Chris Argyris (1923 – 2013) was Emeritus Professor at Harvard Business School, having been both a theorist and a practitioner of organisational development throughout his career. During his first degree in psychology at Clark University, Argyris met Kurt Lewin, the founder of social psychology. Lewin’s work in the areas of group dynamics and action research captured Argyris’ imagination. Following this encounter, Argyris shifted his focus from studying individuals to instead study organisations. He made a number of observations about hierarchies in one of his first books (first published 1957), saying that:
If hierarchies had their way, they would create work worlds for human beings that were consistent with the features of infancy … those workers who valued adult-like work settings would likely experience a conflict and would likely be frustrated’
(Argyris 2003 p1182, as quoted in Ramage and Shipp p279).
Argyris wanted to change this situation, and bemoaned the fact that he
‘could find no approach, at that time, which was both powerful and efficient enough to do the job – after all, you can’t put thousands of employees through therapy.’
(Argyris interviewed by Woodell 2003, p68)
Argyris made use of Lewin’s work on feedback and participant observation to teach people how to change. Argyris formed a long-lasting collaboration with Donald Schön, and together they published two major books: 1974’s ‘Theory in Practice’ and 1978’s ‘Organizational Learning’. The latter’s title was the first published use of the term organisational learning, which was later popularised to a greater degree by Senge and others. The first piece of research by the pair was a study of educational administrators. They examined theories of action:
‘a set of rules that individuals use to design and implement their own behaviour as well as to understand the behaviour of others.’
(Argyris 1991 p103)
As Ramage and Shipp put it:
They distinguished between two forms of theories of action: espoused theories, which people believe in, advocate, and claim to be those which govern their actions; and theories-in-use, which in real situations actually govern a particular individual’s actions. The former are explicit and articulated, the latter are implicit and can only be inferred from an individual’s behaviour. There is frequently a discrepancy between the two forms of theory – that is, we frequently behave in ways other than our self-image or the image we project to others. This discrepancy is not a matter of hypocrisy, but it is important for an individual to understand that the two theories of action may be different, and to be able to make sense of their own theory-in-use.
(Ramage and Shipp 2009 p280)
In this video, part of an interview with Argyris, Argyris talks about a meeting he attended in Paris, between scholars and senior executives. He describes how it is important, in order to understand human beings, to phrase questions and statements so that they can be ‘testable’. If not, he continues, we will be coerced into accepting the speaker’s own thinking, rather than being helped to see the limits of our own current thinking.
Another concept they introduced (with due credit being given to Ross Ashby’s concept of double feedback) was what they called single- and double- loop learning (Argyris and Schön 1974). For Argyris and Schön, single-loop learning involves improving incrementally through learning new skills or capabilities, with managers perhaps learning to do something better but without challenging the underlying beliefs and assumptions behind their problems (see Fig 1).
Double-loop learning goes further than single-loop learning by reshaping the patterns of thinking and behaviour which govern why actions are taken (see Fig 3). Double-loop learning is essential in the progression towards becoming a ‘learning organization’.
Fig 3 Double-loop learning (from Argyris 1990 p94)
Distinguishing between single- and double-loop learning, Argyris explained that:
Single-loop learning occurs when matches are created, or when mismatches are corrected by changing actions. Double-loop learning occurs when mismatches are corrected by first examining and altering the governing variables and then the actions.
Argyris 1999 p68
Single-loop learning is not necessarily inferior to double-loop learning, as Argyris and Schön (1996 p22) say: single loop learning is ‘concerned primarily with effectiveness: how best to achieve existing goals and objectives, keeping organisational performance within the range specified by existing values or norms’ which is often both essential and necessary behaviour. However, double-loop learning brings about results which are not achievable solely with single-loop learning, and any attempt at significant transformation within an organisation requires this deeper form of learning.
Double-loop learning can be painful for participants, and can lead to a kind of defensive organisational behaviour, which Argyris wrote about amongst professionals, organisations and even researchers into this phenomenon. Argyris attributed this defensiveness to what he called the presence of ‘Model I’ behaviour: ‘individuals keep their premises and inferences tacit, lest they lose control; they create tests of their claims that are self-serving and self-sealing’ (Argyris 2002 p212, quoted in Ramage and Shipp 2009 p282). Argyris instead wanted to shift people towards ‘Model II’ behaviour in organisations, where free and informed choice is promoted, valid information utilised and personal responsibility assumed.
Research on intervention suggests that it is possible to help individuals learn new theories-in-use and to create new learning systems. The intervention requires the creation of a dialectical learning process where the participants can continually compare their theories-in-use, and the learning system in which they are embedded, with alternative models. This requires that interventionists make available alternative models with significantly different governing values and behavioural strategies.
Argyris 1999, p90
Argyris’s work continues to form the basis of many theories of organisational development.
Argyris C 1990 ‘Overcoming Organisational Defences: Facilitating Organisational Learning’ Prentice-Hall: New Jersey, US
Argyris C 1991 ‘Teaching smart people how to learn’ Harvard Buisiness Review 69(3) 99-109
Argyris C 1999 ‘On Organisational Learning’ Wiley-Blackwell Publishing: London
Argyris, C and Schön, D 1974 ‘Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness’ Jossey-Bass: San Francisco
Argyris, C and Schön, D 1996 ‘Organizational Learning II: Theory, Method and Practice’ Jossey-Bass: Reading, MA
Ramage M and Shipp K 2009 ‘Systems Thinkers’ Open University: Milton Keynes
R&O Media, ‘Chris Argyris talks about culture and management’ www.youtube.com/watch?v=le0yzpU5zHM
Woodell, V 2003 ‘an interview with Chris Argyris’ Organization Development Journal 21(2), 67-70