Friday, November 25, 2005

Managerial Excellence

This book is a compliation of McKinsey Award Winners from the Harvard Business Review for the years 1980 through 1994. I got the book at the library and thought "Oh, Managerial Excellence, that should be useful." But, since it's a compilation covering a large time period from awhile ago, a lot of the articles are shall we say, in need of an update. So I picked an article that is still fairly fresh and read it for detail.

It's an article entitled, "Good Communication that Blocks Learning," by Chris Argyris. The thesis of the article is that basically, our "best practices" for getting at the bottom of problems maybe aren't that good; instead, they serve to give us the information we already know. (Which according to a professor of mine, isn't very useful since communication only involves exchange of information previously unknown to one party.)

So, people use what he calls "single-loop learning," or one-dimensional questions, an example of which is a thermostat. The information is measured against a standard and spit back. It is a binary transaction and tells you precisely one thing.

Double-loop learning, on the other hand, turns the question back on the questioner by asking follow up questions. For example, to continue the thermostat example, we would ask if that's the right standard to find out what we want, and if there were other factors that should be examined, etc. Not a binary transaction.

He talks about his work getting into companies his observations. He says that a lot of the managers avoid these kinds of questions, because "digging would have uncovered employee's collusion with inefficient process." I found this sound bite to be interesting because I have observed the phenomenon and not had words for it. But that is it, isn't it? People want to save their own and others' faces and digging for problems will hurt that possibility. However, if a good relationship exists, you ought to be able to both dig for inefficient process and maintain the relationships. I think that kindness and good, old-fashioned charity is the key here.

Eds., Rajat Gupta and Nan Stone
ISBN # 08584670X