-reading time: 3 minutes- / -audience: leaders, teams and team members-
BOMB SCIENCE 101 & Ladder of Inference
In January, I attended a great 2 day workshop about Action Science at Oxford University/Saïd Business School by Dr. Bob Putnam from Harvard Business School (quite some name-dropping here… apologies). I really enjoyed the topic and Bob’s delivery, so I wrote an essay questioning whether multinationals can change the mindset of the entire organisation (no spoilers, sorry, you can scroll down to my conclusion here).
Bob taught us about how change can be successful, but also unsuccessful. One of the barriers to success, he pointed out, is that members of an organisation are unable to engage in an open, fact-based inquiry into potentially threatening issues.
Many people seem to face some alignment issues between ‘what I responded’ and ‘what did I think/feel’, as well as between ‘what she said’ and ‘what I think/felt she said’. Misinterpretations, wrong judgments, incomplete data – it all leads to unintended consequences or hot reactions.
How to fix this and what can we learn from Bomb Science – which is not Rocket Science. In fact Rocket Science seems to be easier to understand.
LADDER OF INFERENCE: how we think
It is actually pretty simple how the magic of misalignment, judgment and misinterpretation happens:
- There is a certain amount of data or facts made available: not everything necessarily needs to be revealed
- People come from a certain context, have beliefs and values: this influences how the available data/facts are interpreted
- Cherry picking of data facts, making interpretations or judgments based on what you cherry picked and draw conclusions
Et voila! Conflict. Unintended consequences. Hot reactions. Politics. All blocking change.
Lehman Brothers, 15 September 2008
Copyright AFP Getty
It was a year after Lehman Brothers collapsed and the crisis starting to hit a large market area. The area manager wanted to kill all expansion projects and ongoing acquisition discussions in order to reduce risk exposure and avoid overpaying for assets that would lose their value instantly. The regional manager reporting to the area manager was against the plan. How I think we were thinking:
A: ‘The global financial crisis hit us already in North America and since the economies in our region heavily depend on a trade partner’s economy for 60% of exports and is in full recession at the moment, there will be a storm hitting us hard! We need to stop our growth plan for the region and limit risk exposure.’
B: ‘No, it is not a crisis, it is just a cloud passing by. My region has seen nothing but growth since 15 years! This cannot be destroyed by something that happens in the US. We need to continue with our growth plan, this is what we agreed on when we signed the budget a year ago. I must also stick to my personal bonus targets.’
A: ‘Ok, let’s stick to your personal bonus targets and let the company go bust. Great plan.’
B: ‘Thanks, I am happy that we did not change course and my region can grow!’
A: ‘I guess you did not hear what I said: I said, prepare your resources to change the strategy and get ready for the storm!’
Result: Wrong judgments. Misalignment. Conflict. Unintended consequences. Lack of commitment. People being taken out of their jobs. People being threatened.
Could this result be avoided? Certainly.
HOW TO FIX IT
Perhaps the example above is a bit extreme; fortunately this does not happen everyday in every single team around the world. But what such a dialogue shows is that there is not much inquiring happening. Both A and B are advocating for their own interpretations through imposing, controlling and selling. This happens on a daily basis and probably in more teams than you would think.
Is advocating wrong? And inquiring right? No.
Both are wrong and right – it all depends on the balance and how you disclose your view and ask questions out of curiosity. If it’s all advocating your view, then you are imposing, controlling and selling. If it’s all inquiring, then you come across as if you are interrogating, leading the witness, and easing in.
Be brave and show leadership by balancing advocacy and inquiry. This is how you fix this.
Balance it when you want to see intended consequences
As Dr. Bob Putnam puts it: have strong ideas, but be open to influence.
When you advocate in balance with inquiring:
- State your purpose and views directly, while open to influence
- Be explicit about your reasoning, concerns, interests, goals, values
- Offer examples to test your view
- Explain intent of your questions
- Summarize key points
When you inquire in balance with advocating:
- Inquire into other’s purpose
- Test your understanding
- Explore others data, reasoning, concerns, interests, goals, values
- Solicit a range of views
- Encourage questions/feedback
Make the balance sustainable: shift your mindset
During the two days our class had to run dialogues from our past experiences ourselves. Bob told us to write down what our intentions were when we advocated or inquired for something. We also had to write down what we thought that the other person’s intentions or thoughts were when this person was advocating or inquiring.
It is an easy exercise, but difficult to make it a habit. Especially, when you want to be pro-active and balance inquiry and advocacy. You would need to shift your mindset from an unilateral to a mutual mindset.
- How we see ourselves: obviously right, well-intended
- How we see others: misinformed, bad motives
- Our purpose: get others to do what I know is right
- How we see ourselves: what I see is one perspective, I may be missing something
- How we see others: acting sensibly in own mind, may be caught in a dilemma
- Our purpose: make informed choices
Use the ladder of inference to shift your mindset
Balance inquiry with advocacy and commit to these three steps.
- Notice judgments and conclusions you are making
- Identify the data you selected and the interpretations you are making
- Are there other data or interpretations that would change your view?
No more unintended consequences, but intended consequences!