Tag Archives: Chris Argyris

Conviction, Assertions of Truth, and Legos

12 May

Chris Argyris was rightfully annoyed by what he called “conviction,’ a word he used to describe what he saw as the (misguided) approach of most students in business school. Faced with a business decision, these students were expecting to exert influence primarily by conviction. That is, by feeling more strongly or passionately about whatever approach they were advocating, or by looking more fixedly into the eyes of their fellow deciders, or by being more furious or menacing, they were planning to get their way.

Of course there are problems with this. Not that it’s bad to believe in yourself. But if your plan with respect to guiding an organization is about how you’ll project your feelings, you’re not really thinking with sufficient complexity about the various and necessary components of a group decision-making process. You’re not thinking about: how you’ll gather and share data; how you’ll evaluate that data and the inferences you make about the data; how you’ll frame the problem; how you’ll develop options to solve that problem; how you’ll select from among those options; how you’ll set some expectations for success; what you’ll do if your first option isn’t working out; and so on.

In short, you won’t have a process around working with people to get to the truth and do the right thing. You won’t be building a thinking culture. You won’t be thinking with others. You perhaps don’t plan to engage others at all. You plan to influencecoerce, control others before they do it to you. This is, sadly, the essential theory-in-action behind many human engagements. It’s not a good method. Among many problems with it, you can’t build a longterm relationship based on coercion. And a longterm relationship is the point.

What I propose is, on the other hand, to spend your time figuring out how to put aside conviction. To not see yourself as a salient army emerging from a fortress to assault others and instead start to make yourself a thing that connects with others, a thing that serves as the ground for the connection of others, a thing that doesn’t need a fortress in the first place.

How do you do that? One ideaL avoid the assertion of truth. If you’re in a context that requires group decision-making, don’t say “x is true; we need to do y.” Instead say something like “I think x may be true, and I suggest we might try y; what do you think?” The semantic change is minor; the effective difference is huge. You’re still important, still telling people what you think the group should do, being forthright, etc., but you’re intentionally constructing the expression of your thought so that it invites the thoughts of others to snap on to it, as if it were a Lego brick. That’s the trick: make your shared thoughts be shaped like Lego bricks. Two bricks make a better thought than one.

Why should you not assert truth? Here’s why: it sets up a vicious pendulum of control flips. When you assert a truth as absolute you add a kind of social charge to it. Your ego is attached. I, your colleague, know that I can’t disagree or complicate or change or add to that idea without confronting your right to assert a truth, without challenging your existence. I have to make a calculation: is adding my information worth pissing you off, or insulting you, and all the drama that entails? In most cases people won’t want to deal with the fallout; so they let things slide. Until things get so bad that it costs less to confront you than to continue the course you imposed; at which point they assert a contrary truth, and control flips and you find yourself in the position they were in, and so on ad nauseum. You can imagine the crazy strategic moves and counter moves that would arise from leaders doing this, your organization careening all over the map like a car oversteering on an icy road. Conviction fuels this vicious pendulum.

But! Simply Lego-bricking your thought short circuits all these bad things. If you invite my thought at the beginning, there’s less social charge, I feel more comfortable adding my thoughts to yours, we get an idea that’s broader in perspective, and I buy in. We’re less wedded to a particular course. Our individual egos are not linked 1:1 to any action path. Instead our group ego is linked to a decision-making process. We’re more comfortable changing course more quickly, because no one person will lose face. We might make mistakes, but we recover more quickly, we don’t oversteer, and the car careens less. Instead of a crazy zig-zag, we might inscribe an elegant curve across the landscape of business glory.


Chris Jernstedt on Learning

12 Jul

Chris Jernstedt, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, spoke Monday at the Learning Organization Academy. My summary of key points:

Learning Organizations Should Map to the Brain

If we really want to build learning organizations, they should of course take into account how the brain works; fortunately, we might already be heading in the right direction: chris notes that the literature on organizational growth and change is remarkably consistent with how the brain operates.

Learning Should Include Thinking, Feeling, and Interacting

The brain’s major regions focus on three key areas: social (watching what other people do, emulating it), executive (making decisions, plans, interpretations), and emotional processing (feeling and dealing with how we feel about things). All three are integral to how the brain works; all three should be a recognized part of a learning organization (consider to what extent cognitive / executive thought is privileged now in most organizations and higher education).

Memory and Learning are Active

“Memory and learning are something you do,” said Chris. Rather than files retrieved from an efficient archive, the process of remembering is more similar, for Chris, to an archeological dig (!). Each memory is a product of reconstruction and re-interpretation (!) of a bunch of scattered bits. And the same for learning: rather than receiving knowledge as a jukebox might receive coins, we’re actually building the things we know association by association.

The Brain is Not Neat

“The brain is built to be sloppy,” Chris said. There’s a trade-off between the kinds of mental structures and processes that make for efficient memory and the kind that allow for creativity; the brain allows some sloppiness and inefficiency so we can make new connections, associate unlikely things, invent our way out of a tight corner. But in exchange we’re imperfect warehouses.

Engage or Forget

The most important thing in remembering or learning something new is to use the information actively. Engagement is even more important than overall time spent. Talk about it, write about, do something with it. Otherwise it’s gone in 24 hours, says Chris; 60 to 80% of your learning should require you to be engaged, he said; and he therefore suggested we use symbols to capture the key points of his talk (writing or images). He also stopped every few minutes to challenge us in groups with a provocative question or two. “The person doing the talking is the one doing the learning,” he said.


The brain uses prompts and incentives to help it learn. Prompts relate to its powerful predictive ability: to survive we need to know what effects follow from what causes; we’re so good at associating effects with causes that after even one highly-charged cause-effect sequence, the brain will subsequently predict the outcome of any similar cause and feel and act as if the effect had happened, even if it hadn’t. Every time you see a certain person, they frown at you? After a while you start to feel frowned-at just by thinking of that person. Good learning understands this strong promptability and tries to unpack and discharge prompt-associations that impede learning, and kindle positive ones that encourage it.

The Three Rules of Feedback

Incentives work on the other end of the cause and effect sequence–a positive outcome makes the brain feel good, and it remembers what it did to get that; then it’s more likely to do that thing later. This process is what makes feedback work so well; as long as feedback is useful, consistent, and rapid, you can effectively learn just about anything. Including to control anything the body does–even lowering high blood pressure certain degrees at your will, slowing down or speeding up your digestive tract, or keeping sperm (if you have them) from swimming. These body-related learnings require a biofeedback monitor of some kind and are done in the lab, but still: if you can control the speed at which food passes through your intestines, you can make all sorts of changes in any of your behaviors.

Transfer Requirements

For learning in one situation to be called upon in another, thus achieving the famous holy grail of “transfer,” Chris notes that the first situation needs to be as simliar as possible to the second. And practicing it three times before the transfer helps, too.

Extrinsic Motivation Doesn’t Work; Neither Does “Espoused Theory”

No change will come of telling people what they should do, says Chris. Rather, you have to “give them what they want when they do it.” A useful and speedy reward or some kind of feedback that tells their brain that what they just did was good. A second problem with extrinsic motivation is that the brain isn’t fooled by rhetorical positions, claims, values statements, plans, that are different than the real behavior of the individual who promotes them (see Chris Argyris’ famed “espoused theory”). People’s brains will “see” that a given leader isn’t listening to them, even if he or she espouses an open-door policy (and maybe even if they consciously believe that policy).

Stories are Important 

According to Chris, the story you create is more powerful than truth. If you’re given some pictures and told to tell “false” stories about them (that is, stories that don’t truthfully reflect the contents of the pictures), you’ll remember the stories and not the pictures themselves. Which suggests how important it is that we include stories and narratives in our understanding of the workplace environment.

The Unconscious is Powerful

“Most of what you do,” says Chris, “is unconscious.” As much as 98% (!).  Chris referred to research that shows our brain can solve math problems well before we actually know it. The conscious mind, driving to a speedy conclusion, or incapable of processing all the data, can even impair the whole brain from working: Chris noted a study that showed people who were given some minor task to occupy their conscious mind actually solved complex problems faster than people who were consciously thinking about the problem, showing that the brain has a way of drawing on problem-solving capacities we don’t know about. “The brain knows,” said Chris. The way you tap into this power is to give yourself time. Add periods of unscheduled time into the routine; places for reflection, etc.

Whither Higher Education? 16 Ideas.

1 May

Whither higher education in the global, digital, flat world of today and tomorrow? It’s the cocktail party conversation topic du jour. My pick of 16 thoughts on the subject:

  1. We’ll Pay to Be Members: Education will be seen as something you pay for regularly, before and after you draw on it, like life insurance or a membership to a benevolent society or tithes to a church; although there won’t be an “after”–in the future we’ll never stop learning;
  2. Disaggregated Learning Bits: The “feel” of participating in higher education will be disaggregated, with much more involvement of crowd-sourced-like components and entrepreneurial thinking (and perhaps funding), in which people in all walks of life will play equal parts (as in Jim Groom’s “proto-MOOC” which is both in and outside of a university);
  3. Control to the Students: Students will have a greater role in shaping and selecting the components of their education; course catalogs will take on the dynamic feel of stock markets or some other wide-scale selection and value-confirming interface; students will be allowed to drop and add components as they feel they should; students will write components that other students use; students may even sometimes teach teachers; and that’s OK because of number 4, below;
  4. More Sophisticated Learners: Students will be much more sophisticated about how learning works and more aware of their own learning (we’ll encourage this with “how to learn” structures of all kinds), so they’ll be much more thoughtful in the selection and creation of their educational components, more conscious of whether they’re learning or not, and much more demanding; they’ll move away quickly from things they don’t like; also they’ll be of every age and culture and life experience;
  5. End of Bankers Hours: Hours of synchronous instruction, where it remains, will spread across the clock and will include times 16 – 32 year olds are mentally active (midnight to 4 am) as well as times the rest of us are; the work day for staff and faculty will be replaced by widely distributed work-chunks popping up throughout the calendar and clock;
  6. Faculty and Staff Will Phone It In: Faculty and staff will increasingly work from home and spend minimal time on campus, and that’s good, because we’ll be able to draw on a greater variety of people, and have access to wider skills, and people will be able to live where they want (like among beautiful grasslands) and still work for schools elsewhere (like in the city); where I talk about the end of the four-year student residency below, I also mean the end of the life-long residency for many faculty and staff;
  7. Work and Learning will be Similar: It will be less easy to distinguish education from work and vice-versa (and that’s good, in that we’re retraining the entire workforce to be effective in the digital, flat, global age, even as we’re training students to be similarly effective); and there’s a lot both work and formal learning can learn from each other; and people will be shifting in between each mode constantly;
  8. On-sites are Brief and Intense: Residential experiences will only happen at key points–bookends, or for particular parts of a sequence, but won’t be constant throughout the learning cycle, which will let us move many more people through the campus, as through a hotel or a resort and give more access to a campus experience to more people; it’s the end of the four-year residency. But don’t worry: you can still get that community feeling from brief stints: remember summer camp?;
  9. It’s About the Culture: More emphasis will be placed on creating and assessing the “culture” that supports and surrounds learning (this will complement our focus heretofore–on learning as a thing that happens in the head of the student); this means more investment in (and assessment of) faculty and staff learning and more attention to community-enriching things like faculty-student interaction studies or assessments of workplace dynamics; we’ll consciously try to craft a “learning organization” (or Argyris “Model 2”) culture in our schools and workplaces;
  10. Roles Will Be Fluid: There will be less differentiation between what have been seen as fixed roles: most staff will have some greater hand in instruction; students will increasingly teach each other (through tutoring, etc); and faculty may even play student-like roles more happily; instruction will be seen as a collaborative partnership of multiple people;
  11. Massive Retraining Will be the Norm: We’ll be constantly ready to retrain all staff and faculty at a moment’s notice in the various new processes and forms dictated by shifting market conditions and incessant innovation;
  12. We’ll Cultivate Ideas: We’ll see our own internal creativity and ideas as perhaps the key component of long-term institutional success and we’ll build systems and cultures to support, generate, and encourage ideas, the testing of new models, entrepreneurial thinking, innovation laboratories, etc.;
  13. We’ll Share with Other Schools: We always said we would, but now we really will–collaborate with other schools. In shared infrastructure (LMS, Information Systems, shared skill positions, shared risky innovation environments) and in shared academics (you offer French and we’ll offer Greek), but we’ll try to keep a wrapper of core institutional identity around the things we offer and do;
  14. Feelings Will Guide Us: We’ll describe a certain kind of institutional “feeling” that should exist in the learning that happens under our auspices, and this will be the thing that we’ll use to vet new structures and courses, which are likely to be formally radical;
  15. We’ll Analyze Stuff: We’ll make much more use of Learning Analytics and Corpus Linguistics sorts of real-time analyses and dashboards to better understand (in meaningful ways) how our students learn and to adjust our pedagogy in response (and we’ll share these analyses with the students themselves);
  16. We’ll Archive Everything: We’ll invest significantly in the infrastructure that archives and retains (and makes analyzable) the intellectual record of the institution–and we’ll interpret this “record” broadly, to include conversations, written work, emails, course syllabi.

Errol Morris and Spirals of Learning

13 Mar

Errol Morris, the famous documentary filmmaker, says the purpose of a documentary is not to document things as they are, but rather to find and animate a compelling mystery. Not a mirror walking down the road, but a magnifying glass stopping on the road and probably even leaving the road. The point is not to reinforce a stable model of the world but rather to add new data to that model. Maybe to add so much data or data so strange that the model itself has to be remodeled.

That seems to be the particular genius of Errol Morris: to discover wonderfully inexplicable complexities right where everyone is fast and desperately trying to demystify and settle things and close down, rather than rev up, curiosity, as we once sprayed dioxin on dust to beat it down. After the trial, after the tabloid furor ends, decades after the war is over, he brings his questioning gaze.

His mysteries seem to re-ravel, if you will, a sleeve of care. To start with a single fiber that the following of attracts more substance to itself, like a grain in a supersaturated solution, and forms loops and lattices, working itself back into a crystal, or a sweater, or a shroud.

Finding simple things that don’t fit the model, and unpacking them until they are so complex and beautiful the mind strains to encompass them might be the very inductive, Deleuze-like, hallmark epistemology of the age. Everywhere we see ecosystems where we used to see simple causes and effects. Maybe civilization evolves by a constant epistemological pendulum, from reduction to production, from resemblance to representation (as Foucault said), from induction to deduction, from E-Pluribus to unum, like music coming out of an accordion, and so on.

In any event, I wanted to point out that Morris’ re-raveling is how we learn important things. If you imagine that learning is improvement with a self-consciousness about it, such that learning includes the experience of seeing yourself learn, then it’s easy to understand that your improvement, since it feeds on itself, grows sort of like money in the bank, where the interest adds to the principle which adds to the interest, and the graph of growth gets steeper and steeper. Or to put it another way the learning gets increasingly complicated and the rate of the increase in complexity gets increased. Or to put it another way, the thread becomes a row of loops becomes a flap of fabric becomes a 3-dimensional sweater. Or to put it another way, the line becomes a kind of spiral of Archimedes, slouching towards complexity shuffling step by shuffling step, and looking with every lunge more like a chapter title page out of the Book of Kells. As if you are always moving from a certain kind of Flatland into a world of plus-one dimensions.

Kurt Fischer, a cognitive scientist at Harvard, developed a scale of universal cognitive development that models this kind of growth—showing learning progressing from simple ideas to relationships of ideas to relationships of relationships and so forth. Importantly, key steps include the whole of the previous level as the first building block. I will insert a pic if I can find one.

Robert Kegan’s work on adult development is similar. Adult minds, if they’re in the right environments, says he, go through a series of epistemological changes—from the “socialized mind” to the “self-authoring mind” to the “self-transforming mind,” where the key starting point characteristic of every level is that you “see” the previous epistemology. You see as an object the thing through which you previously saw the world, or your subject—you form, that is, a relationship with the thing that was previously you—you are two ideas now linked, instead of one, etc.

We could look, too, at the double-loop learning of Argyris: which is characterized by not just reflecting on the performance per the established goals, but which includes reassessment of the goals themselves (!). Or the collaborative learning praised by Lee Shulman, which is distinct from cooperative learning, and in which you and the people you’re learning with figure out why you’re there, what your product will be, how you’ll go about producing it, and what the individual roles will be—all simultaneously, as in a Jazz improvisation: you have to improve to even know why you’re there.

The core experience in all these is the excruciating or exhilarating feeling of stretching your perspective to fit a torrent of nonconforming data, then looking around for new data (including data about yourself looking at data) and doing it again. What’s perhaps unusual about Morris and people like him is a compulsion to inundate himself and us with this nonconforming data. Most people don’t seem as inclined to jump out of the pond at any opportunity to make themselves evolve legs; he is, though. Driven by a kind of faith or fanaticism that there will be a there there as the line grows into a complex spiral. Many theres are probably there simultaneously.

This mystery-as-epistemology is a neat thing on a couple of levels. For one, it’s a humanism. The belief that there are in you, me, and every aspect of the world unfathomable multitudes of complexity and wonder—and that that’s ok–not just ok, but, even, that that’s how we ought to be, and that the highest evolved action might just be to go digging for this stuff—this is deeply reassuring. Much of life seems to involve the opposite: sweeping things under the covers, assuming veneers of normalcy, and dealing with the inevitable neurosis that arises from the conflict between your inner complexities and your epistemologically circumscribed outer self. To do the opposite, for once—to honor the complexity—is nice.

It’s healing, in fact. These mysteries repair the workaday world. Justice system, war, politics, religion–things that are supposed to order the cosmos, answer questions, and regulate–also seem to leave destroyed people and confusion in their wake. A restoration of ambiguity after these kinds of simplicities is a wonderful thing. And if it ends up you need ambiguity to learn, well then so much the better.