Tag Archives: The Fifth Discipline

Climbing the Ladder of Inference

It happened again this week. I was going along merrily about my business when I read something very disturbing on someone’s Facebook page. It was one side of a multi-faceted, distasteful, eye-opening situation affecting a significant number of people personally and about which most of the rest of us had an opinion. I took an opinion too, way too early in the game. And, I found myself at the top of the Ladder of Inference feeling embarrassed by my rush to judgment and having to climb my way down again by taking back words I had written in haste and with insufficient thought.

I don’t suppose it will be the last time I’m going to rush up the ladder. However, it is a goal of mine to ensure fewer occurrences. The air is far too rarified up there for critical thought to successfully cancel out, or at least modify, the rush of emotion that fuels an ill-considered journey to the top.

It is with this in mind that I’m re-publishing this post about the Ladder of Inference, just in case, along with me, you also could use a refresher course.

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6c4ec-examineThe other day, while at the supermarket, I was reminded of how easy it is to make assumptions about people. It happened while I was going through the checkout counter. Behind me, were a mother and her little boy, who looked to be about three years old. Together, they had two carry baskets brimming with grocery items.

Realizing she had forgotten something, Mom left the queue to go and get it, suggesting to her son that he begin to put the items they had already collected on the counter. He was very small. In fact so small his ability to comply with this suggestion was in some doubt, at least in my mind. But, soon he was grabbing each item and chucking it as high as he could over his head so that it landed, rather unceremoniously, on the counter above him. He was doing fine until he came to a can of soup. After heaving this in the direction of the other items, it landed on its side. Being fearful that it might roll off the counter and hit him on the head, I took the can up and set it aright, thinking I was doing him a service.

The little boy gave me a filthy look. He looked at the can. Then he looked at me and scowled. And, when his mother returned from her quest, he said, “Something’s not right

Mom, not really understanding what her son was on about, asked him what was not right, at which point, I said,

I think he’s referring to me. I righted the can of soup so it wouldn’t roll off the counter. I was trying to help

To this, the little boy raised himself up to his full height of maybe three feet and loudly proclaimed, “I didn’t want any help!

While a little stunned by the vehemence of his words, I quickly apologized to him, received some words of thanks from Mom and then decided it might be best if I minded my own business.

Thinking about this story, The Ladder of Inference comes to mind. It was developed by Chris Argyris and made known in Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline. It works something like this:

ladder-of-inference
http://www.strategyworks.co.za/2004/11/05/the-ladder-of-inference/
At the bottom of the ladder is information that is clear and observable. In this case, I saw a little boy helping his mother with the grocery shopping. I saw too, that there were a lot of groceries and that the little boy was really small.

I climbed to the second rung from the bottom where I narrowed my focus and selected only the data that interested me. In this case, I concentrated on two things, the little boy and his attempts to hurl grocery items onto the counter above him.

I climbed to the third rung of the ladder and began to make assumptions. First, I assumed that because he was small, he was not really capable of fulfilling his assigned task. And then, I assumed he needed help.

I climbed to the fourth rung of the ladder and concluded, based on these assumptions, that he would be glad of my help. From there, I proceeded to the fifth rung where I connected this conclusion to my belief that helping each other is an important and natural part of the human experience.

When I got all the way to the top of the ladder and acted in accordance with my assumptions and beliefs, I was met with hostility rather than the appreciation, or at least the neutrality, I was expecting.

The point is that it is easy for us to run up the ladder and get things wrong even when we have the best of intentions. Had I simply asked the little boy if he would like help in unloading his groceries (or in his case UPloading his groceries), I would have had the answer I needed, respected his wishes and stayed out of trouble. But I didn’t. So I didn’t.

All of which brings me to this…Good leadership can falter quite easily too, if we fail to check out and validate assumptions before we act. For instance, before every meeting you hold do you assume that everyone knows why you are meeting? Do you assume that everyone will have everything they need to fully participate in the meeting?

What other assumptions might you be making when you interact with those who follow your lead? How accurate are they? What steps might you take to prevent a trip up the Ladder of Inference? What questions might you ask?

Have you other thoughts you can share?

In the meantime and on the lighter side, this is what Oscar Wilde thought about assumptions, courtesy of Benny Hill.

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Filed under building awareness, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, Organizational Effectiveness

Leaders and the Learning Organization

senge2It is a testament to our naïveté about culture that we think that we can change it by simply declaring new values. Such declarations usually produce only cynicism. ~ Peter Senge

Peter Senge is one of my favourite Thought Leaders. You will probably know that he has been around for a while but his message, at least for me, is as relevant to our current time as it was when he first introduced his book, The Fifth Discipline, twenty something years ago.

So far, in my experience anyway, we have not been great students of his philosophies…or we have been great students but just, well, crappy at the execution part, proof perhaps that naïveté also lives in our belief that any of this stuff is easy.

There was a time when everyone was jumping onto The Learning Organization bandwagon. This usually happened when times were good, when organizations felt a little more ebullient about their prospects and generous toward their employees. And then when things started to look a little gloomy, heads turned back to the way things were. Budgets were cut and the Learning part of the organization dried up while the focus snapped back in line with the notion that wisdom and decisions could only come from the few and learning for the many was a luxury no one could afford.

I’m thinking though that it is in the difficult times that leaders need to embrace the concepts of the Learning Organization and to build a culture of shared leadership.

I must confess that not being particularly academic in my own learning process, I found The Fifth Discipline a little dry. Having said that, I also think the five main components of a Learning Organization continue to make great sense and are actionable, to greater or lesser degrees, by everyone regardless of whether we lead in large organizations, small ones, or are simply striving to lead a meaningful life.

Each of the Learning Organization components, personal mastery, mental models, team learning, shared vision and systems thinking allow for the opportunity to create lives and organizations that are resilient, flexible, inclusive and dynamic. The question often is though, how do we to start?

Here are some of my thoughts about that:

Personal Mastery: is, for me, the place where everything really begins. Taking the time to study and understand our reality, and our purpose, serves not only ourselves but also everyone with whom we come in contact.

Practically speaking, there are a lot of instruments available on the Internet that will help us confirm what we might already inherently know about ourselves or uncover some things we didn’t know. However we do it, the key to successful personal mastery, I think, is to trust in the information we receive; to be curious and ask questions either formally or informally; to observe the impact we have on others when we interact with them; and to act on any new knowledge we get about ourselves.

Mental Models: are, simply put, about assumptions and biases in our thinking. There is a proverb that says, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.

This speaks to the dangers of clinging to, and operating from, narrow perspectives. I believe the goal for leaders in this century is to widen the lens of their thinking by challenging not only their own assumptions but also the beliefs and biases on which their organizations operate. I hazard to say that if we were each to bring heightened awareness to our assumptions, our ability to be receptive to change would be that much greater.

Team Learning: There are many books written on the topic of teams, and an amazing array of teams within organizations too. It can get pretty complex. But suffice it to say that in an age where shared leadership is, or will become, critical, the need to understand the dynamics and functional operation of teams is pretty great. Here, I think it starts with gaining an understanding of what a truly successful and highly functional team looks like. In my observation, it always seems to come down to how team members communicate with each other; how they manage conflict and; how they examine their successes and more particularly, their failures.

Shared Vision: I expect this one is pretty familiar to most people. And yet its usefulness is so often diminished because the vision is developed at the top of the organization and seldom shared by those who are expected to work toward its achievement. To me, a Shared Vision is just that…shared. It may start with one person but if it is going to come alive and guide the company’s activities, it must be embraced and shared by all. It doesn’t have to be a sweeping statement with big words either. For example, Zappos.com, the online department store’s vision is, Delivering Happiness. It is a clear, simple statement that provides great direction to anyone who works there. To me, the message is, if what you do delivers happiness, it’s probably the right thing.

Systems Thinking: When most people talk about Senge’s model of a Learning Organization, they usually start with Systems Thinking. I keep it to the end because really this is about paying attention to the connections between and among a variety of elements that make up the whole. In organizations, we have this tendency to create silos of operation where people make decisions based only on their own needs. When this happens, others are affected, (often negatively) and that creates unnecessary and unproductive tension within the organization.

So, I suppose a place to start with respect to systems thinking is to ask, Who will be affected by what we are about to do? How do we involve them? Why should we care?

Really, systems thinking is  kind of like the plumbing in an old apartment complex. If there is a breakdown in one person’s apartment, it can affect the water supply to all of the others.

Some people may think the concepts put forth in The Fifth Discipline are old too. But, I think that they are timeless. If more organizations were to embrace and enact these philosophies, they would find ways to remain pliable and resilient in even the most treacherous of time.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

*note: this post was originally published in 2010

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Filed under Change Management, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Vision, Leading Teams, Learning, organizational culture, organizational Development, Organizational Effectiveness

Climbing the Ladder of Inference

The other day, while at the supermarket, I was reminded of how easy it is to make assumptions about people.  It happened while I was going through the checkout counter.  Behind me, were a mother and her little boy, who looked to be about three years old.  Together, they had two carry baskets brimming with grocery items.

Realizing she had forgotten something, Mom left the queue to go and get it, suggesting to her son that he begin to put the items they had already collected on the counter.  He was very small.  In fact so small his ability to comply with this suggestion was in some doubt, at least in my mind.  But, soon he was grabbing each item and chucking it as high as he could over his head so that it landed, rather unceremoniously, on the counter above him.  He was doing fine until he came to a can of soup.  After heaving this in the direction of the other items, it landed on its side. Being fearful that it might roll off the counter and hit him on the head, I took the can up and set it aright, thinking I was doing him a service.

The little boy gave me a filthy look.  He looked at the can.  Then he looked at me and scowled.  And, when his mother returned from her quest, he said, “Something’s not right

Mom, not really understanding what her son was on about, asked him what was not right, at which point, I said,

“I think he’s referring to me”.  I righted the can of soup so it wouldn’t roll off the counter.  I was trying to help”

To this, the little boy raised himself up to his full height of maybe three feet and loudly proclaimed, “I didn’t want any help!”

While a little stunned by the vehemence of his words, I quickly apologized to him, received some words of thanks from Mom and then decided it might be best if I minded my own business.

Thinking about this story, The Ladder of Inference comes to mind.  It was developed by Chris Argyris and made known in Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline. It works something like this:

At the bottom of the ladder is information that is clear and observable.  In this case, I saw a little boy helping his mother with the grocery shopping.  I saw too, that there were a lot of groceries and that the little boy was really small.

I climbed to the second rung from the bottom where I narrowed my focus and selected only the data that interested me.  In this case, I concentrated on two things, the little boy and his attempts to hurl grocery items onto the counter above him.

I climbed to the third rung of the ladder and began to make assumptions. First, I assumed that because he was small, he was not really capable of fulfilling his assigned task.  And then, I assumed he needed help.

I climbed to the fourth rung of the ladder and concluded, based on these assumptions, that he would be glad of my help.  From there, I proceeded to the fifth rung where I connected this conclusion to my belief that helping each other is an important and natural part of the human experience.

When I got all the way to the top of the ladder and acted in accordance with my assumptions and beliefs, I was met with hostility rather than the appreciation, or at least neutrality, I was expecting.

The point is that it is easy for us to run up the ladder and get things wrong even when we have the best of intentions.  Had I simply asked the little boy if he would like help in unloading his groceries (or in his case UPloading his groceries), I would have had the answer I needed, respected his wishes and stayed out of trouble.  But I didn’t.  So I didn’t.

All of which brings me to this…Good leadership can falter quite easily too, if we fail to check out and validate assumptions before we act. For instance, before every meeting you hold do you assume that everyone knows why you are meeting?  Do you assume that everyone will have everything they need to fully participate in the meeting?

What other assumptions might you be making when you interact with those who follow your lead?  How accurate are they?  What steps might you take to prevent a trip up the Ladder of Inference?  What questions might you ask?

Have you other thoughts you can share?

In the meantime and on the lighter side, this is what Oscar Wilde thought about assumptions, courtesy of Benny Hill.

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Filed under building awareness, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, Learning, Uncategorized

Leaders and the Learning Organization

It is a testament to our naïveté about culture that we think that we can change it by simply declaring new values. Such declarations usually produce only cynicism. ~ Peter Senge

Peter Senge is one of my favourite Thought Leaders. You will probably know that he has been around for a while but his message, at least for me, is as relevant to our current time as it was when he first introduced his book, The Fifth Discipline, about twenty years ago.

So far, in my experience anyway, we have not been great students of his philosophies…or we have been great students but just, well, crappy at the execution part, proof perhaps that naïveté also lives in our belief that any of this stuff is easy.

There was a time when everyone was jumping onto The Learning Organization bandwagon.  This usually happened when times were good, when organizations felt a little more ebullient about their prospects and generous toward their employees.  And then when things started to look a little gloomy, heads turned back to the way things were.  Budgets were cut and the Learning part of the organization dried up while the focus snapped back in line with the notion that wisdom and decisions could only come from the few and learning for the many was a luxury no one could afford.

I’m thinking though that it is in the difficult times that leaders need to embrace the concepts of the Learning Organization and to build a culture of shared leadership.

I must confess that not being particularly academic in my own learning process, I found The Fifth Discipline a little dry. Having said that, I also think the five main components of a Learning Organization continue to make great sense and are actionable, to greater or lesser degrees, by everyone regardless of whether we lead in large organizations, small ones, or are simply striving to lead a meaningful life.

Each of the Learning Organization components, personal mastery, mental models, team learning, shared vision and systems thinking allow for the opportunity to create lives and organizations that are resilient, flexible, inclusive and dynamic. The question often is though, how do we to start?

Here are some of my thoughts about that:

Personal Mastery: is, for me, the place where everything really begins. Taking the time to study and understand our reality, and our purpose, serves not only ourselves but also everyone with whom we come in contact.

Practically speaking, there are a lot of instruments available on the Internet that will help us confirm what we might already inherently know about ourselves or uncover some things we didn’t know. However we do it, the key to successful personal mastery, I think, is to trust in the information we receive; to be curious and ask questions either formally or informally; to observe the impact we have on others when we interact with them; and to act on any new knowledge we get about ourselves.

Mental Models: are, simply put, about assumptions and biases in our thinking. There is a proverb that says, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.

This speaks to the dangers of clinging to, and operating from, narrow perspectives.   I believe the goal for leaders in this century is to widen the lens of their thinking by challenging not only their own assumptions but also the beliefs and biases on which their organizations operate.  I hazard to say that if we were each to bring heightened awareness to our assumptions, our ability to be receptive to change would be that much greater.

Team Learning: There are many books written on the topic of teams, and an amazing array of teams within organizations too. It can get pretty complex.  But suffice it to say that in an age where shared leadership is, or will become, critical, the need to understand the dynamics and functional operation of teams is pretty great.  Here, I think it starts with gaining an understanding of what a truly successful and highly functional team looks like.  In my observation, it always seems to come down to how team members communicate with each other. How they manage conflict. And, how they examine their successes and more particularly, their failures.  Here’s more about team learning in case you want it.

Shared Vision: I expect this one is pretty familiar to most people.  And yet its usefulness is so often diminished because the vision is developed “at the top” of the organization and seldom shared by those who are expected to work toward its achievement.  To me, a Shared Vision is just that…shared.  It may start with one person but if it is going to come alive and guide the company’s activities, it must be embraced and shared by all.  It doesn’t have to be a sweeping statement with big words either. For example, Zappos, the online department store’s vision is Delivering Happiness.  It is clear, simple and provides great direction to anyone who works there.   To me, the message is, if what you do delivers happiness, it’s probably the right thing.

Systems Thinking: When most people talk about Senge’s model of a Learning Organization, they usually start with Systems Thinking.  I keep it to the end because really this is about paying attention to the connections between and among a variety of elements that make up the whole.  In organizations, we have this tendency to create silos of operation where people make decisions based only on their own needs.  When this happens, others are affected, (often negatively) and that creates unnecessary and unproductive tension within the organization.

So, I suppose a place to start with respect to systems thinking is to ask, Who will be affected by what we are about to do? How do we involve them? Why should we care?

To me, it’s kind of like the plumbing in an old apartment complex.  If there is a breakdown in one person’s apartment, it can affect the water supply to all of the others.  That might be a bit simplistic but I think you get what I mean.

Some people may think the concepts put forth in The Fifth Discipline are old too.  But, I think that they are timeless.  If more organizations were to embrace and enact these philosophies, they would find ways to remain pliable and resilient in even the most treacherous of time.

What do you think?

 

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Filed under Change Management, Leading Change, Learning, Self Knowledge