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Mental models and sharpening pencils

When I graduated from university, I was fortunate to spend time overseas looking for inspiration and direction. The experiences were amazing and I did find an inspiration... to learn as much as I could about anything that interested me. When I returned to Calgary I decided I should spend some time with my family so I hopped a bus to head home. In my travels I met a fascinating person that recommended a book to me and I figured a 7 hour bus ride was the best venue possible to start learning.

The book I picked up and read on that bus ride was "The Fifth Discipline" by Peter Senge.

Ladder of Inference

Without dating myself I'll just say that this book has been around for quite some time and it was the formative text for the concept of learning organizations. For me this book contains some extremely compelling messages, none more fascinating than the discussion around the "Ladder of Inference" concept. At that time in my life I had not spent time sitting around thinking about how I think. And quite frankly what normal person does? But this section help me develop insights into crazy group interactions I had experienced during those late night university group project sessions.

[ I would really like to give credit to the site lending me the above Ladder of Inference image but I've had it for so long that I don't remember the site and now I can't find the image online again! ]

The Ladder of Inference is a model that helps us understand how people can have the exact same data and situational experience and yet come to completely different conclusions about what they have just witnessed or experienced. The model is relatively simple, showing how we as individuals take real data and situation experience, filter out data that doesn't suit our beliefs, add meaning to the data based on our cultural and personal experiences, make assumptions on that meaning we have applied, draw our own conclusions, adapt our beliefs and take action.

Winds and bears

I have a simple example that illustrates how this model works. Imagine two people sitting inside a coffee shop looking out a window. In the distance they can both see the top half of a lone tree. Over the course of their conversation, they both notice that the tree periodically appears to bend and sway. A pretty normal and possible scenario. Person #1 looking at this situation is from Winnipeg and is used to windy days and periodic gusts of wind (sorry for leveraging a stereotype about windy days in Winnipeg!). In looking at the scenario in front of her (without being able to see all of the data — like the bottom half of the tree); she comes to the conclusion that there must be some gusty winds outside. Person #2 is from Banff and is used to witnessing the behavior of bears. In viewing this same scenario he is wondering if there may be a bear pushing on the tree. Both plausible conclusions.

Without all of the data and looking through their "situational experience", it is feasible that both of them are correct in this situation. Until more data is exposed that challenges or supports their underlying assumptions (based on their backgrounds and individual experiences) it isn't possible to determine who is more or less accurate in their conclusion.

This model has direct applicability to Habanero and what we do. While the ladder of inference applies in numerous ways, I've picked a couple of interdependent scenarios to showcase its potential influence on us and our customers.

Requirements gathering and definition

How often does this happen? Two people read or hear the same set of requirements and yet come to completely different conclusions about what was asked for and the solution to solve the problem. Individually, we are limited by the depth of our knowledge and experience and therefore having numerous perspectives on a set of requirements actually helps us get closer to an ideal conclusion and solution. This is why it is important to gather requirements that are reasonably complete and objective to help minimize the interpretation variance for all audiences. That is our role as consultants as well? help reduce the variability for our customers.

Healthy debate to sharpen our pencils

Understanding how we think and come to our conclusions as consultants further reinforces the importance of healthy debate in an organization like Habanero. Exploring for more meaning behind other people's opinions and presenting an alternate set of perspectives shouldn't be construed as a threat to our own thinking and conclusions. Rather it really is an opportunity to broaden our data and experience set to make more informed conclusions and decisions in the future. And it also implies that as we consider more data points, our conclusions become more informed. This is why vibrant collaboration and debate is so healthy for Habanero? it constantly pushes all of us to higher levels of informed thinking in our work and on behalf of our customers.