Leading Alignment with the Ladder of Inference

Mostly that’s because it’s hard to agree on what we’re agreeing on: What’s the “real problem” we’re solving for? Who (for what stakeholder?) are we optimizing our solution? What does the data say? (Since the data doesn’t say anything without us interpreting it…)

this essay was published originally on my personal blog

Establishing a baseline reality and following a simple process to get to good agreement is non-trivial, but a simple framework can help: The ladder of inference.

Let’s take a step behind the stage to understand why it’s important…

We have eyelids but no earlids. Even with our eyes closed, we absorb waves of data constantly. Our “working attention,” what we notice, is only a small part of all the data collected by our senses. This is, in one sense, a survival mechanism. We can’t see everything. So we look for what’s most important to our survival. Is that a saber-toothed tiger or an elk? Is it going to make a meal of us, or is it a meal?

For eons, survival has also depended on quick action. We make assumptions about our selected data and we swiftly draw conclusions based on those assumptions. If you guessed right, you live. So, we can forgive ourselves and others for jumping to conclusions.

Over time, our guesses and assumptions solidify into beliefs about the way things are, a concentrated conglomeration of conclusions. We act based on those beliefs, in a time-saving process of efficient noticing and reacting.

And in a reflexive loop, what we see in the available data is filtered by our beliefs, in a cycle of self-reinforcement. So, we often see what we’re looking for, scanning with intention, not just attention.

Chris Argyris, an influential business theorist and author, developed “The Ladder of Inference” (not to be confused with the abstraction ladder which I’ve written about here ) to help clarify the path from data to action. The diagram below illustrates this concept.

If you find yourself in a disagreement with someone else, the most essential question is: Are we looking at the same data?

If we agree on the same facts, are we drawing the same conclusions about those facts?

According to Argyris, the first step in building alignment is to doubt your conclusions. Your judgments are built on a series of potentially shaky steps, so tread carefully.

Mapping your team’s Decision-making Ladder

Most decisions are not of the saber-toothed variety. Although it might feel that way, our lives are not at stake for the average team decision. So, rather than using instinct and speed, it’s ideal to slow the conversation down, to create clarity and safety and alignment at each rung of the Ladder of Inference.

Can you map a recent decision your team has made to the Ladder of Inference?

Can you take 30 minutes and get your team to map its next big decisions against the ladder of inference? Stepping back and slowing down from survival mode might help you all see with new eyes, and agree on a better path forward.

Extra Credit: Climbing someone else’s Ladder

When we disagree with someone or dislike the way someone has acted, it’s often a useful exercise to take a walk in their shoes…or in this case, take a climb on their ladder, down from their actions (at the top of the ladder), to their data (at the bottom) — what do they see as true? What beliefs are they acting out and with what assumptions? Can we walk a mile in their shoes and experience the data they’re working with?

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Daniel Stillman

Daniel Stillman

Host of theconversationfactory.com and @gothamsmith co-founder. Often riding bikes to the ocean.