Many years ago, I lived close the Tate in London. I often wandered its halls and always ended up transfixed by The Snail, by Henri Matisse. Something about its scale and abstract simplicity captivated me. It is a hard piece of art to categorise, part painting, part sculptural, part geometric, also figurative, but wholly abstract. Matisse himself perhaps summed it up in his philosophy on art that ‘exactitude is not truth’.

Da Vinci, long before him, always tried to view problems from different perspectives and that the first way he considered anything was always biased to his ingrained way of seeing things.

Radical innovation rarely comes from people who are set in their ways, simply know more, or have more information, but from those who manage to generate alternative perspectives. Abstract artists employ this always:  imagined from a higher vantage point, the details of a coastline become smeared together, the sand become a smooth expanse of brown. At this level of description, different qualities emerge: the shape of the coastline, the height of the dunes, and so on.

Abstraction should also be one of the most basic and powerful principles in restructuring problems in business or searching for innovative solutions. Research backs this up strongly. Elspeth McFadzean (The Creativity Continuum: Towards a Classification of Creative Problem Solving Techniques. 1998. CIM, Volume 7, Issue 3) suggests that creativity can be enhanced by looking at the problem from a variety of perspectives and by breaking old mind patterns and forming new connections and perceptions. De Bono (1992. Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas, Harper Collins, London) describes creativity as moving “sideways” in order to try different concepts and perceptions. 

Too often we focus on the detail and not the bigger picture. Right now, many of us are searching for ways to survive, but we should also be looking for ways to thrive, to pivot and bounce-back. Relevance, not resilience will be key.

I often work with Andy Pemberton and Furthr. I love their approach to both visualisation and in getting to the ‘essence’ of your proposition, problem or product. This essence should be simple, like a Matisse piece of art, or something is probably wrong with your thinking. 

Searching for this essence will help define your relevance.

So how can we start to take an abstract approach?

Step 1: Getting to the essence

It’s time to park all of those beloved competitive advantages, features and benefits, and try and take a loftier view of your business, service or product. Kick off with a call/video with your team or colleagues and discuss the process and plan as outlined here.

Off the call, each get a big sheet of paper, a marker and write words that are about the big picture and abstract concepts relevant to your business.

e.g. It would be easy to focus Netflix’s business on the tech, internet and streaming capabilities, price, or the convenience of distributing TV and film content online. By looking at the business in a more abstract fashion you might start to view the whole world of entertainment including cinema, theatre etc and how these products are produced and consumed. For Netflix this might lead to more generic words like entertainment, enjoyment, broadcast, studios, actors, cinemas.

Step 2: Hone it

Review this list and get it down to just 3 words, the most important words from your list. 

Use these to write some short statements to describe your proposition. It doesn’t matter how many, but do question, and edit/change/swap if needed, every word in every statement. 

e.g.  Central to Netflix is definitely ‘entertainment’ and they rely on the ‘internet’ and definitely identified that producing their own content could be a good idea. From this, at various stages, they came up with statements like, ‘To continue being one of the leading firms of the internet entertainment era’, ‘To keep leading by offering an amazing entertainment experience’, ‘to be the best global entertainment distribution service’ and ‘ creating markets that are accessible to film makers and helping content creators around the world to find a global audience’.

Step 3: Walk on it

Now take a physical abstraction. Go for a walk (uphill if you can) to take a wider (or loftier) view of your surroundings, meet up with colleagues if you can perhaps, squint at the view, sketch if you like, lay on the grass and look at the trees. Whatever takes your fancy.

Step 4: Act on it

Back home, look at the statements you produced in Step 2, choose one, get on a call/video with your colleagues and debate your choices. Come to one decision, the chosen statement. Print it big, stick it in front of you and live with it for a week or so. Is it right, does it help frame your discussions, planning, marketing? It should.

e.g. Netflix got to a simple, central mission statement of ‘To entertain the world’, and through focus on this have become not just the biggest streaming service, but rapidly the biggest producer of new content too (they will spend $17Bn 2020) i.e. by taking this loftier view they have cut out the middle man.

We’re mostly unlikely to create the next Netflix, but, like them, what we hope to reach through abstraction is something far deeper than the detail of what our business, service or product does. For example:

  • Snail (noun): a small creature with a soft, wet body and a round shell, that moves very slowly and often eats garden plants.

Or perhaps,

  • “All the joie de vivre of Matisse’s 60-year career is condensed in the glowing heat and beauty of this late work of art, so exuberant, generous and intense”, The Guardian. 

Now that is some essence.


Post crisis, why not join me and a small group of like-minded entrepreneurs and business folk (or bring your team) in Morocco this November to free our creative thinking in the Atlas Mountains. We’ll use some wonderful techniques that combine perfectly with hiking, exploring and new cultures to come up with something innovative for your business.

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