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Starting with the Mutual Learning Model

On February 25th we held the first meeting of the London Action Science MeetupStarting with the Mutual Learning Model. My goal for this session was to describe Action Science as a discipline, introduce key concepts, and illustrate some of those concepts through a hands-on exercise. I’m going to cover the same ground in this blog post including the exercise. I’d love to get your feedback in the comments, especially your experiences with the exercise.

First, what is Action Science anyway? According to the book (see Preface) it is “a science that can generate knowledge that is useful, valid, descriptive of the world, and informative of how we might change it.” More simply, it is the science of effective action in organizations. But this is no ivory tower science, remote and theoretical. Chris Argyris as scientist was also an interventionist. To practice action science is to learn how to be more effective, to help others to be more effective, and to increase the opportunities for organizational learning.

For my introduction to Action Science we began with the Mutual Learning Model as described in Eight Behaviors for Smarter Teams. This white paper from Roger Schwartz has been my go-to introduction for people interested in improving the relationships in their teams. Formerly called Ground Rules for Effective Teams, it provides a Shu-level set of behaviors that you can use to have better, more productive conversations. It also provides the motivating mindset that must be present, the mutual learning mindset, and the core values that go with it:

  • Transparency
  • Curiosity
  • Informed Choice
  • Accountability
  • Compassion

The mutual learning mindset and the accompanying values are easy to espouse. Who doesn’t want to learn? But one of the key areas of exploration in Action Science is the gap between what people claim to value — Espoused Theory — and the values that can be inferred from their actual behavior — Theory in Use.

While effective behavior starts with the theory-in-use of the mutual learning mindset (what Argyris called Model II), there’s a common default action strategy that is used instead, the Unilateral Control Model (what Argyris termed Model I). In contrast to the mutual learning model, the governing values of the unilateral control model are:

  • Achieve the purpose as I define it
  • Win, don’t lose
  • Suppress negative feelings
  • Emphasize rationality

Read these lists again, and test these values against your own experience, reflect on your own behavior… Heading into a meeting where you think there’s an important decision to be made, where there’s something of significance on the line, how do you behave? If you are like me — and according to Argyris if you are like virtually everyone — you will act consistent with the unilateral control model. You will believe your understanding of the situation is correct, you will believe the inferences you make are reality, and you will act so that “the right thing” gets done.

“Well… maybe. But so what?”, I hear you ask. The implication of the unilateral control model is limited learning; I am listening only to formulate my response, only speaking to persuade. It is defensive relationships; you know that I’m acting to get my way. It is reduced opportunity for double-loop learning; we are unlikely to question our norms, goals and values when we are struggling over whose strategy to use. Now perhaps in your context these implications don’t matter. But in teams that want to excel, companies that want to innovate, organizations looking to evolve, we can’t afford to lose learning opportunities. And on a more personal level the defensiveness engendered by the unilateral control model is ultimately unpleasant to live with.

“Okay, I’m convinced! Are we done?” Actually, now we are ready to try that hands-on exercise I mentioned at the start. It is a variation of the two-column case study, tool for exploring and understanding our behavior in stressful conversations, the kinds where it is difficult to produce mutual learning behavior. To perform the exercise you’ll need three items: a full page of lined paper (A4 / 8.5 x 11), and two pens, preferably blue and red. You’ll also need 15-20 minutes and a desire to learn more about yourself. Do you have everything you need to begin?

Prepare by folding the paper in half vertically so that you’ve got two lined columns on either half of the paper. Now think of a difficult conversation you’ve recently had, or are expecting, or a have been putting off. At the top of the page on the left hand of the fold write (blue pen) a sentence describing what you would desire out of that conversation and on the right what actually happened or what you fear would happen. Then in the right hand column write out the dialog as you remember or imagine it. (If this was an actual conversation don’t worry about remembering exact wording; for this exercise the sentiment as you remember it is more valuable.) There isn’t much room on the half-page so this process should only take 5-10 minutes and capture the essence of the exchange. Take the time to write out the dialog now, on the right hand side, before proceeding.

Once you’ve captured the key dialog on the right hand of the paper turn your attention to the left hand column. In this column write down what you expect you’d be thinking and feeling during the conversation. This could be what you are thinking as you formulate your words, this could be your feelings in reaction to theirs. This will likely take less time than the right hand column, only 3-5 minutes. Take the time to fill in the left hand column with your thoughts and feelings before proceeding.

Red pen time. Take a read through your dialog and circle in red every question you asked, every occurrence of the question mark. Write this on the top of the page on the right hand side as the denominator of a fraction. Next, review all those circled questions and count all the genuine questions, every question asked with a real interest in learning something from the answer. A genuine question is not a statement in disguise: “If the team feel they need the time isn’t that good enough?” When you’ve counted the genuine questions write that on the top of the page as the numerator of your fraction.

Red pen time, part two. Look through the left hand column and circle every thought or feeling that did not appear in the right hand column, that is the thoughts and feelings that you did not express. Write a fraction at the top of the page which is the number of unexpressed thoughts/feelings over the total number.

How did you do? In our meetup session the total number of questions was low (0-2) and the number of genuine questions even lower (0-1); very little red ink on the right hand column. The left hand column, by contrast, looked like it was bled upon. Most of the thoughts and feelings were not expressed. Now consider those lists of values again and compare it to your marks in red. If we espouse curiosity, why do we ask so few genuine questions? If we espouse transparency, why aren’t we sharing our thoughts and feelings? This gap between our espoused theory and our theory in use was clearly exhibited by the exercise in the meetup. Being aware of that gap is required to start with the mutual learning model.

What’s next? Experience and reflection has shown me that while I believe the mutual learning mindset is better, it takes effort, real mindful willful effort for me to produce it. But unilateral control behavior? I can produce that effortlessly! I know how to persuade, how to influence, how to build consensus. I know when to press my point and when to back off to avoid conflict. That sounds good, but if our intent is to learn this instinct leads me in the wrong direction. It is a symptom of what Argyis terms Skilled Incompetence. The good news is we can unlearn our incompetence and learn redesign our conversation. Starting down that road is the where we will head in the next Action Science meetup, March 25th. Hope to see you there!

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  3. Fieldwork: Values – TIM Group Developer Blog on Friday, March 17, 2017 at 4:01 am

    […] that should be guiding decisions. In the lower section of the card it lists the key points of the mutual learning model and eight behaviours for smarter teams (from Roger Schwarz & Associates). These points show up […]

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