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September 03, 2018 Monday 02:51:22 PM IST

It is quite common to miss the woods for the trees! If you are deep inside a forest, you see nothing but trees, or wild animals ready to pounce on you, or snakes that hiss at you, or simply the terrifying loneliness that chokes you. And you find yourself trapped in the forest with no exit in view.

To experience the beauty of the forest and to explore the escape routes through the woods, you need to rise above the trees and develop an eagle’s perspective of things! But you need to fly high enough to do that. At the same time, you need to fix your eyes on your target, just like that shrewd and seasonedaviator does from the sky. You develop both an overview of things as well as a targeted solution, if you are able to develop sufficient distance from the problem that challenges your creative prowess. The uniqueness of the eagle’s perspective is that it is still focussed even when it is abstract in nature. The eagle has its prey in perspective, even as it develops its bird’s eye-view of the situation!


The method of progressive abstraction was originally developed by TrostGeschkawhen he was working with the Battle Institute of Frankfurt, Germany.  It is a powerful method that allows you to progressively distance yourself from the problem in order to help you solve it in a creative manner via systematic abstraction.




The panorama of things is not available, if you are too close to the view and if you are distracted by irrelevant details, often rendering you out of focus. So the big picture does not emerge in front of you, something that would have helped you to unravel the exotic beauty of a creative solution.


The Construal Level Theory (CLT) of social psychology, developed by Yaacov Trope, Department of Psychology, New York University, and Nira Liberman, Department of Psychology, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel, describes the relationship between psychological distance and the level of abstraction in the act of thinking. Theyfind that the closer an object is to the individual, the more concrete is their thinking whilst the more distant an object is from the individual, the more abstract will be the thought about it.


Now, the psychological distance has at least four dimensions: the temporal, spatial, social, and the hypothetical.Here, temporal distance defines the actual time-distance from the event in the past or in the future. If you are too close to the event, you may fail to get the big picture of the event. This applies to physical or spatial distance. When something happens in front of your eyes, you develop concrete thoughts, whereas when it happens at a distance, you make room for abstraction.


Social distance defines interpersonal distance, such as the cultural or social affinity or distance between two different groups of people, which defines relational identities. Finally, the hypothetical distance considers the probabilities of occurrence of the event, its likelihood or unlikelihood. Psychological distance is the weighted sum of all these distances. Larger psychological distances allow for higher levels of abstraction, whereas shorter psychological distances engender lower levelsof abstraction (low-level construal). The big picture will emerge as a result of higher and higher levels of abstraction (high-level construal).




The progressive abstraction method of creative problem-solving allows you to systematically increase the psychological distance from the problem and lifts you to higher levels of abstract thinking,enablingyou to perceive and appreciate the panorama and larger picture, which, in turn,leads you to a plausible solution.


Different techniques are adopted to increase the spatial, temporal, social, and hypothetical distances with the problem under consideration. For example, to increase the spatial distance, you might want toimaginethat the problem happened in another country; to deepenthe temporal distance you could visualise the problem as occurring five years from now in the future; to expandthe social distance, you can imagine that you are not solving your own problem, but rather someone else’s problem; and, finally, to increasethe hypothetical distance you could regard the probability of failure as beingonly 10%.


Increasing the psychological distance will help you to focus on the more abstract part of the problem rather than getting distracted by its finite details. It is like zooming awayfrom the problem in order to focus on the essentials of the problem and developing a fitting solution before zooming in on the problem to addressits specific nature.


For example, consider the problem of contacting a client over phone to make a sale. You may consider the problem specifically as holding the phone to your ear and talking. Or you could abstract it further and describe it as working on a sales call or very abstractly as engaging in a relationship.


At that level, the matching solutions are those thatenhance a personal relationship with the clients. In the next phase, you will be expected to climb the ladder to make sure you apply the noble theories of developing a relationship in theminutest detail of your teleconference.


Another striking example is the evolution of the music storage device. The predecessors of Compact Discs (CDs) were the cassette players or record players.The CDwassucceededby the iPod. One of the problems with the CDplayers was that they would skip a particular item as it gotjostled. The problem was initially solved by developing suitable shock absorbers that would prevent the laser from getting de-focussedon the disc. It was a solution designed by placingtheCD player on apar with a cassette or a record player. On further abstracting the CD player, it could be visualised as a computer-based media. That abstraction facilitated a creative solution — of reading the computer file and buffering the music as in a computer media, which emerged as the most suitable solution to the problem. 


Successive abstraction facilitates alternate problem definitions, which would trigger creative solutions that can be modified further to suit the true problem at hand. Here a problem is abstracted and simplified in single steps in order to change the perspective into an eagle’s perspective and to find a general solution. This general solution is applied to the original problem in order to develop a totally new perspective for a specific solution. The following systematic approach could be used for the method of Successive Abstraction:

Step 01: Write down a specific statement of the problem.

Step 02: Abstract the general statement further by successive abstraction. For this purpose, psychological distance from the actual problem is systematically developed, and the problem is revisited in the next level of abstraction. It is achieved by asking afocused question such as: “Where does the problem actually emerge?”

Step 03: Develop a generic problem definition at the current abstraction level. It may be achieved through the focused question: “How canit be resolved?” 

Step 04: Find a suitable solution to the abstracted generic question. Examine the solution and develop a new problem definition. If no solution could be found, the problem is then lifted to the next level of abstraction.

Step 05: Repeat steps 02-05 until a suitable level of abstraction is reached.

Step 06: The original specific statement of the problem is corroborated with the final solution and their compatibility is ensured.


Through the step by step enhancement of the level of abstraction of a problem or a problem area and the corresponding separation of the essentials of the problem from its nonessentials, the core of the problem will be isolated. In this process, two important purposes of the method are strictly followed:

  • The correlation between the given problem and solution is continually corroborated.
  • The application level at which the solution is most effective will be correspondingly shown.


The Progressive Abstraction method can be successfully applied to find ideas for problems where a knowledge of the inner structures and their correlations are important. It could be used as an individual or a group method of problem solving. The method is also useful in generating a list of requirements on a new product, especially for a complex new product. In the context of change management, the method could be employed for the investigation into the extent of a given problem. 

The method enables one to identify and focus on the core of the task at hand and resolves a large number of prejudgments on the same. However, it is often found that in many cases a suitable abstraction level is difficult to reach. Further, to operationalise a group-based application of the method, an expert team member will be necessary. There is also the danger of getting totally estranged from the specific problem through the process of abstraction.

Given all the caution, the successive abstraction method has proven to be an effective method of generating creative solutions to individual and institutional problems that involve lots of personal emotions and concerns.

Dr. Varghese Panthalookaran

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