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Teaching Smart People How to Learn

by Chris Argyris. First published in the Harvard Business Review, May-June 1991, pp 99-1 9

Abstract
!ur "rgani#ati"ns $ust be%"$e learning "rgani#ati"ns, says Chris Argyris, but &irst they $ust res"lve a learning dile$$a' pr"&essi"nals wh" "%%upy (ey leadership r"les in the %"$pany &re)uently are the least able t" learn. *hey are pr"ne t" the behavi"r patterns and de&ensive r"utines that bl"%( learning. *hat seni"r $anagers are n"t g""d at learning $ay see$ %"unter-intuitive, but that is "ne "& Argyris+ p"ints' highly s(illed pr"&essi"nals are adept at what he %alls ,single-l""p learning.- .Argyris+ e/a$ple "& single-l""p learning is the ther$"stat that aut"$ati%ally turns "n the heat whenever the te$perature in the r""$ dr"ps bel"w 01.2 *hese pr"&essi"nals have spent a g""d part "& their lives a%)uiring %redentials, $astering "ne "& a nu$ber "& dis%iplines, and applying these dis%iplines t" s"lve real-w"rd pr"ble$s -- all "& whi%h appr"a%hes e/e$pli&y single-l""p learning. *" return t" Argyris+ ther$"stat e/a$ple, ,d"uble-l""p learning- is when a ther$"stat %"uld g" bey"nd its pr"gra$$ed &un%ti"n and as( itsel& ,why a$ 3 set at 014- and then e/pl"re whether "r n"t s"$e "ther te$perature $ight $"re e%"n"$i%ally a%hieve the g"al "& heating the r""$. 3t %"uld, in "ther w"rds, e/a$ine the i$pa%t it is having and %"uld have "n the r""$+s te$perature. M"st seni"r $anagers, Argyris says, are al$"st always su%%ess&ul at what they d" and thus rarely e/perien%e &ailure . . . whi%h $eans in $any %ases they e/pe%t per&e%ti"n &r"$ the$selves and la%( e/perien%e in learning &r"$ &ailure. 5" whenever their single-l""p learning strategies g" wr"ng, they be%"$e de&ensive, s%reen "ut %riti%is$, and put the ,bla$e- "n any"ne and everything but the$selves. *hey are unable t" see the i$pa%t they $ay be having "n whatever situati"n they are trying t" analy#e, %hange, "r res"lve. 3n sh"rt, their ability t" learn shuts d"wn pre%isely at the $"$ent they need it the $"st. Again, %"unter-intuitively' pr"&essi"nals are enthusiasti% ab"ut %"ntinu"us i$pr"ve$ent -- and "&ten are the biggest "bsta%le t" its su%%ess. 5" h"w d"es a &ir$ be%"$e a learning "rgani#ati"n -- in whi%h $anagers and pr"&essi"nals st"p reas"ning de&ensively and a%tually learn &r"$ their $ista(es4 *he answer, says Argyris, is t" $a(e $anagers and e$pl"yees &"%us "n their "wn behavi"r s" they %an reas"n $"re e&&e%tively and ,learn t" learn.- 6e"ple %an be taught h"w t" re%"gni#e the reas"ning they use when they design and i$ple$ent their a%ti"ns. *hey %an begin t" identi&y the in%"nsisten%ies between their esp"used and a%tual the"ries "& a%ti"n. *hey %an &a%e up t" the &a%t that they un%"ns%i"usly design and i$ple$ent a%ti"ns that they d" n"t intend. Finally, pe"ple %an learn h"w t" identi&y what individuals and gr"ups d" t" %reate "rgani#ati"nal de&enses and h"w these de&enses %"ntribute t" an "rgani#ati"n+s pr"ble$s. 7ntil seni"r $anagers, &"r e/a$ple, be%"$e aware "& the ways the reas"n de&ensively, any %hange a%tivity is li(ely t" be 8ust a &ad. Change has t" start at the t"p9 "therwise, de&ensive seni"r $anagers are li(ely t" dis"wn any trans&"r$ati"n %"$ing &r"$ bel"w. *he (ey t" any edu%ati"nal e/perien%e designed t" tea%h seni"r $anagers h"w t" reas"n pr"du%tively is t" %"nne%t the pr"gra$ t" real business pr"ble$s. *he best de$"nstrati"n "& the use&ulness "& pr"du%tive reas"ning is &"r busy $anagers t" see h"w it %an $a(e a di&&eren%e in their "wn per&"r$an%e and in that "& their "rgani#ati"n. *his will n"t happen "vernight. Managers need plenty "& "pp"rtunities t" pra%ti%e the new s(ills. But "n%e they grasp the p"wer&ul i$pa%t that pr"du%tive reas"ning %an have "n a%tual per&"r$an%e, they will have a str"ng in%entive t" reas"n pr"du%tively -- n"t 8ust in training sessi"ns but in all their w"r( relati"nships.

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