Jun 1 2023

The Ladder of Inference

Last week, I wrote about Inquiry vs. Advocacy, an important principle I learned early in life and then explored more deeply in an Action/Design workshop my coach Marc took our whole leadership team through years ago.

This week, I’ll continue to riff on the theme of communications tools in the CEO toolbelt by talking about The Ladder of Inference (detailed article here). This is a great graphic from the article:

Any time you’re struggling with opinions vs. opinions or people are jumping to conclusions based on a narrow set of evidence, this framework is your friend. The best way to start any tricky conversation with those characteristics is to start “at the bottom of the ladder,” meaning you start by reviewing the available data on the topic at hand. As John Adams said, “facts are stubborn things,” so start by agreeing on a common set of irrefutable data on the topic. Then you can take a step up the ladder to a more productive conversation about interpretations, then ultimately come to decisions or conclusions.

Jim Barksdale, the former CEO of Netscape had a great saying that supports this principle, too: “If we have data, let’s look at the data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”

The language our team developed around this is easy. It’s like a safe word. Any time someone is jumping to conclusions without being rigorous about the underlying data, they’ll be the recipient of a comment like “wow you went right up to the top of the ladder on that one!” Either that, or someone will pull out a wonderful reference to Office Space.