The Axis of Abstraction

When writing What Matters a few weeks ago, I didn’t expect it to turn into a multipart series, but, here we are in part three of (?).

Last week, we moved from What, to starting with Why.

Today, I’d like to take a journey on the axis of abstraction in the What That Matters solar system.  It’s the axis with “Abstract” at the top and “Concrete” at the bottom.

Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.”

But do people really want a quarter-inch hole?
Or do they want safety and security?

That’s the “Axis of Abstraction”

I first heard this notion when good friend Scott Burleson guest lectured in a class back in 2012.  He reminded me just this week that he’d used the phrase “levels of abstraction” hundreds of times with little notice, but, he said, “it seemed to stick with you.”  It most certainly did stick.

For fun, and for hypothetical sake, imagine starting a company competing with CPI Security, ADT, and Ring, as a few examples.

What if old Theodore was buying that quarter-inch drill to put a quarter inch hole into his front door at home.

Why? Maybe he was installing a lock.
Why? To be safe at home and keep his belongings secure when away.
Why?  For peace of mind.

Scott would say the highest level of abstraction is “Happiness and Bliss.”  In summary, for this example, from the top down on the axis of abstraction we go:

  • Happiness & Bliss
  • Peace of Mind
  • Safety & Security
  • Lock
  • Hole
  • Drill

What happens on the way down when we start to ask “how“?

If we start with Happiness & Bliss and start to ask why, the answers can be peace of mind, health,, food, music, art, the universe and everything.

Let’s try starting at the level of Safety & Security for our company.
How are all the ways we can stay safe and keep our belongings secure at home?

  • A door that locks
  • A home security system
  • A doorbell that’s a camera
  • A light that comes on when it detects movement outside
  • Get a dog
  • Set up a neighborhood watch

Going down the axis of abstraction, (asking how? along the way), is like the roots of a tree digging into the earth.  We diverge on the way down, to an infinite number of solutions that are concrete.

Going up the axis of abstraction (asking why?), we may eventually converge to Happiness & Bliss (or some core value).

The Axis of Abstraction can be used as a tool for building a personal or corporate Vision and Mission.  It can be for business unit missions, and project missions.  It can be used for brainstorming solutions.

Our hypothetical company might have a high level vision of “Peace of Mind” and a corporate mission dedicated to “Safety and Security.”  We can have business units that are focused on Alarm Systems, Automated Devices, and Web/Mobile Apps.  Our products can be locks, lights, cameras, and the associated user interfaces.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic and where else you might like to explore the “What that Matters” solar system in future posts.

Health & Happiness for All