Combatting Cognitive Myopia: Traveling the ladder of inference

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

Mary Oliver, Upstream

One line, captured in my journal, has my attention today.  Again.Our habitual way of showing up will get in our way.” It was wedged on the side of some notes tracking the conversation on a Zoom call with the team from the Center of Systems Awareness and a cohort pursuing our master practitioner certification.  At the time, Senge was leading an exploration of the Limits to Growth archetype, and I was spinning out on how my way of showing up was possibly getting in the way of other’s potential. What is becoming more clear is regardless of my intentions to help amplify the possible, my assumptions, judgments, and opinions could be sabotaging the future I am seeking to cultivate. 

This is the tricky thing about assumptions, right? You have to take a bit of time to surface them or you march along, blind to the fact that these beliefs are not necessarily true. If Kegan and Lahey’s work on immunity to change taught me anything, it is that only by surfacing assumptions can we examine them objectively instead of living through them – and, hopefully, in this examination, can we perhaps remove whatever barrier may be getting in the way of really listening, of shifting to learning that is generative in nature. 

So all this pondering about how to “hang our assumptions in front of us” as physicist David Bohm would say, has me itchy for action, especially in light of my obsession with ACT (covered in the last post) and my attempt to see with new eyes. This is where Bucky’s brilliance and the Compassionate Systems Framework intersect. 

“If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which, will lead to new ways of thinking.” 

Buckminster Fuller

In my last post, I admitted to abandoning all the typical ways I’ve engaged with educators in the past. In this case, I didn’t feel a need for a new tool. Instead, I simply opted to immerse and observe – and to withhold any conclusion or labels. Ha! It’s amazing how much easier said than done this is… how my lens of learner-centered environments often blocked the view of what was happening right in front of me. What I quickly discovered is I needed something more tangible and concrete to break the habitual thoughts, to move beyond my eagerness to help with instructional ideas and resources, to move beyond coaching and questioning, to move toward surfacing the assumptions that were getting in the way of seeing a current reality.

Meet the ladder of inference.

Chris Argyris developed a Ladder of Inference to describe how people form and sustain mental models. Image clipped from Foresight Design Initiative and all the notes are my own, based on reflection.

Without dragging you up the ladder step by step, I’ll call out a few things of significance that may be beneficial in work beyond my own.

  • Slow the heck down. Taking the time to fill out the tool combats lazy thinking and the lightning-quick conclusions that happen by default. I’m reflective by nature, but it wasn’t until I slowed down and traveled the prompts did I honestly appraise my own thinking and thought process.
  • Attention and intention go hand and hand. Although the tool falls short of helping to examine the realities of assumptions (the Immunity to Change maps are far better for that) it does serve to open the aperture and provide space to shift attention to more dynamic, organic ideas. Without creating this visualization I couldn’t see the gap between where my attention went when I was with educators and my intention to help surface possibility.
  • The more expansive the observable data, the more expansive the action. Observation takes time. The more data one can collect, the greater the terrain to choose from when it comes to adding meaning. When I could select different data, I attached different meaning — which led to a shift in a set of assumptions. In previous structures, I noticed we were limiting ourselves to data that perpetuated our existing beliefs about kids and learning. All of this to say, taking the time to gather more data opens up the thinking and the possibilities.

I can only speak for myself, but I imagine it’s true for all of us: It is difficult to grasp how entrenched our beliefs and practices may be until we choose to consciously break from a “cognitive myopia” that may be perpetuating our actions regardless of our best intentions. I’m trying to walk a more balanced inquiry between advocacy (what I hope and want) and investigation (what the data is telling me). Leaders need to work much harder at taking the time to collect data. In this way, I increase awareness of my thinking and reasoning. More importantly, tools like this make my reasoning visible to others, inviting dialogue around how they may see things differently, and why. It is in this space of dialogue where potential unfolds.

Every darn time.

Today I return to why I write. While many may write as a form of rhetoric, to persuade or inspire, I write to deepen my understanding of a subject, as a way of navigating and honoring complexity and truth. Sometimes my writing lies dormant longer than I’d like, awaiting a spark that combats all resistance. This is such a moment.  What I am grappling with right now is the thinking found in one of the finest articles on leadership and change I have encountered in a long time: Quinn, Spreitzer, and Brown’s Changing Others Through Changing Ourselves: The Transformation of Human Systems. So much of it resonates and stretches my belief of what is possible that I want to sit with it beyond a single reading and a single post, so beware… I’m enjoying wading through some mud right now. 

I feel there is no doubt – regardless of logic, intention, or need – that most efforts to bring about change fail. Why? In a nutshell, we fail to appreciate the complexities of human systems and underestimate the degree to which a change is adaptive vs. technical. (Need a reminder? Technical change, while often challenging, can be solved by applying existing know-how and current problem-solving processes. Change that is adaptive in nature requires individuals to alter their ways and seek solutions beyond their current tools and expertise. Want more? Adaptive Work, Ron Heifetz). 

I believe the changes we need in education are undeniably adaptive in nature if we are to transform the system. Not only does this mean we need to bridge a significant gap between a new state of possibility and current reality by going beyond existing approaches, but it also means we need to accept that we ourselves are the problem. 

Quinn, et all highlight what is truly at the heart of adaptive change – and it is so much more than I had defined previously:

“In adaptive change, people… must surrender their present self and put themselves in jeopardy by becoming part of an emergent system” (147). 

Changing Others Through Changing Ourselves

It’s worth reading that sentence again… surrender their present self and put themselves in jeopardy by becoming part of an emergent system. In this brief article, the authors seek to answer, “How can an individual engage others in a change effort when doing so requires them to make painful adjustments and put themselves in jeopardy?” And the answer is straightforward: Changing others requires changing ourselves first. 


The authors present a set of principles that comprise what they call Advanced Change Theory, “a strategy less observable and more complex than the traditional change strategies of rational persuasion, coercion, or participation” (148).  [I’ve summarized it in the table below] What is significant for me is even at our “best”, such as engaging in models of change that are co-created and collaborative, our approach will continue to fall short of truly meeting the potential and possibility of this moment.

The ACT principles [the final column above] articulates a journey I’ve been traveling for some time, especially this curiosity around building an awareness of the realities of the emergent system. The authors highlight the importance of creating a new social reality, adjusting away from self-interest, to building an emergent community that can learn, adapt and grow (Quinn, et al. 150).  What this highlights for me is an essential question worthy of pursuing: How do I act from a place of integrity to my own values and beliefs, while being able to suspend those beliefs and engage the current context with an openness to new and emerging patterns?

This exploration of “lands that are foreign and uncharted in Western thought” (Wheatley, 139) has challenged many of my assumptions about change and put a lot of pressure on the typical frameworks many of us have employed (ie. Kotter’s 8-Step Process, McKinsey’s 7 – S Framework, Lewin’s change model, ADKAR, C-BAM, etc). Until we experience a new social reality and a true community of inclusion, we can’t recognize how powerful, how hopeful, an education can be.

Well, now what? What does all this swirling lead to when I go to work tomorrow morning? How can I consciously and continuously continue this dance of discovery, expanding and narrowing my gaze between the whole of the organization and the individuals who live, work, and learn there?

“Nano origami” @ Singularity Hub

For those who have been reading along, these pages have served to anchor me in a growing set of new practices as a leader seeking to be immersed in an emergent system. So, today, I’ll add just one: building on my capacity to see with fresh eyes. This means disrupting my habitual way of thinking and perceiving. Neuroscientist Francisco Varela calls this “suspension” – and as esoteric as this may sound, I’ve experienced tangible steps that are adding up to an ability to become aware of my thoughts, loosening their influence on what I see. It started here: I have completely changed my “protocol” of classroom observations – to no protocol at all. I show up early, stay for entire classes, linger in hallways and with teachers, going beyond the boundaries of the class period. I’ve let go of using our competency framework and referencing our learning principles and simply observe without forming conclusions to what those observations mean and I try to listen to what is beyond being said. I listen a lot. I sit with, sometimes draw, all the seemingly unrelated bits of information and every darn time, I’m amazed by the fresh ideas and the fresh conversations that emerge — and how things are connecting, how patterns are emerging. This is the shift in the generative social field. This is the practice I will take to work tomorrow – and the next day.

Reference

  • Wheatley, Margaret J.. Leadership and the New Science Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  • Changing Others Through Changing Ourselves (linked)