Category Archives: Models

Ladder of Inference – Peter Senge

Although we like to think of ourselves as evolved thinkers, we have actually evolved to make decisions that shortcut most active thinking.

Consider our ancestors as they walked across the savannah, looking for their next meal, they too were being hunted.

The bushman that waited to consider if the moving shadow was actually a lion rather than a gazelle often became the lion’s next meal! It paid us to assume things and the bushman that believed all moving shadows ‘could’ be lions often survived b running away to hunt (and breed) another day. They also often missed out on a meal too!

So we, as a race, have selectively bred ourselves to make shortcuts in our decision making bast on our beliefs.

Beliefs therefore  are a significant factor in how we see the world. Our beliefs and values constrain our thinking so that we can make judgements more rapidly. The verb for this is ‘to prejudge’, and it is the root of the term prejudice. We make decisions with a much of the thinking already completed from our previous experience.

Having recently re-read Peter Senge’s ‘The Fifth Discipline’ I came across the Ladder of Inference.

This model describes the thinking process that we go through, often without realising it, to get from a fact to a decision or action.

Figure 1 shows the ‘thinking stages’ as rungs on a ladder.

Inference Ladder

Figure 1.  The Inference Ladder

The model highlights the thinking steps that can lead to jumping to the wrong conclusions.

Starting at the bottom of the ladder, we:

  • Observe things from reality and identify facts
  • From these observations we select specific data based on our beliefs and prior experience
  • Interpret what the data mean
  • Apply our existing assumptions (sometimes without even considering them)
  • Draw conclusions based on the interpreted facts and our assumptions
  • Develop beliefs based on these conclusions
  • Take actions that seem correct because they are based on what we believe

The value of this model is that it gives us a model that helps us recognize that our thinking process can be flawed and often brings us to conclusions that are often prejudged rather than carefully considered. We naturally skip reasoning steps. If we are aware of this thinking shortfall, we can force ourselves out of the habit and take a more objective, step by step reasoning process and so reach more effective decisions.

Dare to Aspire


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Six Thinking Hats

When faced with a problem, it can be beneficial to consider a number of different perspectives on that problem.

Different perspectives can often reveal different factors and features and can potentially reveal a variety of innovative solutions.

Using a structured approach to selecting these different perspectives is a sign of disciplined and logical thinking and an approach typified in Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats.

The approach is extremely simple but can be very effective in problem solving.

Each thinker metaphorically adopts a ‘thinking hat’ and then constrains their thinking to just that perspective. Swapping hats allows you to focus on alternative viewpoints until options are exhausted.

Edward De Bono recommends these 6 different ‘hats’ to guide you into thinking from these 6 different perspectives.

Blue Hat: Wear this hat to define the problem and scope of the issue.

White Hat: Wear this hat and focus on the facts of the situation. Look at the features, factors, functions, gaps in process and knowledge. Look for trends, patterns and developments.

Red Hat: Wear this hat to explore the emotions surrounding the problem. Note what you feel instinctively, what your gut tells you.

Yellow Hat: Wear this hat to explore the positive aspects of the issue. What about this is constructive and what can you benefit or learn from? Look for value and benefit.

Green Hat: Wear this hat to develop creative and innovation options. Imaginative solutions that break the mental mould are developed with this hat.

Black Hat: Look for things that are broken or won’t work. What is weak about the issue or solution?

Although this approach can be used by an individual, it has equal if not more effect when it is used by a group. The blue hat would direct the group, and different members of the team would wear ‘hats’ that explored the various perspectives.

The results from this approach should be interesting and useful and may even be quite dramatic. At the very least you and your team will begin to break out of your normal thinking habits.

Dare to Aspire

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Are You Burning Out?

Stress has gained a reputation as being a bad thing. ‘I’m really stressed out’ or ‘Don’t get stressed’ are common phrases around the workplace. While it is often the case that people do feel under stress, it is normally too much stress (as with too much of anything!) that causes us problems. Stress is actually an important element of our daily life, without which we would not find the motivation to undertake the basic life saving activities.

If you consider the stress curve shown here, you can see that your performance is directly related to the amount of stress you are under: As the amount of stress increases, you reach a point know as the interest threshold. Anything below this level of influence does really affect you on a concious level. At the interest threshold, you are physiologically aware of something and respond appropriately. If you become hungry to the point at which you notice the feeling, then you have reached the interest threshold and will generally respond by finding some food. If you wait to eat, your interest will be drawn to food at every opportunity. Listen to anyone on a diet and you will hear then focusing on food more and more as their ‘hunger stress’ increases.

It is the same with most elements of personal performance. As the stress increases, you awareness and performance increases until you are performing at a peak level. In his book Flow:The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi suggests that the point of peak performance is when the individual experiences complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. This is supported by the peak of the graph where the stress is at such a point that you are focusing only on the information necessary for the task in hand, totally engrossed in the moment.

As the stress increases, you become overstressed and your performance degrades. After a prolonged period of stress, or even a short period of extreme stress, you reach a point of burnout.

There are several causes of excessive stress. Some of these are presented here but this is by no means an exhaustive list:

  • Overwork

  • Lack of control

  • Lack of support

  • Lack of rewards

  • Insufficient rest time

  • Criticism

  • Insufficient positive feedback

  • Change

  • Uncertainty about the future

  • Lack of personal achievement

Excessive stress can affect you in 4 ways:

  • Emotionally – creating tension and irritability

  • Physically – induces stomach pain, ulcers or headaches

  • Mentally – by impairing logic and thinking skill

  • Behaviourally – making you change the way to act

It is important that as individuals and and as managers that we learn to recognise the warning signs of stress in ourselves and our team.

There 4 stages of over stress and burnout:

  • Stage 1 – Excessive enthusiasm for the task and a reluctance to take holidays and time off. This can lead to self doubt and fear of being unable to cope or to being unable to refuse new work. The work itself becomes a distraction for the stress and this often has am impact on output quality and a person’s family/personal life.

  • Stage 2 – Short bouts of irritation and tiredness. Complaints about the team’s input and quality of work. Increased working hours as a further coping mechanism and inability to measure time or time manage.

  • Stage 3 – Increased discontent and anger, apathy and a lack of emotional commitment. Exhaustion, reduced commitment to work and life in general.

  • Stage 4 – Withdrawal, illness feelings of failure and depression. Reluctance to communicate and increased isolation sometimes dropping into alcohol and drug abuse.

The key is to identify when you or a team member is beginning to suffer the early stages of burnout and act. Reduce or remove the workload, change their environment or encourage them to take a holiday.

Dare to Aspire

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Learning styles

Learning is fundamental to self-improvement and for moving from your performance to your potential.

Honey and Mumford (1986) suggested that most people have a style of learning that is most effective for their character and personality.

The 4 learning styles that Honey and Mumford identified are:


Open minded people who involve themselves fully in a new experience. Highly sociable and keen for new experience, activists are relatively strong problem solvers, good at brainstorming and finding working solutions. They are weaker at implementation, process and sustained effort.


Thoughtful and cautious people who prefer to consider options and all of the implications before coming to a considered decision. Generally preferring a role as observer rather than become active in discussions.


Logical and process focused people who approach problems in a step-by-step fashion and prefer looking for coherent patterns or behaviours that can be mapped to accepted theory. These learners prefer to analyse situations and establish assumptions, principles and models. They are happier in a disciplined environment but uncomfortable with uncertainty, subjective opinion and radical thinking.


These people thrive on new ideas and look for the benefit and a practical application of new ideas. Problems are seen as a challenge but these learners become easily frustrated with endless discussion and inaction.

There are sites on the Internet that will help you identify your predominant learning style. Peter Honey’s own site is just one example.

SO why is this relevant?

Firstly, by identifying which learning style or styles you prefer, you can adopt an approach to learning that benefits from your strengths.

For example, my own style is that of Activist / Pragmatist. This means I am very happy to try new processes, ideas and techniques but will happily throw some of those away, favouring something that is effective and brings benefit.

Secondly, if you are responsible for staff, by identifying the preferred learning style of people in your team, you can present information in a fashion that is more easily absorbed. If you try to force a Reflector into activities favouring an Activist style, you will get resistance, conflict and very little commitment.

Finally, if you have a significant dominance in one learning style, you may want to consider developing a weaker area. This will allow you to increase the opportunities that you can learn from and allow you to more easily relate and communicate with those who have differing dominant learning styles. This will increase your behavioural flexibility.

One of the key presuppositions from NLP is:

In interactions among people, the person with most flexibility and variation of behaviour can control the outcome of the interaction.

So strive for that flexibility.

Dare to Aspire

Reference: Honey, P. and Mumford A. (1986). A Manual of Learning Styles, Peter Honey, Maidenhead

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The Best Managers are Coaches Too

One of the aims of management is to get better performance from your team and achieve your goals with less. Often the resources and equipment are generally out of your control as you have already negotiated the cheapest price for any commodities you use.

The only other variable you have influence over is your manpower. Working with them to increase performance and output is one of a the key levers a manager has. The most effective way of increasing performance is by coaching. Just as a sports coach works with individuals to achieve better results, as a manager, so can you.

The aims of coaching are:

– To help a person become aware of their current levels of performance.
– To help a person identify their own resources for self improvement.
– To help a person commit to a plan of action.
– To hold a person accountable for their commitment to that plan.

There are several models that have been developed to take you though the coaching sequence. The GROW model from John Whitmore is popular, but I prefer the STEPPPA model used by Angus McLeod.

In a quiet area where you will not be disturbed, sit with your staff member and run through the following sequence of actions.

Subject – Discuss a number of performance areas with your staff member and identify one that will be the subject of the session. Have the staff member identify the area that needs to be addressed as their involvement will increase their commitment. If you select the subject, it will be taken as an instruction and you will have less commitment, if any.

Target – Develop a target objective from this subject, again one that the staff member suggests. It needs to be realistic, achievable and one that the person is willing to commit to doing. Too lofty a goal will be too much to achieve, too little and the lack of challenge will be demotivating.

Emotional – There has to be a certain amount of emotional connection between the subject and the person. No emotional content and the person will not be inspired to do anything about the issue.

Perception – ‘Perception is truth’ in most people’s minds. If you perceive something to be true, then it is. The person has to perceive that the task is possible and that it will provide real benefit when achieved. They also need to convinced that any external resources will be made available. Without this, their perception will be that YOU are not committed to the outcome.

Plan – Have the staff member work out a plan of action, steps that move them from where they are now to where they have decided they want to go.

Pace – Having defined the plan, you both need to establish that the target has some realistic chance of being achieved and at a pace that is possible to maintain. Stretch targets are acceptable but remember that there is normally some personal growth and learning in this process, so agree a target and a pace that is not too much of a stretch.

Act – The process so far has taken your staff member to a point where they have defined their own target, plan of action, pace and agreed a level of personal commitment. There is no value in this process unless the person commits to action. Agree the actions steps and the when you will review progress. Agreeing to review progress increases the likelihood that the staff member will take at least some of the actions they have agreed as you will be checking progress.

Although this model provides guidance in how to coach your staff, the ability to coach is not as simple as following this pattern. It requires sensitivity, emotional acuity and flexibility in how you act and speak. It is important to let the staff member provide the questions, the answers and create their own plan of action. As a manager, you will be desperate to solve the problem but remember to resist that temptation.

I recommend Dr McLeod’s book in Performance Coaching for further reading. It is clear and well written and the STEPPPA model he uses is reinforced by several case studies and other supporting techniques such as cognitive therapy and NLP.

Dare to Aspire

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Focus, Arousal and Cues

You are constantly bombarded with stimuli. Everything you see, hear, feel, touch smell, taste and think is firing off little triggers in your head, each demanding attention from your conscious mind. Much of this input is filtered out so that you can cope more effectively with what is actually going on.

Any stimulus that you need to achieve a goal or activity is known as a ‘Task Relevant Cue’. Anything that does help you is ‘Task-Irrelevant’. Researchers have discovered that when your mental arousal level increases, there is a narrowing of perception that allows you to focus more effectively. This narrowing of focus means that your mental filters are working for you so that the only cues you accept are those relevant to your task. This increases mental activity in the area that you need it and improves performance.

However, if arousal continues to rise, attention can become so narrow that task-relevant cues are also filtered out. This can stop important information being made available to the brain and so reduce overall effectiveness.

The classic example of this phenomenon was demonstrated by Prof Daniel Simons and Chris Chabris in an experiment that has become almost folklore. The experiment was for spectators of a basket ball game to count how many time the people wearing white passed the ball. During the game, a gorilla ran across the pitch and then left the court. A surprising number of people failed to see the gorilla because their focus was acutely on the ball movement and the count.

The figure below shows the arousal of optimum performance, below which non-relevant cues are included and above which key information is missed.


So What?

The key is to your extend your optimal range of arousal by training so that when you do get forced into an arousal level that is higher than normal, you still have the capacity to cope.

Consider a simple model of mental capacity. You have a comfort zone, a stretch zone and a panic zone. Your comfort zone is where you are able to process both task-relevant and non-relevant cues easily because you are familiar with the stimulus being received. The stretch zone is where you are no longer comfortable with the stimulus but are coping. Finally, when the input is too high you go into a panic zone where you no longer function logically.

I believe that the stretch zone is probably fairly fixed for most people. Those that get overwhelmed easily due to mental capacity will more than likely get overwhelmed in another. This is anecdotal but seems to be a fairly consistent observation following years of teaching martial arts, sailing and rock climbing.

The key then to increasing someone’s ability to cope with increased stimulus is to increase their Comfort zone. We can do this with training and exposure to environments and situations that take the person out of their Comfort zone into the upper region of Stretch without going into Panic. The more time a person spends in their Stretch zone, the larger their Comfort zone becomes and the less likely they are to Panic!


Training in any new activity is useful for moving people out of their Comfort zone. Adventurous training in particular is beneficial and a stalwart training approach of the military. The main aim is to expose a person to increasing levels of perceived risk without necessarily placing them in harms way. Frequent exposure to such perceived risk will increase that Comfort zone and so make Panic less likely and also ensure that they have the increased capacity to perform when the stimulus level increases.

Dare to Aspire


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9 Tips For Personal Success

Take charge of your life

Accept that your are responsible for your life, no one else. Not your parents, spouse, manager or friends. YOU! The decisions you make and the actions you take define the outcomes you achieve, so take charge of those decisions and actions and start moving towards your goals today.


Have a Purpose for Your Life

What separates successful people from the rest is that they live their lives with a purpose. A purpose that helps then create goals, gives them a head mark to aim for and that gets them emotionally engaged with their vision for their future. Pick your purpose and get juiced up!

Take Action

It is important to have a vision and set goals for the life you want to achieve, but these are nothing more than a vain hope unless you take action. Keep taking action daily towards your goals and you will achieve something, and eventually everything!

Be Willing to Pay for Your Dreams

It isn’t realistic to achieve everything. Select what you truly want and then sacrifice all of the other things. Successful people find out what it’s going to cost to make their dream come true. Having what you truly want requires you to pay that cost either in financial terms or in accepting that other things will not be achievable. The key is to focus on what you truly want and then Act.

Stay Focused

The pace of modern life means that every day we have more to do than we can possible cope with. People, tasks and information are all competing for the limited time we have available. A successful person understands that they cannot keep jumping from task to task, but rather need to focus on one task at a time. They also realize that only the tasks that move them rapidly towards their goals should appear on their ‘to do’ list. Only by focusing on the most important things can you hope to become successful.

Excel in your chosen field

Whenever you think of a successful person, you automatically associate them with an area in which they are highly capable, an expert if you like. This is because they have identified where value can be achieved and then focused completely on that area. Spend significant effort on a particular topic and you will soon become an expert. One hour makes you aware of the topic, 10 hours makes you familiar, 100 hours makes you comfortable and 1000 hours makes you an expert. Start today!

Have a plan

It is a cliché but a person without a plan is like a boat without a rudder. Going in any direction and often the wrong one! Taking the time to write out an action plan not only helps you identify for how you’re going to achieve your goals, but also helps you identify any potential barriers you are likely to face.

Be Persistent

When you’re truly committed to achieving your goal, giving up isn’t even an option. You must be willing to do whatever it takes to make your vision happen. The reason that there are no squirrel proof bird tables is not because humans cannot devise one, it is because squirrels spend every waking moment thinking about how to get at nuts. They aren’t brighter than humans, they are just so damn persistent that they always achieve their aim in the end. Learn that lesson!

Do It Today

Life is tentative, unpredictable and the ultimate experience. At least it is far better than the alternative. So act now to make it the most rewarding experience possible. Why put off until tomorrow what you could do today? Do it today and if you really enjoy it then you could be doing it again tomorrow. Act now and achieve your goals.

Dare to Aspire


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