What Is The Stepladder Technique? The Stepladder Technique In A Nutshell

The stepladder technique was invented by Steven Rogelberg, Janet Barnes-Farrell, and Charles Lowe in 1992. The creators acknowledged that while making group decisions could be difficult, making good group decisions could be even harder.  The stepladder technique is an approach used to increase group decision-making effectiveness.

Understanding the stepladder technique

The stepladder technique endeavors to make this process more effective by enabling each group member to contribute individually before there is an opportunity to be influenced by someone else. This improves the quality of ideas put forth and avoids a scenario where individuals with dominant personalities overpower others.

The technique is also one of several similar frameworks that decrease the likelihood of groupthink. This is a common occurrence during the ideation phase where groups reach a consensus or make a decision without testing or challenging their ideas first. The stepladder technique also reduces social loafing, where a disinterested group member hides behind the contribution of someone else.

Implementing the stepladder technique

There are five general steps to implementing the stepladder technique:

  1. Explain the problem – a facilitator starts by telling each group member the problem or task at hand. This must be done individually, with each individual given enough time before the group comes together to think about possible solutions.
  2. Build the ladder – after sufficient time has passed, the facilitator asks two members of the group to discuss the problem in a private and comfortable setting. 
  3. Continue the process – once the initial two individuals have discussed their respective ideas, a third person is permitted to enter the room and join the conversation. The third person presents their ideas to the other two before anything is discussed as a group. This avoids groupthink and encourages everyone to share their unadulterated thoughts.
  4. Complete the ladder – this means the process in step three is repeated until each member has had a chance to share their thoughts. 
  5. Making a decision – in making a decision, teams must avoid the temptation to default to an obvious solution before all opinions have been heard. Following the stepladder technique through to the end is important in encouraging diverse input.

Weaknesses of the stepladder technique

Despite its obvious strengths, the stepladder technique is not perfect.

Some of the weaknesses businesses need to keep in mind include:

  • Tokenism – the stepladder technique is a more inclusive approach to brainstorming, but it can be reduced to a token effort if dominant personalities are allowed to interrupt or challenge the opinions of members entering the discussion room.
  • Efficiency – the staggered approach of the technique means it will likely take longer to complete than similar frameworks, especially if there are large groups involved. Companies that require greater efficiency in decision-making may be forced to look elsewhere. For best results, groups size should be limited to 4-7 members.
  • Utility – the stepladder technique is a systematic approach to making a single decision. As a result, it may be impractical and needlessly exhaustive in situations requiring multiple decisions to be made.

Key takeaways:

  • The stepladder technique is an approach used to increase group decision-making effectiveness invented by Steven Rogelberg, Janet Barnes-Farrell, and Charles Lowe in 1992.
  • The stepladder technique can be performed in five simple steps: explain the problem, build the ladder, continue the process, complete the ladder, and make a decision. A good facilitator will ensure the process is respected with all personal opinions heard.
  • The stepladder technique does have some limitations. While it helps teams avoid groupthink, it is not immune to manipulation from dominant individuals. The technique may also be unsuitable in situations requiring multiple decisions or where time is limited.

Connected Decision-Making Frameworks

Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin Framework gives context to decision making and problem-solving by providing context and guiding an appropriate response. The five domains of the Cynefin Framework comprise obvious, complicated, complex, chaotic domains and disorder if a domain has not been determined at all.

SWOT Analysis

SWOT Analysis is a framework used for evaluating the business’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It can aid in identifying the problematic areas of your business so that you can maximize your opportunities. It will also alert you to the challenges your organization might face in the future.

Pareto Analysis

The Pareto Analysis is a statistical analysis used in business decision making that identifies a certain number of input factors that have the greatest impact on income. It is based on the similarly named Pareto Principle, which states that 80% of the effect of something can be attributed to just 20% of the drivers.

Failure Mode And Effects Analysis

A failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) is a structured approach to identifying design failures in a product or process. Developed in the 1950s, the failure mode and effects analysis is one the earliest methodologies of its kind. It enables organizations to anticipate a range of potential failures during the design stage.

Blindspot Analysis

A Blindspot Analysis is a means of unearthing incorrect or outdated assumptions that can harm decision making in an organization. The term “blindspot analysis” was first coined by American economist Michael Porter. Porter argued that in business, outdated ideas or strategies had the potential to stifle modern ideas and prevent them from succeeding. Furthermore, decisions a business thought were made with care caused projects to fail because major factors had not been duly considered.

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