Masters of Change: Chris Argyris

Chris Argyris (born July 16, 1923 in Newark, New Jersey, USA) is an American business theorist and Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School. He is commonly known for seminal work in the area of “Learning Organizations”.

Action Science, one of Argyris’ collaborative works with Robert Putnam and Diana McLain Smith, developed together with Donald Schön as well, advocates an approach to research that focuses on generating knowledge that is useful in solving practical problems. Other key concepts developed by Argyris include Ladder of Inference, Double-Loop Learning, Theory of Action/Espoused Theory/Theory-in-use, High Advocacy/High Inquiry dialogue and Actionable Knowledge.

Chris Argyris’ early research explored the impact of formal organizational structures, control systems and management on individuals and how they responded and adapted to them. This research resulted in the books Personality and Organization, 1957 and Integrating the Individual and the Organization, 1964. He then shifted his focus to organizational change, in particular exploring the behaviour of senior executives in organizations (Interpersonal Competence and Organizational Effectiveness, 1962; Organization and Innovation, 1965).

From there he moved onto an inquiry into the role of the social scientist as both researcher and actor (Intervention Theory and Method, 1970; Inner Contradictions of Rigorous Research, 1980 and Action Science, 1985 – with Robert Putnam and Diana McLain Smith). His fourth major area of research and theorizing – in significant part undertaken with Donald Schön – was in individual and organizational learning and the extent to which human reasoning, not just behavior, can become the basis for diagnosis and action (Theory in Practice, 1974 ; Organizational Learning, 1978; Organizational Learning II, 1996 – all with Donald Schön). He has also developed this thinking in Overcoming Organizational Defenses, 1990 and Knowledge for Action, 1993.

Action Science
Argyris’ concept of Action Science begins with the study of how human beings design their actions in difficult situations. Human actions are designed to achieve intended consequences and governed by a set of environment variables. How those governing variables are treated in designing actions are the key differences between single loop learning and double loop learning. When actions are designed to achieve the intended consequences and to suppress conflict about the governing variables, a single loop learning cycle usually ensues. On the other hand, when actions are taken, not only to achieve the intended consequences, but also to openly inquire about conflict and to possibly transform the governing variables, both single loop and double loop learning cycles usually ensue. (Argyris applies single loop and double loop learning concepts not only to personal behaviors but also to organizational behaviors in his models.)

Model 1 illustrates how single loop learning affect human actions. Model 2 describes how double loop learning affects human actions. The following Model 1 and Model 2 tables introduce these ideas (tables are from Argyris, Putnam & Smith, 1985, Action Science, Ch. 3.) Other key books conveying Argyris’ approach include Argyris & Schon, 1974 and Argyris, 1970, 1980, 1994).

Table 1 Model 1 Theory-In-Use


Governing Variables Action Strategies Consequences for the Behavioral World Consequences for Learning Effectiveness
Define goals and try to achieve them Design and manage the environment unilaterally (be persuasive, appeal to larger goals) Actor seen as defensive, inconsistent, incongruent, competitive, controlling, fearful of being vulnerable, manipulative, withholding of feelings, overly concerned about self and others or under concerned about others Self-sealing Decreased effectiveness
Maximize winning and minimize losing Own and control the task (claim ownership of the task, be guardian of definition and execution of task) Defensive interpersonal and group relationship (dependence upon actor, little additivity, little helping of others) Single-loop learning

Table 2 Model 2 Theory-In-Use

Governing Variables Action Strategies Consequences for the Behavioral World Consequences for Learning Consequences for Quality of Life Effectiveness
Valid information Design situations or environments where participants can be origins and can experience high personal causation (psychological success, confirmation, essentiality) Actor experienced as minimally defensive (facilitator, collaborator, choice creator) Disconfirmable processes Quality of life will be more positive than negative (high authenticity and high freedom of choice)


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