How to learn? Must you fail?

Many years ago, I shared a taxi from Singapore airport to the hotel with Chris Argyris. Chris was a business school professor, who ended his career at Harvard and unfortunately passed away in 2013. His research focussed on why organizations and people find it so hard to learn. His most approachable article is Teaching Smart People How to Learn published in the Harvard Business Review, May-June 1991.

The big point that Chris made was that business success depends on the ability to learn but most people / organizations don’t know how to learn. They excel at solving problems created by external forces but they fail to recognize that to learn one needs to look inward at one’s own behaviour. He distinguished between two types of learning:

  • Single loop – A thermostat set to 68 degrees turns up the heat whenever the temperature drops below 68.
  • Double Loop – One asks why the thermostat is set to 68 degrees. Is that the optimum temperature?

Managers have a body of knowledge, and it is ironically, this that constrains their learning. They have a difficult time thinking outside the box and do not know how to learn from failure. When challenged, they become very defensive and tend to focus attention away from their behaviour to that of others. Argyris called this defensive reasoning.

Professionals also go into a doom loop of despair if they don’t perform perfectly or if they do not receive adequate recognition. Argyris stated that “everyone develops a theory of action – a set of rules that individuals use to design and implement their own behaviours as well as to understand the behaviour of others.” However, people don’t usually follow their stated action theories. The way they really behave can be called their theory-in-use.

Back to the taxi. Figuring that I had him captive, I asked what is that you have found in your research that is most useful for managers. He said that most dysfunctionalities that you observed in organizations were driven by managers wanting (theories in use):

  1. To have unilateral control, especially over all the resources they need
  2. They love to “win” and so act to maximize “winning” and minimize “losing”
  3. They hate to lose face and suppress negative feelings
  4. They wish to appear as “rational” as possible

I have to confess that this stuck in my head forever. Yet, at that time, I did not realize how insightful it was. When in the corporate world as an executive, I often smiled to myself when I recognized behaviour (my own included) that was being driven by these four factors, and the resulting negative consequences for the firm.

But let us not lose all hope. Chris believed that people could be taught to “identify the inconsistencies between their espoused and actual theories of action.” To do so, they need to learn to use the same strategies that effective organizations use: collect valid data, analyze it, and constantly test the inferences drawn from the data. Organizations can help by starting with top-down change. Top-level managers must first learn to change their defensive behaviour before we can see broader change across the organization.

Learning from Failures

It is common to hear that we celebrate failures in our organization – assume it means we learn from failures. My belief has always been that failures are acceptable, provided:

  1. You don’t bet the company
  2. You don’t make the same mistake twice
  3. You learn something for yourself and the organization

But, in any post mortem, it is always helpful to ask: could this mistake have been prevented? If due diligence by an individual or an organization unit would have led not to attempt the action that led to failure, then one starts to question the judgment of the actor(s). However, post hoc, it is always easy to see how something could have been prevented. The challenge is to evaluate the decision not by the outcome, but by the judgment displayed at the time of the decision.

Before attributing a mistake as failure of judgment on the part of the actor, one must have repeated observations of the actor. If a person repeatedly makes similar mistakes, then they are failing to learn. But, and this is important, to learn, one must try things that are beyond one’s competence. And, this will result in failures. A learning oriented person fails often, but does not make the same mistake twice. And, it is through such failures, that we build long-term success.



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One Comment Add yours

  1. Sandeepa Nayak says:

    This was a good read. I thoroughly enjoyed the article.


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