Fences, ladders and trust


Fences, ladders and trust. Ken, the CTO of a logistics startup, had had enough. “This company-wide salary cap is bogus!” he exclaimed. “In this market, I’ll never find an engineer with the right skills who’s willing to accept such a low figure. I’m going to make an offer to our best candidate at the level she expects, and the CFO and Human Resources will just have to live with it.”

“Whoa there!” I said. “As your coach, I have to tell you you’re missing some important steps to take before you go out on that limb.”

“What do you mean?” protested Ken. “You’re always telling me to move faster, to take ‘adverse possession’ and define the problem for others, even if I’m wrong. Isn’t this maverick leadership?”

“No,” I said. “You have some work to do with fences and ladders first.”

Chesterton’s Fence

I started by asking Ken whether he knew why the company had instituted a salary cap. “No,” he said, “I’ve never asked.” I told him about G. K. Chesterton and his famous fence. The English novelist asked his readers to suppose that they have seen a barrier across a road that they’d like to get rid of, and contrasted two approaches to it:

The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

The lesson is that until you understand how and why a rule or process or limit is in place, you are ill-equipped to remove or replace it. For example, governments are forever playing around with tax laws, creating unintended consequences and misunderstood loopholes aplenty because they don’t understand the industries and communities they’re trying to regulate. To avoid similar catastrophes, I told Ken, he needed to find out why the salary cap had been introduced, before blasting through it.

“Sure, I get it,” he said. “But how the heck am I supposed to do that? I don’t know the CFO very well, and it’s her policy.”

“Have you ever done any rock climbing?” I asked.

The Ladder of Inference

Ken admitted he hadn’t gone up any cliffs recently, but he had seen videos of people doing it. That was enough for me to explain that discovering the reason for the policy, while building trust with the CFO, was going to feel like clambering up a rock. Moving slowly from one handhold to the next, making sure you’re secure in each position before sliding carefully upward.

“Sure, that’s like when we build tests alongside our software, we’re always checking that we’re on track by running the tests and verifying nothing’s broken,” said Ken.

“Exactly, and that’s why I sometimes call this method ‘Test-Driven Development for People’. But its real name is the Ladder of Inference. Take a look at this picture:”

© The Reflexive Loop – Douglas Squirrel

“What you’re going to do is work with the CFO to unpack her reasoning, from the data she observes to the actions she takes.” I explained how our reasoning seems obvious to us, but because the rungs of the ladder are inside our heads, others can’t follow how we got from observations to results. So Ken would need to confirm each step with the CFO, asking first what data she’d collected about salaries, then which items were most important, then what meaning she’d assigned, and so on, confirming each bit of reasoning by saying it back to her.

“Sounds like hard work!” exclaimed Ken.

“It is, but it gets easier with practice,” I replied. “And along the way, you’re very likely going to be surprised by something, the CFO’s logic won’t match what you expected. That’s good, because it means you’re learning something that could change your mind and your own actions.”

“Right, like when a climber tries a new foothold and slips, so she has to re-route. Or when one of our tests fails and we realise we have a bug in our code.”

“That’s right. Now your homework is to go find out why that salary cap is in place, and to learn something surprising!”

Falling Off The Ladder

Ken came back to our next coaching session with astonishing news: the salary limitation was only a guideline, and the CFO had a simple procedure in place for granting exceptions. He’d discovered at the “meaning” rung that the word “cap” had meant different things to him and the CFO. And as a result of “falling off the ladder” in this way, he’d opened up new possibilities for solving the problem of attracting top talent.

What could you learn by falling off the ladder of inference? What would it feel like to build trust with others on your executive team, or with your own staff? I urge you to try a ladder of inference conversation, difficult as it might seem, to improve your collaboration, and your results.