Ryan Armstrong
Change management. Learning. Maps.

On achieving Argyris's Model II - Post 1

27 June 2019

The work of Chris Argyris is some of my favorite for explaining barriers to learning and growth in organizations, as summarized in this post. It’s a theory I see supported by practice every day. But after reading another of his books, I was still having trouble understanding what an Argyris-informed organizational intervention might look like.

There are marvelous descriptions in his books of the state of the art, of techniques for uncovering incongruities between espoused values and theories-in-use, and for conducting research in organizations in general. But I couldn’t find much in terms of, once identified, what to do to achieve Model II. It was troubling, because Model I is presented in overwhelmingly negative terms and as a major barrier to positive change.

I found his advice today1:

I cannot, to date, conceive of a process that 'unfreezes' some designs-in-use that are already programmed. I believe that a more accurate explanation will someday be shown to be that unfreezing means that individuals become aware of their skilled incompetence and skilled lack of awareness.

His point is rather to provide an alternative:

This provides human beings with two degrees of freedom in choosing how they will act. Model I, for example, may be preferred when learning single-loop skills that are part of the existing routines.

The advice for intervening then seems to be to use techniques that help uncover Model I theories-in-use so we can support Model II should we so choose. But it’s not an all or nothing event as it appears in much of his and Donald Schön’s writing. Model II becomes something akin to enlightenment in many ways: there are debates around the proper practices to achieve it, most people won’t get all the way there, the nature of the end-goal isn’t clear, and a good number of people don’t care.

Moreover, if Model I is our default mode of operation, then we would be wise not to treat it as something negative.

  1. From Argyris, C. (2004) Reasons and Rationalizations: The Limits to Organizational Knowledge. Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 158 ↩︎