Deans Columns

May 12, 2013 10:00 pm

The pioneering thinking of Chris Argyris

Chris Argyris

Chris Argyris said it can be harder, not easier, to teach smart people

No one in my life has taught me more about the world, about people and about success than my parents did. But Chris Argyris, renowned in business education as a leading professor at Harvard, comes close.

He is admired also as someone instrumental in the creation of both Yale School of Management and the prestigious academic journal Administrative Science Quarterly, and as the father of the field of organisational learning. I have undying admiration for Chris, with whom I worked closely for a decade early in my consulting career. I am most grateful to him for teaching me three essential and valuable things that I apply to business and business education.

First, he taught me that knowledge is of minimal use unless it enables the recipient to take action. Much managerial advice falls into the “grow taller” category: it is a well-meaning nod in a notionally helpful direction but ultimately too abstract to be of use. It may be correct to tell a company that it needs to serve its customers better than its competitors do. But the chances are that the company is already trying to do just that – and telling its managers they should be succeeding, rather than failing, does not help them act more effectively.

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In contrast, it would be actionable to help managers understand with what frequency customers want to be visited and what the three most important things are that the company personnel must accomplish during those visits for customers to feel well served. The latter advice can be turned to action quickly and effectively. Chris taught me to focus on actionable knowledge and actionable business education – a lesson I have used in every workshop, course and consulting engagement I have ever designed.

Second, Chris taught me that while intelligence matters, it is not an unalloyed good. His research with high-performing professionals showed that really smart people tend to be brittle and have a harder time with anything less than unambiguous success. So when they experience failure, however modest, rather than considering how they might have contributed to it, smart people focus on who (other than themselves) or what (other than their actions) caused the failure – and learn nothing. Failure, rather than an opportunity to grow, becomes an exercise in blame.

Chris’s insight was that it is harder, not easier as we would expect, to teach smart people how to learn. That does not mean you should not want to load up your business with clever people or admit bright students to your business school. But do not assume those intelligent workers and students will be learning machines. Recognise that, if anything, they are likely to be “learning challenged”.

From Chris, I learnt the importance of paying extra attention to helping smart people to learn, and that capacity for learning is an important selection criterion.

Third, Chris taught me the difference between single and double-loop learning. Single-loop learning focuses exclusively on actions and outcomes. When we find an outcome we do not like, we tend to revisit and redesign our actions to achieve a better outcome. For instance, when we figure out that stock options do not create the incentives we wish they did, we try deferred stock units instead.

Double-loop learning does not simply go back to action; it goes further to the theories and thinking that informed that action. It challenges and redesigns the thinking. Double-loop learning means reconsidering whether stock-based compensation is an intelligent idea in the first place. (It is not.) In single-loop mode, we iterate and spin on action, honing and refining without addressing the big questions that can dramatically alter outcomes.

Chris taught me to switch the question from “how can we make stock-based compensation produce the results that we want?” to “what system of compensation and incentives would produce the behaviour we want?”

In combination, the three lessons are effective and potentially transformative. Businesses and business schools can accomplish a great deal if they seek actionable knowledge, help smart people to overcome their natural learning challenges, and challenge the premises of problems, rather than the effectiveness of solutions.

The notion that anyone could come to an understanding of these three principles on the basis of their own life learning is pretty far-fetched. But on the basis of the lifetime of work of a pioneering intellect, it becomes possible.

Roger Martin is dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto

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