action: when everyone knows what to do, when to do it, and how they contribute to the larger goals of the team, organization, conflict, or overall system. Strategic communications are what make the strategy process work, by delivering meaning, value, and purpose throughout the process to the people involved.

My approach to strategic communications is proven, rooted in scientific best practices, and it offers a useful roadmap for anyone willing to put in the effort:

1.     Simplify – Communications is the art and science of focus. Like a sculptor removing stone that obscures the sculpture, a communicator removes the noise and gets to the heart of the matter by breaking it down to its simplest components. The challenge is how to get to elegant simplicity in a complex challenge. I use the type of integrative design thinking approach used by planners, architects, engineers, lawyers, and others who need to make long-term decisions now even though the future is unknowable, and I apply the methodology from my PhD in the application of systems theory to solving complex multiparty conflicts. The result: Elegant simplicity you can use right away. 

2.     Clarify – A problem well-understood is a problem half-solved, as the saying goes. Elegant simplicity is only useful if people understand what it means to them, in their world. To bring that to life when solving a strategic challenge, the people involved need to see the elegantly simple root of the challenge, engage with what that means to them, and get to the point where they clearly understand it themselves. The result: Those involved understand the challenge.

3.     Serve – Serve first, then ask. The key to getting people to do what you want them to do is to first give them what they need, before they even ask for it. Strategic challenges arise when people prioritize what they want over what they actually need. At this stage you need to force people to grapple with the difference, and acknowledge the fact they won’t always get what they want. The result: Those involved understand and accept what they need is not necessarily what they want.

4.     Engage – Strategic challenges arise from broken or missing patterns of interaction. Once we know what people need (not want), we can find ways to create new constructive patterns of interaction, or we can shake up existing destructive ones. These patterns are designed to create the kind of healthy engagement that will start motivating people to do what we need them to do. The result: Those involved begin to engage in constructive patterns of interaction.  

5.     Mobilize – Make it easy for people to do what you want. Now that people’s patterns of interaction are producing constructive, useful engagement, it’s time for them to start taking the action you want them to take. This involves making sure people understand what you want them to do, making it easy for them to do it, and continuously improving that process so more and more action will result. The result: People are doing what you need them to do, they know why they’re doing it, they see the benefit, and the system perpetuates itself.


turning a team into a system

My recent research has been about how to reverse-engineer what's going on in a system in order to understand and fix it. But my career has been focused on the other side of that coin: creating new systems. 

Systems are patterns of interaction that take on lives of their own that go beyond the immediate intentions of the people involved. When they turn bad they become malignant conflicts, and when they turn good they become virtuous cycles of positive outcomes. My career in design management has been built on putting people together, establishing the rules of engagement, and watching the results explode. 

When I put people together I give them five simple rules of engagement that help things go well. First, they need to treat each other like future job references. This reinforces the reality that we are all together for a relatively brief time, but more importantly it puts people in the mindset that we all need to be constantly impressing each other and be looking out for each other at every step. When you interact that way, it creates new pathways of interaction that inevitably lead to results you never imagined. 

Second, they need to always get to maximum appropriate truth with each other. If something is bugging you, get it said because each small interaction creates ripples that take on their own lives in the larger system; often far beyond what was originally intended. Keep in mind, however, that it must said in a way that will build the relationship in the long term (remember Rule One). This is not a license to shoot off your mouth and be hurtful.  

Third, the group needs to be a hotbed of ideas. This means that anything that gets in the way of the best idea bubbling to the top needs to be eliminated. Things like egos, destructive behaviour, failing to draw out introverts, etc., need to be overcome or the best idea will not bubble up. And if you are a leader, you need to set the tone by acknowledging that your idea may not always be the best - but at least you created a system where the best idea rises.  

Fourth, individuals need to love excellence in what they are doing or creating together. Strategy happens in the small moments when nobody is looking, and if every single person is drop-to-your-knees in love with what the group is doing they will guard it in those small moments from anything that will water it down or cause it to be less than amazing. 

Fifth, the group needs to understand, respect and leverage the chain of command. Each system has a hierarchy, whether it's overt or unspoken. If the role of someone with responsibility for others is to make their team's work life easier by removing barriers and bringing clarity, then it's the responsibility of the team members to make sure that actually happens. The hardest challenge for a leader is getting accurate, timely information, and if the team is able to provide that information it has enormous impact on the rest of the system. 

Systems create amazing things, or they become malignantly destructive. In my experience, these five rules of engagement create the former. 



leadership by inspiration

Nile Rogers is a monster producer & performer. He was helping out with the new Duran Duran album, when bassist John Taylor said this about him: 

"When you're working with Nile Rogers, everybody raises their game. It's like there's royalty in the house. Every engineer is on point, we're playing our best, and the guy whose job it is to make coffee is going to make the best pot he's made in months. It's just the effect that Nile has on people. And Nile doesn't make judgments about my bass sound; he is so enthusiastic about me doing what I do." Bass Player, Oct. 2015, p. 29

What a great way to sum up inspirational leadership. 

leadership and the mousetrap

There’s an old advertising saying (from Jon Steele): If you’re going to build a mousetrap, leave room for the mouse. The idea being that if you expect to engage people they need to see something in it for themselves, and if it’s all about you there’s no room for them. The same is true of leadership. By definition a leader needs people to be engaged and that means they need to see what’s in it for them. If leadership is all about the leader, there’s no room for anyone else. The way a leader makes this happen is the subject of many books, but trust is at the root. If you are unable to allow yourself to trust those around you, you are making it all about you and are not leaving room for others to be fully engaged. Leaving room for that mouse means trusting others and letting yourself be a little bit vulnerable to their level of accomplishment. Good leaders are able to make that work; great leaders are able to make that succeed spectacularly.

a practical roadmap to collaborative decision making

This process of collaborative decision-making will ensure an interdisciplinary approach to a difficult problem, it will engage the participants, and it will advance the solution forward to the next stage of resolution. More importantly, it will bring the participants closer as co-workers by fostering new connections and modeling collaborative behaviour.

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