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Change-ability Tip #23: Be careful on the ladder

Whether we are initiating change or responding to it, how we feel, think, and act will depend largely on how we navigate the “ladder of inference.” The ladder of inference is a model developed by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris and used by Peter Senge and many others.  It’s a brilliant way of visualizing the ways that we can limit our understanding and our options. It also points to ways we can see and create possibilities.

The first rung of the ladder is where we are “exposed to data” as Stober and Grant so succinctly put it in their Evidence Based Coaching Handbook. We receive sensory input. On the second rung of the ladder, we pick and choose certain pieces of data as more important or worthy of attention. For most of us, this activity typically takes place without much awareness that we may be ignoring potentially important data. As with all ladders, on the second rung we feel quite secure, perhaps naively so.

The third rung on the ladder of inference is when we make assumptions about the data we’ve decided is key. In my experience, this is where things can really get shakey. Then it gets even worse on the fourth rung when we form conclusions based on our assumptions.

On the fifth rung, we take action based on our conclusions based on our assumptions based on selected data based on our sensory input!

Revisiting the junctures: data selected, areas for attention, assumptions, and conclusions, we might well discover an alternate interpretation, route, or possibility. By making different choices in where to direct our focus, the assumptions we make, or our conclusions and actions, we could end up with very different opportunities and outcomes. How different our stories might be if we remembered to be careful–or at least more conscious–on the ladder.


Change-ability Tip #22: Utilize the Power of Conversation

Most of us have personally experienced the benefits of talking through a problem with a trusted friend or colleague. Active listening can provide a safe haven for the speaker to articulate perceptions, fears, and potential responses to change. In the same way that writing about an issue can clarify feelings and facts, describing a situation verbally can help to uncover insights and opportunities. Questions and paraphrasing from the listener can identify assumptions and beliefs that get in the way of change-ability.

Thanks to David Gurteen’s  May 2009 Knowledge Letter, I recently discovered Nancy Dixon, a knowledge management (KM) consultant who specializes in the personal/human aspects of KM. In a post on her blog, Conversation Matters, she described the value of conversation:

“The greatest benefit of conversation is that it produces five categories of responses [answers, meta knowledge, problem reformulation, validation and legitimization], not just the answer. We get so much more from conversation, e.g. an unexpected insight, a sense of affirmation that inspires us to new heights or, equally useful, having to confront a realization that we’ve been trying to avoid; deepening the relationship with a colleague or the introduction to a collaborator we would never have discovered on our own; and on and on. The multiplicity of benefits addresses the very real problem of not knowing what we don’t know. A problem that is so frequent when the issues we are addressing are ambiguous and complex.”

Suddenly a conversation with the right person is laden with possibilities. Could change-ability really be so simple? Let me know how conversation has increased your change-ability.


Change-ability Tip #21: Validation

Speaking of change-ability, change has been keeping me from my blog writing these days. One might think that given my commitment to write about 50 ways to be “change-able,” that I’m keen on change. The reality? Not so much. My preoccupation with ways to experience change with a modicum of grace fuels my daily scanning of change-related research and articles. Lately I’ve come across a few simple, practical, and powerful ways of staying afloat that I’d like to share.

Change-ability tip #21 is also the title of the wonderful 16 minute video below: Validation. “Validation” is defined as an official mark of approval or worthiness… meeting the requirements or standard. To feel validated as a person is to receive acknowledgement of our value and worth. As we go through our day we have many opportunities to “validate” our family members, neighbours, and co-workers. And of course, receiving validation can make all the difference in how we experience our day. Validation creates the positive emotions and self-esteem so essential for facing change. Watch this short video for a wonderful demonstration of validation at work.


Change-ability Tip #20: Write a List of 100

Kernel=Write a list of 100 in one sitting to uncover creative insights buried in your subconscious

Change-ability is enhanced when we feel that we have the resources, strategies or options for navigating the path ahead. Most of us are more resourceful than we think–we just need access to our ideas. List of 100 is a journalling technique described by Kathleen Adams in her book Journal to the Self: Twenty-two Paths to Personal Growth.

Adams writes that lists are helpful for clarifying thoughts, revealing patterns, brainstorming solutions, moving beyond the obvious, generating a lot of information in a short time, and focusing attention. (p. 124) She suggests using the List of 100 for any topic or challenge. “Anything that is a current issue for you is a good candidate for a List of 100.” (p. 132)

There are a few guidelines you’ll need to follow to benefit from the List of 100 tool. First, you must write 100! The first couple of dozen will be the obvious, followed by more creative ideas, and then you’ll be forced to really dig deep–this is when the results become interesting and out-of-the-box. You can number your entries as you go or number a sheet of paper from 1 to 100 before you start–but do number each thought.

In addition, Adams notes that you should write as fast as you can. And you can repeat an entry if you’re stuck. Use point form rather than complete sentences and don’t worry about the logic or “quality” of your points. You should also write your list in one sitting. After you’ve finished, review your list for themes and patterns. Use themes or individual list entries in developing a change response or strategy. If your ideas need further development, try some of the visual thinking techniques discussed in Change-ability Tip #18: Increase Creative Problem-solving through Visual Thinking.


Change-ability Tip #19: “Use darkness to shed light”–Roger von Oech

Kernel: Life is filled with opposites. If you’re facing darkness (stress/change), what is the opposite now visible as light?

From creativity consultant and author Roger von Oech:
“Heraclitus is saying that we don’t fully appreciate something until we have thought about or experienced its opposite. For example, success is more rewarding if we’ve tasted defeat, life more precious if we’ve been close to death, and love dearer if lost and regained. … So, the questions this insight suggests are: What’s ‘dark’ or missing in your current situation? How does it shed light on what is there?”

Roger von Oech’s books include:
A Whack on the Side of the Head (New York: Warner Books, 1998.)
A Kick in the Seat of the Pants (New York: Harper & Row, 1986.), and
Expect the Unexpected (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2002.)


Change-ability Tip #18: Increase Creative Problem-solving through Visual Thinking

Kernel: Visual thinking techniques = instant flood of ideas, options & connections

There is something magical about visual thinking strategies such as Mind Mapping, clustering, concept mapping, or FutureScapes™. Each approach varies somewhat and personally, I like to use Gabrielle Rico’s “clustering” simply because I’ve had the most experience with it. I rarely begin any project at work without doing a cluster map of my thoughts, ideas, resources, goals or needs, and connections, etc.

Simply described, clustering begins with a “focus” word or phrase written in the centre of a large, unlined sheet of paper (at least this is my preference–you could create a cluster in the sand… or on lined paper). Circle your focus word and then capture your thoughts, ideas, and related topics, letting them pour onto the sheet in representative words or phrases. In my use of clustering, I circle thoughts and connect them to related or hierarchical thoughts at the same time or later as I reflect on the cluster topic. In Mind Mapping, developed by Tony Buzan around the same time as Rico’s clustering technique, use of colour and images is considered very important.

FutureScape™ is a technique that I’ve learned about recently and instantly appealed to my librarian sensibilities in that it incorporates information gleaned from environmental scans and intuitive insights. It is a visual thinking strategy developed by T. Irene Sanders for organizational strategic planning, but has been used for many purposes including career development. It is described in her book Strategic Thinking and the New Science: Planning in the Midst of Chaos Complexity and Change (New York: The Free Press, 1998).

I was especially interested in Sanders’ use of what she calls “perking information”–new developments occurring just below the surface that will impact your situation in future. She notest that FutureScape™ is different from Mind Mapping in that it “helps you see the self-organizing behaviour of the big-picture context in which your decisions are being made.” (p. 157)

More information is available at the links below:

T. Irene Sanders: Washington Center for Complexity & Public Policy

Mind Mapping video with Tony Buzan

Clustering developed by Gabrielle Rico, author of Writing the Natural Way

Review of Dan Roam’s book, The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. at Paul Baker’s blog, EducationPR: Social Media for Communicators In Education

Chuck Frey is the founder and editor of (check out the Mind Mapping Resource Center here) and the author of The Mind Mapping Software Blog. The Mind Mapping Software Update newsletter includes excerpts from the blog.

For information about online or electronic visual thinking tools, check out Innovation Tools and Chuck Frey’s Mind Mapping Software Product Guide


Change-ability Tip #17: The Power of Positive Emotions

Nurturing contentment fosters future change-ability

Nurturing contentment fosters future change-ability

Kernel: Nurturing joy, interest and contentment = strength, resilience and well-being

According to psychologist, Barbara Fredrickson, “Cultivating positive emotions produces an upward spiral that not only counteracts negative emotions but also broadens habitual modes of thinking and acting and builds personal resources for coping.”

Negative emotions narrow a person’s repertoire of thoughts and actions, Fredrickson explains. “This effect is clearly adaptive in life-threatening situations that require quick action to survive.” Positive emotions broaden and expand this thought-action repertoire. Over time, this broadening creates an “upward spiral” which builds personal strength, resilience, and well-being.

Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory applies to three distinct positive emotions—joy, interest, and contentment. “Joy creates the urge to play and be playful in the broadest sense of the word … encompassing not only physical and social play, but also intellectual and artistic play.” Even though it is often aimless, play has several reliable outcomes, including strengthening friendships and attachments, and developing physical and cognitive skills.

Relaxation therapies, including imagery exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and meditation, are effective, she maintains, because they cultivate the positive emotion of contentment.

Read more at: “Happiness, joy and other positive emotions”
University of Michigan Press Release (May 9, 2000)

Barbara Fredrickson at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Fredrickson’s blog: Positivity: Insights from Science on the Art of Living

Fredrickson’s recent book: Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive (Random House: Toronto, 2009)


Change-ability Tip #16: Impasse–a temporary state

Change sometimes appears like a landslide that blocks all possible routes. It’s difficult to maintain perspective and often the only options appear to be giving up or working harder at what we always do–status quo. Timothy Butler, a psychologist, psychotherapist, and researcher on career decision making offered some suggestions when interviewed by Martha Lagace about his book Getting Unstuck: How Dead Ends Become New Paths (Harvard Business School Press, 2006).

According to Butler, “Impasse means that we need to change our whole approach to the problem. We need to change our understanding of the problem. We have to change our repertoire of ways in which we approach life challenges.”

In Getting Unstuck, Butler describes six phases in the “impasse process” and notes that progress through the stages is not linear but is a back and forth process. The first phase is the “arrival of a crisis” when we put our head down and keep doing what we’ve been doing. In phase two, we “realize that our old ways are not working.” Our “inner critic” becomes very vocal during this period.

In the third phase, we begin to examine the situation more carefully and honestly and in the fourth stage we become receptive to new kinds of information and “begin to appreciate complexity and metaphor in underlying themes.” The fifth stage takes some time and involves recognition of patterns in our life. Phase six occurs when we take action based on what we’ve learned in the previous stages and move forward.

Feeling Stuck? Getting Past Impasse:” Q&A with Timothy Butler by Martha Lagace (April 25, 2007)
Harvard Business School Working Knowledge: A First Look at Faculty Research


Change-ability Tip #15: Use self-reflection in moderation

Self-reflection is undoubtedly useful in moving forward through change but psychologists warn that too much can be counterproductive. “Few people realize how profoundly their lives are affected by their self-thoughts or how frequently this inner chatter interferes with their success, pollutes their personal relationships and undermines their happiness,” says psychologist Mark Leary.

Leary, author of The Curse of the Self traces what he calls “the curse of the self,” or self-reflection, back to its evolutionary roots. He argues that “the self” evolved to help us meet the challenges of living as prehistoric hunters and gatherers. At the time, the self was an outstanding evolutionary adaptation,” he says.  “For the first time, people could think consciously about themselves and their lives, allowing them to plan, act intentionally and solve problems better than any other creature on earth.”

What increased the chances for survival a million years ago can cause problems today. “When human beings first evolved the ability to be self-aware, they used it to plan only a few hours or days ahead,” Leary says. “Today, however, people spend much of their time thinking about things that may happen months or years from now.  As a result, many people are plagued with excessive worry about the future, worry that serves no useful purpose to them.”

“If the self had been installed with a mute button or off switch, the self would not be the curse to happiness that it often is,” Leary says.  “Learning to quiet the voice in one’s head is the first step.”

Leary’s tips for coping with the “curse of the self” include:

  • meditation to reduce self-chatter
  • “don’t believe everything you think”–develop a healthy sense of “ego-skepticism,” the understanding that one does not always have an accurate view of the world and should be skeptical of one’s own interpretations of events.
  • practice self-compassion–be kind to yourself
  • develop a “metapersonal identity”–”Rather than seeing yourself as an isolated individual struggling against the world, recognize the ways in which you are connected to other people and the world at large.”

Wake Forest University press release
The Curse of the Self website


Change-ability Tip #14: Seek feedforward instead of feedback

Feedforward... insight for the future

Feedforward... insight for the future

I first read about feedforward in Marshall Goldsmith’s book, What Got You Here won’t Get You There but you can also read an article about it on his website.

Asking co-workers or friends for feedback can be helpful–if they’re skilled and you’re accepting. As Goldsmith points out, feedback looks at events that have already happened. Change-ability means moving into the future with strategies and tools to adapt to new scenarios. Goldsmith’s feedforward tool is practical and easy. Here are the four steps for feedforward described in his book (p. 171).

1. Identify a behaviour that you believe if changed, would lead to a significant positive difference in your future. Goldsmith offers the example: I want to be a better listener.

2. Describe your goal to another person–someone you know or even someone you’ve just met. They don’t need to know anything about you or your life for this activity to be successful.

3. Ask this person for two suggestions that you could use in the future that would help you achieve the behavioural goal you’ve described. (If you know the person, Goldsmith notes that “the only ground rule is that there can be no mention of the past.”) The person then offers their two ideas.

4. Listen carefully to the suggestions and take notes if you wish. The final rule is that you  must not comment in any way other than to say “thank you.” Repeat the process with other people until you have all the suggestions you want or need or until the ideas begin to repeat.

We’ve all done variations of feedforward, but typically with one major limitation: we normally have a rebuttal ready to fire off when the person with the idea pauses to take a breath. We dismiss the idea because… “we tried it and it didn’t work” … or it could “never work for us because …”

Let me know ways you’ve used feedforward and how it turned out for you.