The work of Action Design has grown out of our immersion in deeply rooted practice traditions that combine intervention and scholarship. One of these is the approach to organizational learning and professional effectiveness developed by Chris Argyris and Donald Schön. A second is counseling and family therapy, especially as represented by David Kantor. We have also been influenced by developmental theory, especially as represented by Robert Kegan; the approach to negotiation of Roger Fisher and the Harvard Negotiation Project; and the “learning organization” community that has grown around the work of Peter Senge.
A distinctive feature of the approach Action Design has built on these foundations is that it integrates three domains: how people interact and form relationships, how organizations function, and how individuals learn and develop. We believe that integrating these three domains is essential to helping people create more effective organizations.
Organizational Learning and Professional Effectiveness: Argyris and Schön
“How do you know when you have learned something? When you can produce it in action!” Chris Argyris issued this challenge when we began working with him at Harvard in 1979. A leading theorist of organizational behavior since the 1950’s, Chris is not content to describe the world. He seeks to create knowledge people can use to change the world, beginning with our own capability to act consistently with the values of competence and justice that we espouse.
Donald Schön asked, “What kind of inquiry in the midst of action can help when we are stuck, puzzled, or surprised?” He conceptualized how master practitioners act in these moments as reflecting-in-action, turning thought back on action and on the knowing implicit in action. In noticing how we have been framing a situation we can see possibilities for reframing, opening creative options for action. This capability is vital for addressing the most difficult and contentious problems, in which typically different parties hold very different frames or perspectives on the situation.
Argyris and Schön published the book Organizational Learning in 1978. It described how the theories-in-use that determine how people act in difficult situations lead to defensive routines in organizations. Defensive routines make it difficult to collect valid information, discuss contentious issues, or make sound choices. The result is an organization that cannot learn when it comes to its most critical challenges. To increase learning capability in an organization we must alter the defensive routines. This requires that individuals, especially those in key positions, learn to act in new ways.
Diana, Bob, and Phil of Action Design served as teaching fellows and research assistants to Argyris during our graduate school years. In 1985 Chris, Bob, and Diana co-authored the book Action Science.
Counseling and Family Therapy
Before working with Argyris and Schön, the partners of Action Design began careers in counseling, family therapy, and group work in the years between college and graduate school. We entered the Counseling and Consulting Psychology program at Harvard and studied with faculty representing a variety of approaches to counseling and change.
David Kantor is a family systems therapist and theorist who has deeply influenced our understanding of relationships and how to intervene in them. With his help, we have used our relationship as partners as a crucible for our own learning.
Kantor has also created a theory for developing one’s model of practice as an interventionist. A model of practice, in his view, consists of three parts: a theory of the thing, for example families or organizations; a theory of how the thing changes, and a theory of how one intervenes. We did model-building work with David over the course of several years.
A third influence on our work is developmental theory, especially as represented by Robert Kegan (read an essay about his work). In the tradition of Piaget, Kegan describes stages in the ways human beings construct meaning and the relationship of self and other. He offers a theory of practice for educators and counselors who help people making developmental transitions.
Bill Torbert has adapted Kegan’s thinking to a theory of organizational development. Torbert, who studied with Argyris at Yale in the 1960’s, is a prolific writer and a coiner of apt phrases for this work. He was the first to use the term “action science” (1976) and now speaks of his way of working in this domain as developmental action inquiry.
Roger Fisher and the Harvard Negotiation Project
The Harvard Negotiation Project seeks to improve the theory, teaching, and practice of negotiation and dispute resolution. It has produced a stream of high quality, practical books, beginning with Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher, Bruce Patton, and William Ury. The partners of Action Design begin interacting with people in the HNP community while we were still in graduate school. It has continued to be a fruitful cross-fertilization of ideas, methods, and colleagues.
The “Learning Organization” Community: Peter Senge
In the late 1980’s Peter Senge hosted a group of faculty and doctoral students from MIT and Harvard in an informal seminar on organizational learning, with special focus on how action science and systems dynamics might contribute to each other. Chris Argyris, Donald Schön, David Kantor, and Edgar Schein joined Peter, along with John Sterman and Alan Graham in systems dynamics and with Amy Edmondson, Bill Isaacs, Bob Putnam, and Diana Smith. Peter was writing what would become The Fifth Discipline. In that book he drew on the work of Argyris for the basis of the discipline of mental models and part of the discipline of team learning.
Peter is the founding chair of the Society for Organizational Learning. The partners of Action Design have been members of SoL and of its predecessor, the Organizational Learning Center at MIT, since its inception.