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The ladder of inference is a model that describes an individual's mental process of observing situations, drawing conclusions and taking action. When we say "the fact is …" what we are actually saying is the fact, as I understand it based upon my data selection process, cultural and personal background, judgments, beliefs and assumptions is ..." Why is this important? This is important as there are a lot of steps in between the data and the actions we take based upon that data. By allowing others to explore our thinking process, we may reveal more effective and higher leverage solutions.Directly Observable Date
After an event takes place our mental processing immediately screens out a certain percentage of the data. In other words, our vision is naturally blurred and only absorbs a certain amount of the data that represents the life events. Here is the ladder. We …
ADD: Meaning (Personal and Cultural). When we look at the data we have collected, we attach our own personal meaning and cultural biases to the data that we observe. No data, therefore, is pure--it is influenced by whoever analyzes the data.
MAKE: Judgments, Conclusions and Inferences Based on the meaning we attach to the data collected we make inferences or judgments and arrive at conclusions which influences our behavior. Therefore one piece of data could lead to as many different conclusions as there are people analyzing that particular piece of data.
BUILD: Beliefs, Assumptions, Mental Models Over time, and the conclusions we reach from an event or pattern of events develop our belief system. We become fixated on certain ways of viewing how the world works, creating our own mental models that reoccur each time an event takes place.
What value is there in checking your assumptions? All too often, people fall into what may be termed "competency traps" -- a routine of problem solving that provided initial success and is used over and over with little regard for how accurately it fits with the current problem. The ladder of inference helps us break out of that trap by providing us an easy tool to ask, "What assumptions am I making about this particular situation that may limit my deeper understanding of the problem?" As we work to more clearly understand the problem, we may actually be able to reframe the problem.
What value is there in being more aware of your own reasoning? The ladder of inference helps us understand why it is important to make our reasoning steps explicit. By consciously reviewing the data that supports our conclusions, we can improve our ability to explore complex problems and reduce those instances where we "jump" to conclusions based upon data that is incomplete.
What value is there in making your reasoning clear to others? People often employ defensive behaviors such as trying to control situations that we have little control over, always acting as if we're in control, and never saying "I don't know." By having a tool which provides us an opportunity to say, "As I understand what you're saying, x leads to y which results in z. . . am I on track with your thinking?" we don't have to resort to trying to defuse complex issues on our own or end up attempting to cover up the fact that we don't have a clue.
What value is there in inquiring into others' reasoning? When people in organizations jointly practice skilled incompetence, the result is the formation of defensive routines. By having a mutually acceptable tool, we can inquire into each others thinking without resorting to rudeness.
A very powerful application of the ladder of inference is to introduce it at the beginning of a project. When team members commit to individually and collectively examine their beliefs and assumptions and making them explicit, a great deal of time spent arguing and going around in circles can be eliminated.