Article: Teaching Smart People How To Learn

Greg Eisenbach, in his Grassroots Innovation blog, cites a article that gets to the very root of organizational learning, respect for people, and a myriad of other issues.

The article, Teaching Smart people How To Learn was written by Chris Argyris back in 1991. What struck me about it is that it packs a double-whammy to our “lean” community. Most of us are change agents in some form or fashion, whether with direct operational control, or as either internal or external consultants. The hit comes from the fact that the example dysfunctional organization are consultants themselves.

So in that aspect, we all need to read this and take a long, hard look in the mirror.

The other aspect, though, is that everything here extrapolates to the very organizations we are trying to influence. A couple of key points jumped out at me.

Change has to start at the top because otherwise defensive senior managers are likely to disown any transformation in reasoning patterns coming from below. If professionals or middle managers begin to change the way they reason and act, such changes are likely to appear strange—if not actually dangerous—to those at the top. The result is an unstable situation where senior managers still believe that it is a sign of caring and sensitivity to bypass and cover up difficult issues, while their subordinates see the very same actions as defensive.

I can certainly relate the above from personal experience. It is damned difficult to be open and honest in an environment which does not value openness and honesty!

But then the dilemma hits, because there I am “blaming the client” for my own lack of effectiveness. Instead, it is my responsibility to look at what what I actually did, vs. what I wanted to do; look at my actual results vs. my planned results, and apply scientific thinking. To paraphrase back to 1944, “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.”

The good news is that in the article, Chris Argyris not only points out the problem, he gives an example or two of managers leaders who have overcome it. But they did so only through hard introspection and challenging their only assumptions about themselves, their organizations, and their leadership style.

My last challenge here is this: When we talk about “respect for people” are we talking about behavior which avoids the issues so nobody’s feelings are hurt… or are we talking about being truly respectful and getting the truth out into the open so we can all deal with it?

One thought to “Article: Teaching Smart People How To Learn”

  1. Regarding your challenge: my answer is obviously the second.

    Respect for people means that managers err.. leaders should not let their employees be stuck in dysfunctional processes. Hence, problems need to be exposed, root causes analyzed and countermeasures experimented, then standardized.

    Exposing problems is the difficult part tackled by Chris Argyris. Once we know about that, we can expose everything. Well, I hope so… 🙂

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