Abstraction Laddering – An Easy, Effective Problem Framing Exercise

Atomic helps clients solve all sorts of business problems with custom software. Unfortunately, most clients don’t know how to describe their problems in a useful way. They usually just list symptoms instead of getting to the root cause. These conversations remind me of a quote from Gino Wickman:

When addressing issues, leadership teams spend most of their time discussing the heck out of everything, rarely identifying anything, and hardly ever solving something.

To prevent this, I start every project with a structured conversation, aiming to understand why the client reached out to Atomic. I try to examine the client’s problem from different angles so the team and I can develop an action plan. No written statement of work or warm transfer from a salesperson can take the place of an in-person conversation.

Of course, having this conversation without a plan or framework would often be a waste of time. Fortunately, there’s a useful exercise I find extremely helpful: abstraction laddering.

A Simple Exercise

The Ladder of Abstraction is a way to understand problems by asking questions to move the conversation up the ladder (more abstract) or down the ladder (more concrete). It was developed by American linguist S. I. Hayakawa and introduced in his 1939 book Language in Thought and Action.

I learned about the technique through the LUMA Institute, which encourages you to use Why and How (they call them “statement starters”) to look at a problem through different levels of focus as you move up and down the ladder.

Give it a Try

This exercise can be done on a whiteboard, a large poster board, or even just a piece of paper. Gather your client(s) and team, and write your problem statement in the middle of your board, for example:

We need to reduce the number of customer support calls.

On its own, the problem statement is too vague to build an action plan around. Using statement starters, zoom out from the problem (i.e., move up the ladder) by asking, “Why?”

  • Why? Customers are frustrated because the on-hold wait time is too long.
  • Why? Our costs per call are too high.

Use “How” questions to move down the ladder in an effort to focus the problem.

  • How? By building more self-help tools for customers.
  • How? By integrating a chat feature into the application.

Don’t spend too much time organizing the team’s thoughts while moving up and down the ladder. The exercise will be more effective if the team is free to put forth their thoughts as they occur to them.

A Real Example

I’d like to share a snippet from an abstract laddering exercise that I did recently with a client. Moving up the ladder from the problem statement allowed us to talk at a broad level about the issue and why we needed to address it. Moving down led us into a focused conversation around how we could address it.

Examine the layers of a problem

We ended up with a problem statement we all agreed on and the start of a plan to address it.

Conclusion

Effective problem solvers ask questions to bring their issues into the right level of focus before they jump into action. Using a framework like abstraction laddering allows the group to ask questions that will reveal the layers of a problem. Once the problem is understood at the right level, the group can begin discussing the direction to take.