Teaching Smart People To Learn

As educated and smart people we tend to think that of course we want to learn, that we do learn and that we’re open to other peoples criticisms. In fact, if you ask most CEO’s or managers they will openly espouse their ideas, their explanations of events, ask for feedback and say they have an “open door” policy to discuss things. But there is a natural tendency that most people, including management, fall into where they openly espouse these ideas of openness but their behavior and routines ends up being different. This is where the work of Chris Argyris has been influenced me.

I re-read an HBR article by Chris Argyris today called Teaching Smart People How to Learn. He’s famous for distinguishing what he called single loop learning and double loop learning. The main part of the concept from my perspective is that most people in operations will accept the given values and work within them to accomplish goals set by management. Any “learning” that happens will be single-loop where the members of the organization only try to learn how to achieve goals inside the current structure. This might also be perceived as “Of course management wants you to learn, but make sure you meet these goals in this time frame and assume management’s goals are right. Accept the status quo and learn within its confines.” Double-loop learning is different in that it takes into consideration questioning the values or goals themselves.

An example of ineffective single loop learning can be found in the book The New How by Nilofer Merchant. In the book she talks about effective strategies for organizational collaboration. She came up with a term for the ineffective management practice of coming up with “the strategy” or “big idea” and then communicating this to people below in the organization to “execute” on the plan. She calls the vacuum of collaboration and feedback loops between management and operations as an “air sandwhich” where management sets some objective after a long series of meetings or retreat and then broadcasts this to operations. Operations is assumed to go to work on the plan accepting its premise and not questioning it. The job of operations is assumed to be to just “execute” and if they do this then management considers the goal will be reached and there will be success. This leads to an ineffective organization.

The challenge is to be more effective in collaboration and learning as an organization to produce better results. When you do this and have double loop learning where there is collaboration between management and operations where the governing goals can be questioned and invalidated then you open your organization up to a lot of improvement. One thing Chris Argyris observed in his study of organizations and management was that management usually espoused this very principle of openness and even had meetings based on it but when returning to their actual behavior and routine would end up killing any double loop learning and coverup difficult issues. Subordinates see the coverup as a defensive behavior.

Chris Argyris also authored other works like Organizational Traps: Leadership, Culture, Organizational and Flawed Advice and the Management Trap.

Has anyone experienced what Chris Argyris discusses with organizational learning or what Nilofer Merchant discusses in The New How? If so please leave a comment describing your observations.

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