Causal vs. Effectual Reasoning

October 20, 2008

Cathartic Ideas

Every once in a while a piece of writing comes along that sums up a bunch of half-baked ideas and makes them clear. You read it and you think “That’s what I meant all along!” and “Yes! yes!” and “That’s why this and this and this!” and yet you never put it as elegantly or explicitly as the author. Call it a cathartic idea.

Saras D. Sarasvathy’s “What Makes Entrepreneurs Entrepreneurial” presents a cathartic idea. (Warning: PDF)

From the title, I expected a controlled study of attributes of entrepreneurs vs. non-entrepreneurs. It’s not. It’s about thinking styles, and how veteran entrepreneurs have a different thinking style from other businesspeople. 

Types of Problem Solving

Most of us use causal reasoning. We look at a problem and look at our resources and figure out how to use our resources to solve the problem. Logical, right?

Some people are smarter. They use creative causal reasoning. They look at a problem and look at their resources and figure out what new resources they can go get to solve the problem. Even better. Roger Martin hints at this sort of thinking in his book The Opposable Mind, thought the focus is on integrative thinking which is another matter entirely.

Sarasvathy claims that good entrepreneurs use effectual reasoning, especially when they start something new. Here, they look at their resources and the resources they can get and try to figure out what valuable problems they can solve. 

Effectual Reasoning in Practice

A bad budgeter thinks about all the things he or she wants and then tries to figure out how to get them. A good budgeter thinks about what he or she has got and tries to figure out what he or she can get with it.

A bad government looks at all of society’s problems and starts to look for solutions. A good government looks at the money and resources available and looks for the most important problems that can be solved.

A good artist is always out of the box and turns ordinary materials into powerful emotional artifacts.

Good researchers solve problems and answer questions. The best researchers invent new problems to solve and find new questions. Think of Claude Shannon inventing information theory or Mark Weiser’s vision for ubiquitous computing.

Thinking Styles Matter

For a long time I have been convinced that we need to pay more attention to problem solving and thinking style as skills to be improved. Everyone talks about university being about “learning how to think” but how do we quantify or validate that university education makes better thinkers? Which is better, a philosophy degree or a computer science degree? Math? History?

There are results in Cognitive Science that elaborate on how people solve problems, but only cognitive scientists have seen them. We can get better at solving problems in general but nobody teaches these skills. Some good books exist like Roger Allen’s Winnie the Pooh on Problem Solving but few have read them. How many people have had an evidence-based class on brainstorming and creativity techniques that talked about something better than mind-mapping? (I haven’t, but I’d like one.)

There’s a problem to be solved here.


One Response to “Causal vs. Effectual Reasoning”

  1. Greg Wilson Says:

    Bah. In the 1970s, Edward de Bono made *millions* selling people “non-linear thinking”. In the eighties, the secret sauce was “left brain” (or was it right brain? I can never remember), and on and on and on — we haven’t had “vedic thinking” yet, but I bet it’s in the works. Where’s the evidence? Where’s the proof that “effectual reasoners” are actually doing something better than “causal reasoners”, rather than doing the same thing a little better? Bah, I say — bah.

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