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Using the Ladder of Inference in decision making

Have your wondered why you think as you do? Well, the reason may lie in your Ladder of Inference.

Chris Argyris' Ladder of Inference reflecting recursive loop
Penny M. Stein

The "Ladder of Inference" developed by Chris Argyris and later operationalized by Peter Senge tells a story about how our actions are a result of the filtered data we selected to support our actions.

The Ladder of Inference is an organizational learning tool and a decision-making tool, it progresses in a linear fashion, moving from bottom to top. The bottom rung is the point in which we use Direct Observable Data (DOD) to build the decision making process. The top rung represents a culminative process which controls how we act or respond to the initial problem.

Let me explain how the Ladder of Inference influences our actions when decision making:

The first "rung" represents Direct Observable Data or Raw Data. This type of data comes from what we see, for instance, from the viewpoint of a camera or video. This data is what some term as unadulterated data.

The second "rung" represents filtered data. We select what we consider important data for analysis. This data is purely subjective; based upon our cultural and personal experiences, our mental maps.

The third "rung" is where we add meaning to our filtered data.

The fourth "rung" depicts assumptions we made based on the meaning we attributed to the filtered data.

The fifth "rung," an outgrowth from our filtered data and the meaning we attached to the filtered data informs our conclusions.

The sixth "rung" is where we construct our beliefs, based upon conclusions we formed.

The seventh "rung" is where we make a decision to act upon the filtered data we pulled from the "raw" data we observed.

We generate a recursive loop when we continuously act upon filtered data. That is, these two dimensions feed off each other, filtered data influences our actions; our actions are a direct result of data we filtered to support our actions. A recursive loop is cyclical, never ending.

However, we can stop any recursive action when we make a conscience choice to question our reasoning,

  • Was my mental map a central factor in filtering data?
  • Are my beliefs in alignment with my values?
  • In reflecting on my decision to act, am I acting on authentic filtered data or perceptual filtered data?

In sum, creating a learning organization starts with creating new mental models re moving from the organization's current state to its future state. Similarly, using the Ladder of Inference in your decision making processes allows for the decision makers to rethink each rung and determine its authenticity as it relates to the outcome.

In this article, Trevor Maber simplifies the Ladder of Influence in his video entitled, "Rethinking thinking."

Works Cited:

©2013 Penny M. Stein
Readers and media may contact Ms. Stein via e-mail.

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