Tag Archives: Ladder of Inference

Critical Thinking – First step to effective decisions

This is the first of the series of follow-up posts to Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking. This post covers Critical Thinking.

Let’s start with what we mean by critical: unfortunately, the word critical and the related idea of criticism have gained an implication of negativity – this is not helpful. Critical thinking is about getting beyond the obvious, adopting a probing, challenging and investigative stance, not taking the information provided at face value but looking at both the evidence and our thought processes objectively.

Often in business, as in other walks of life, information is assembled to justify decisions and stances adopted based on personal biases, cultural norms and “rules of thumb”. The “Ladder of Inference” originally proposed by Chris Argyris and developed by Peter Senge and his colleagues [The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook] illustrates how these biases can be built into our thinking.

Important decisions should be based on careful consideration of the needs, facts and situation.

One of the most accessible examples of the required process is that referred to in the original post, the film “12 Angry Men” – in which one Juror in a murder trial dissented from the views of his colleagues who wanted a swift guilty verdict.

The “obvious” conclusion.

Juror #8 [Played in the 1957  Sidney Lumet Film by Henry Fonda] was unconvinced of the defendant’s guilt and wanted to explore the evidence in more detail. He pressurised, cajoled and browbeat his fellow jurors into a comprehensive review of the evidence.

  • Could the elderly witness have really reached the top of the stairs to view the defendant’s exit?
  • Could the woman witness have really made an identification from distance, across a railway line without her spectacles?
  • Could the defendant have delivered the fatal blow given his stature relative to the victim?

He also brought into question the motives of his fellow jurors for making a rapid decision:

  • Tickets for a baseball game
  • A business to attend to
  • Escaping from the stifling heat of the jury room

Gradually all the jurors came round to the view that the young man was innocent of the murder and they returned a “not guilty” verdict.

This illustrates the power of a sceptical, challenging and probing approach and the willingness to confront your own biases, faulty thinking and ill-founded theories.

The approach is to:

  • Challenge assumptions
  • Scrutinise and test the validity of the evidence *
  • Examine the thinking processes

Applying this  to your business decisions will reap rewards.

You need to be particularly careful when there is apparent unanimity of thought without thorough discussion of the topic. I am reminded of Alfred P Sloan’s famous quote when confronted with such a situation in the boardroom of General Motors:

If we are all in agreement on the decision – then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.

Failure to engage in effective dialogue when considering important discussions is a route to “Groupthink” – but that is another story!

So don’t be afraid to force a critical approach, to encourage dialogue and to challenge the majority view. Play the “Devil’s Advocate” if necessary and bring in an independent facilitator if you feel it would help.

* The BBC and Open University joint production radio show “More or Less” is excellent at highlighting biases in the presentation of information and statistics.
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