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Using the two column case study

On March 25th the London Action Science Meetup held a session on Using the two column case study. In our previous session we introduced some of the fundamental ideas of Action Science, and then closed with an exercise based on the two-column case study. This time we started by creating our two-column cases, used them to identify our Skilled Incompetence, and tried to design more competent options.

Skilled Incompetence was Chris Argyris’s term for the effortless, automatic production of behaviors that led to outcomes other than what the actor desired. In the article of the same name he describes using the two-column case format to make the automatic behavior visible, so it could then be redesigned. Our group attempt was slightly different in that our goals were two fold:  first, we were helping each participant identify what alternatives they might have used, and second, we tried to identify what in those situations might act as a trigger for that automatic behavior. My theory is that identifying these contextual triggers will be helpful for “reprogramming” those automatic responses.

I won’t discuss the cases from our group discussion, but I can share three context that came up as troublesome:  disagreeing with a statement, having an uneasy feeling, and someone else trying to close off debate.

Our first context was a common one, so common that it seems innocuous: disagreement. Person A said X; person B disagrees with X. What could be simpler? The problem is that Person A and Person B might mean entirely different things by X! Consider the statement, “Yes, I’ve tested the changes in the new release.” What is meant by tested? Does that mean writing automated checks or performing manual testing? If automated, does it mean unit testing or acceptance checks or both? If manual testing, does it mean on a locally installed build, in the acceptance testing environment, or post-release in production? Or did this person do all those things and more? We could make assumptions — in fact we will almost certainly make assumptions! — but we can’t know we understand what was meant without asking. And so the first takeaway of the night was that if you disagree with someone you might first check to see if actually understand what they mean. Our re-designed statement: “You just made a statement that I think I disagree with, but I want to check I actually understand you and that we mean the same thing.” This is consistent with the mutual learning model in that we are open to learning that we are wrong and we are transparent in our reasons for asking for clarification.

The second context we discussed from our cases is having an uneasy feeling, but not having a concrete reason to justify your feeling that a proposed course of action is wrong. This can be an uncomfortable situation given that the values of the unilateral control model, our default way of behavior, include “act rationally” and “win, don’t lose”. From this unilateral control mindset sharing a feeling with nothing to back it up is a sign of weakness. But remember that our goal isn’t winning, it is mutual learning! From the mutual learning mindset sharing our feeling is consistent with sharing all relevant information. If nothing else, your conversational partner will learn how you are feeling, and can then make an informed choice how they want to proceed. Do they want to enquire into how you feel? Do they want to share some additional information they have which might reassure you? Do they want to share their own misgivings? As long as you are acting in good faith, not trying to use feelings as an insurmountable objection, we all agreed that sharing these feelings open the door to improved joint design.

The last context that came up from our cases was in some ways the most challenging:  how to respond when someone says “this is not open for discussion”? Once again we came back to the key distinction between Model I and Model II, which is the goal of controlling the outcome vs. the goal of learning. If I believe the decision that isn’t open for discussion is wrong, then from a Model I perspective I need to find a way to re-open the discussion, to have the decision reversed. But from a Model II perspective, I have the option to be curious, to seek to understand the decision rather than reopen the discussion. Going back to the Eight Behaviors I have the option of responding with something like, “I can accept that the decision is made, but I’d like to understand the reasoning. Can you share your reasoning and intent in making this decision?” With this strategy we can learn more about the interests of the person making the decision. Even better, if we are genuine in our curiosity, we just might learn something that would change our opinion!

Asking at the end of the meetup the group agreed this was a productive exercise. The two column case study format allowed us to identify areas where our communication wasn’t generating the outcomes we like. By discussing these situations with the group we were able to both come up with alternative behaviors and also to recognized the context that resulted in our original ineffective behavior. Our hope is that by continuing to practice in this way we will come to be more aware of our options and less skillfully incompetent.

To help with this process in our next meetup we will be introducing a new tool, The Ladder of Inference.

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  1. Thought Nursery › “The story I’m making up…” on Monday, August 31, 2015 at 8:13 am

    […] lunchtime workshops at TIM Group where anyone who is interested can join in a discussion of some two-column case study. This might be a canned case study, or one people recall and write down on the spot, but the best […]

  2. […] Jeffrey Fredrick’s description of using two-column case studies – […]

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