in Tools

Tool: levels of abstraction

In 1960 Theodore Levitt wrote “Marketing Myopia” which questioned which level of abstraction was right for businesses to match their capabilities with the desires of customers:

Those behind the railroads are in trouble not because the need for passenger transportation has declined or even because cars, airplanes, and other modes of transport have filled that need. Rather, the industry is failing because those behind it assumed they were in the railroad business rather than the transportation business. They were railroad-oriented instead of transportation-oriented, product-oriented instead of customer-oriented.

In the dot com boom this was taken to absurd extremes, but I’m finding it using as a tool for product development, considering different levels of abstraction as an idea-generation tool. For example, we might generate different ideas for Sony as a portable cassette player business, a portable music business, a portable entertainment business, a ubiquitous entertainment business, and so on. Each time you go up a level, the possibilities also branch out.

But I figure someone must have already done this. Does it already have a name?

  1. Science fiction author Ted Sturgeon used to advise writers and others to ‘ask the next question’ as a way of getting them past the immediate consequences of an idea, and on to the wider context.

    I have brought it up in business meetings, using a golf metaphor. The weak player, notoriously, imagines that his game would improve no end, if only he had the latest high-tech putter or a better brand of golf ball. Smarter folks will suggest that the problem lies, not with the tool, but with the technique, and advise more practice. A hard-core asker of next questions, though, would go on to wonder whether he needs to play golf at all, or whether he should invite business associates to, say, tennis or sailing. I think of this as the tool-technique-task hierarchy, and occasionally even add ‘intent’ as the fourth ‘T’ – one could, after all, question whether you even need to go in for any sport at all, just to spend social time with your business associates – whether, in short, you have to artificially make all interactions competitive.

    So I don’t know whether anyone else has a term for the sort of questions you raise, about the right level of abstraction or analysis, but I call it the 4T heuristic.

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