Ladder of inference tools? LO7044

Sun, 28 Apr 1996 13:45:00 +0000

Replying to LO6713 --

Learning Colleagues,

Malcolm Burson (4/15) wrote:
>Several have expressed an interest in the "ladder of inference," and while
>I can diagram it for them, and provide a cognitive presentation, I'm
>interested in discovering a more "hands-on," practice-based learning
>approach to this tool.

Francesco Sofo (4/16) wrote:
>So are you after an activity/ game or do you want to design something
>original...i. e. adapt, adopt, create?

As a way to introduce the Ladder of Inference, I've used an exercise first
developed as -The Uncritical Inference Test- by William V. Haney (1967)
and later popularized by William Dyer as "The Story" (Dyer, 1992). The
exercise is a brief story followed by 15 statements participants are asked
to "complete" after they've read the story. (If you are unable to find
this exercise, please contact me via e-mail and I'll send you a copy.)

After the participants individually complete the exercise, I lead the
group in a review of the -right- answers, frequently revealing assumptions
and inferences made by participants when responding to the statements. As
an example, most individuals -assume- that the only available response to
these statements is True or False, though for all but three of the
statements, there is insufficient information for answering the questions
as definitely true or false. This exercise is an excellent technique for
introducing participants to the concepts of Inferences and Assumptions,
and sensitizing them to the impact of these patterns of thinking on their
individual conclusions.

Once individuals have begun to understand their own, and each other+s,
mental models the group can begin to construct shared mental models,
leading to more effective results. As an additional tool to support this
constructive inquiry, I developed another model based upon the Ladder of
Inference, referred to as Angles of Inference. I introduce this tool to
participants after they begin to understand the Ladder of Inference to
illustrate the impact of *varied* perspectives on conclusions drawn from
the *same* observable data or event.

This model is useful for illustrating the complexity introduced by
individuals+ progression up their own respective Ladders of Inference, and
the resulting disparity in initial conclusions. The model is particularly
valuable when working with representatives from several organizations or
multiple functions within a single organization. In a 1995 posting to the
Learn-Org List on the topic of Communicating Complexity (perhaps available
in the archives?) I offered to list participants this model. I've
included below an excerpt from this posting for your reference.

All the best,

James Ray

---- Excerpt from Original Posting (1995) ----

While I have facilitated the development of multiple "task teams" during
the last 5-10 years, I have only recently (last 2 years) utilized the
Ladder of Inference as a tool for establishing the context for dialogue.
This context is absolutely critical for constructive inquiry, and
therefore for meaningful solutions to our most pressing organizational

I have adapted the Ladder of Inference in another model which I've used
successfully with such groups, a model I call "Angles of Inference".
Essentially, this model describes the following relationship:

The distance between the initial conclusions (A and B) reached by two
individuals after the observation of a single obervable event will be at
least as great as the distance betwen their respective values and beliefs
(A and B).

This relationship might be depicted as follows:
(model best viewed using a fixed width font)

  Conclusion A  (-------------)     Conclusion B
              \                 /
         Assumptions              Assumptions
                \             /
          Added Meaning  Added Meaning
                  \         /
                 Selected Data
                    \     /
              Observable Event or Data
                      \ /  
                      / \
                     /   \
               Beliefs     Beliefs
                   /       \
                  /         \   
                 /           \
                /             \
               /               \
       B Values (-------------) A Values

               Angles of Inference
               + James A. Ray

I believe it is only through the use of tools such as the Ladder of
Inference and Dialogue that two (or more) individuals can achieve a shared
interpretation of the actual event or data. The value of diversity in our
organizations is that is provides a rich source of alternative
perspectives which can be tapped to evaluate actual events or resulting
information, leading to a much richer understanding of the potential
impact on the organization.

However, without a forum for exchanging these diverse perspectives, the
organization will benefit only from the perspective of the most persuasive
individuals (rewarding advocacy over inquiry). Participants are thus
encouraged to use these models as tools for engaging one another in a
spirit of dialogue, challenging assumptions and added meaning rather than
the initial conclusions themselves.

Debating the conclusion is often wasted energy - understanding alternative
assumptions, perspectives, and beliefs will lead to greater shared meaning
and perhaps shared, but at least well understood, inferences. Thus,
dialogue should lead to greater alignment of the "final" conclusions,
first by generating agreement about relevant assumptions and perhaps
resulting in shared "added meanings" and/or "selected data".

It should be noted that the objective is *not* to completely align the
beliefs and values of individuals within the organization. Doing so may
very well deprive the organization of the benefits of diversity (see
above). After all, just because individuals "see" things the same way
doesn't mean they're correct - even a shared mental model is inherently

>>>>>>>>>> END OF EXCERPT <<<<<<<<<<

Seeking diversity of thought patterns and actively soliciting contrasting
opinions is necessary to avoid -groupthink- (Janis, 1982). The key is the
use of such tools and techniques to enhance individual and, ultimately,
organizational learning.


James Ray

AT&T Solutions Voice: 202-414-3905 Organizational Learning Fax: 202-414-3855 Washington, D.C.

"Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction, because the new idea will destroy what a lot of people believe is essential to the survival of their intellectual world." -- PICASSO

Learning-org -- An Internet Dialog on Learning Organizations For info: <> -or- <>