action design logo

Our History

Beginnings of a partnership

Diana McLain Smith, Bob Putnam, and Phil McArthur met in the fall of 1979 as students in the Counseling and Consulting Psychology program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Before returning to our studies, each of us had been working in small human services organizations in Boston.  Diana had graduated from Boston University and was working at Mass. Transition, doing counseling, family therapy,  and staff development.  Bob had graduated from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, spent a year as a doctoral student in political economy at Harvard, another two and a half years in the Peace Corps   in Costa Rica, and was doing counseling, staff development, and fundraising at Project Place.  Phil had graduated from Antioch and was doing counseling and family therapy at Survival, Inc.

The graduate program we had chosen, Counseling and Consulting Psychology, offered a vision of contributing to human and social development across sectors of society, from individuals and families to organizations and communities.  Faculty included John Shlien, Kiyo Morimoto,  and Lee Perry in counseling psychology, Dick Katz in anthropology and community psychology, Bob Kegan and Carol Gilligan in human development, Rachel Hare-Mustin in group and family therapy, and Chris Argyris in organizational intervention.  Most students in the program focused on the counseling side.  We became the core group in organizational intervention.

We met Chris Argyris (and each other)  in his first semester class that year.  Chris and Don Schön, who was at MIT, had just written the book Organizational Learning.  The three of us were engaged by the ideas and by the way that Chris embodied them, and we were stimulated by the practice of reflecting on our reasoning and action that Chris inspired.  We continued with his invitation-only spring course and then formed a study group with several classmates.  After a few months our group settled into a steady membership of six and met regularly for four years.  We used the case methodology we had learned with Chris to continue our skill development, and after a year or two we "upped the ante"  on the interpersonal issues we took on (see "Climbing out of the muck").

Chris was focusing much of his research and intervention in consulting firms and with internal organization development groups in technology companies.  He brought us into these settings as Research Associates.  We also became Teaching Fellows, leading weekly sections in which students reflected on personal cases using the concepts and methods of the course.  We taught these sections for several years,  developing new methods and materials and eventually assuming responsibility for the course when Chris shifted more of his time to Harvard Business School. In 1985 Bob and Diana co-authored the book Action Science with Chris.

One of the great freedoms of the Harvard program was the ability to take courses at any school in the University and at MIT.  We worked with Ed Schein and Dick Beckhard at MIT, Paul Lawrence and Richard Hackman at Harvard Business School, Ellen Langer and Robert Bales in Psychology & Social Relations, and a host of others.  We also developed a relationship with people at the Harvard Negotiation Project working with Roger Fisher and explored the synergies of their work and ours.  From 1988 to 1990 we were part of a seminar on organizational learning hosted by Peter Senge at MIT and including Chris Argyris, Don Schön, Ed Schein,  David Kantor, John Sterman, Bill Isaacs, and Amy Edmondson. 

Action Design first steps

In the mid-80’s we began doing independent workshops.  One of the first of these was for consultants in Sweden, work that developed into a series of workshops in Sweden and Norway continuing for over a decade.  We were also expanding our consulting in organizations we had entered as Research Associates with Chris.

We had been talking for some time about establishing our own firm,  and we had been searching for a name.  One day Diana suggested that we call ourselves Action Design Associates.  It was a theory-based name; the theory of action approach developed by Argyris and Schön started from the premise that human beings design action to achieve intended results.  By getting at the design informing how they actually behave, people can gain great leverage for improving their effectiveness.  We soon began calling ourselves Action Design and in 1992 we formalized the partnership.

One of the reasons we decided to formalize the partnership was to offer open-enrollment programs, which we called the Action Design Institute.  We saw the Institute as a vehicle for us to work together to develop ideas, methods, and materials.  We also saw it as a way to develop colleagues who could eventually join us in larger projects.  In addition, we felt a responsibility to make this work available to the world.  Chris was now at Harvard Business School and could no longer offer the same opportunity for a cadre of Teaching Fellows.  Harvard Graduate School of Education had refocused its mission on schools and higher education, and no longer supported the vision of learning communities and organizations, at least in terms of where it would put its limited resources.  If someone read about the work and called to ask where to go in order to learn how to do it, the answer in most cases was nowhere — unless you could fund a development program in your organization.  In a sense we have contributed to the problem, because we have gone into private practice rather than join faculties of professional schools.  So we feel a responsibility to offer high quality,  open-enrollment development opportunities.  The Action Design Institute has offered two or three programs a year since 1993. 

We each have maintained our own consulting practices during our years of working together.  We continue to work with consulting firms and with internal consulting groups in larger organizations.  We also do a substantial portion of our work with senior leadership teams in a variety of organizations.  For an in-depth inquiry into one such engagement, see Diana’s Keeping a Strategic Dialogue Moving on this site.