The author helped create an OD program that he&d one company’ s executives efEctively develop and implement strategy

-and learn why such efforts have been frustrated in the past.

StrategyImplementation: An Experiencein Learning
CHRIS ARGYRIS

D

uring the past four years, Maurice

implementing strategy). A key objective would be to have participants implement the knowledge they gained. Professor Saias joined us as the faculty member whose specialty would be strategy. After Ashton left (to become dean at the University of Lancaster), James Butler took his place as academic director at B.A.T. The idea was simple and had often been described in the literature, yet to our knowledge it had not been implemented. We wanted managers and their direct reports to learn together about the problems of creating and implementing strategy; and we wanted the learning to occur as the participants and implementing were formulating actual strategies for the

Saias and I have been developing an of

executive development program whose

focus is the design and implementation achieve management

strategy. It now appears that it is possible to education and organiusing the ongoing prozation development

cess of getting a job done. The purposes of this article are to describe the theory behind our program and illustrate how it is being implemented. We are now collecting observational and interview data, which we will use to develop a more comprehensive report when the project has reached its sixth year.

coming year(s). The end products, therefore, would be (1) strategy, (2) a definition of some A BIT OF HISTORY David Ashton, who was then academic director of the executive programs at B.A.T. Industries, approached me several years ago about trying to implement a management education and organizational development program based on a crucial and recurrent management activity (in this case, creating and of the human problems (involving the executive group and the levels just above and below it) that occur during implementation, (3) the formulation of steps to overcome the problems, and (4) the monitoring of the implementation during the remainder of the year. The first three end products were produced during an initial five-day workshop preceded by some visits by Professor Saias and me to help 5

If the organization is unable to implement its strategy. of error. If this view is correct. If a department does not meet its budget. yet I do upset you. will be published coming Organizational Let us now turn to the theory theory intended of strategy the basis of the program. and they design the implementation of strategy.g.. they had not thought that the sessions that formed behavioral implementation they would recommend annual events. Conant Professor at the Schools of Business Education at Harvard University. An error is any mismatch and what actually to talk with you in ways that do not upset you. too. At this point the participants no longer saw their second meeting as the final one. that. they returned tions. OvefDefensive Routines. cost accounting A LEARNING THEORY FOR IMPLEMENTATION Learning our intentions I intend is the detection and correction between If happens. consultants. The fourth step was when the entire team returned later for three days. early in by Allyn-Bacon and He holds thinking about future plans. that is a mismatch. spent most of the final and implespent time those difficult strategy formulation also the help of their I Chris Argyris is the James B. then it is also cor- . is a mismatch.the participants accomplished six months monitoring moment prepare. six honorary degrees from universities His newest book. They therefore three days identifying mentation outside problems. even though most reported that when they had arrived for the first session. Human beings design their intentions and their actions. Organizations design their strategies. They spoke of returning the next year. all of the teams began process the locaover to their home and deliberating with They the implementation Not surprisingly. Behind this view of learning is a view of human nature and organizations. (e. that is also a mismatch. to apply or to any other managerial activity human resources). of learning It is a to the or become here and abroad.

As you shall see. tomatically. that is a match. We have to examine the implementation process to find out what was wrong with the design and why we were unaware that it was wrong. with this rationalization that it is false. involved and. but the realism is in the service of organizational defenses. In these two examples. thought like “techies” and not like line managers. If my backhand shots at tennis are hitting the mark. line executives often felt that strategic professionals complicated plans with unnecessary paperwork. Organizational defensive routines overprotective and antilearning. Such actions probably defensive or action from being indicate routine that oris any the or ganizational defensive An organizational policy. routines are operating. People will say. Finally. for Companies practices deso routines implementing accepted strategy. it is distracting for me if someone interrupts my swing to comment on them.” As we observed processes “that worked” and were taken for granted. the importance the plans. Everyone was pleased. people practice. are commonly much a part of everyday use them life that those who In fact. If the organization designs a flawed implementation process. nit-picked that required both groups did not exist. They are produced threatened. to pay conto them could be distracting them from learning and lead to a loss of skill. often felt that line executives did not “really” understand rigor. CAUSES OF DESIGNED ERROR One cause of designed that we are skillful that are skillful. ‘ We have always done it this way. intended consequences the intended or unoccurred as a result of Thus we may cise. of not upsetThe indiis not is viduals who think this way are being realistic. while producing scious attention at what error is the fact we do. 7 . Actions au- that prevents embarrassed work. we found some interesting things. say that theerror occurred by design. For example. routines. on the other of analytical hand. Strategy professionals. too. and it fails. not less. of the embarrassment or threat. at the same time. they avoided the design that was implemented.“ or “Let’ not tamper with an ims plementation process that works.rect that individuals and organizations can- not knowingly design and produce errors. paperwork. or And and asked questions more. question them is to invite disbelief or stony glances. The players are being realistic. Indeed. If I say that I am going to upset you and I succeed. Three months later they came together at a dinner meeting to celebrate having saved $210 thousand by implementing their ideas. Recently I observed while 40 first-line pervisors developed a list of factors su- that had led to poor quality products and unnecessary costs. and strove to be rigorous and pre- telling the truth is discouraged because it can be threatening to others. threat that might have resulted if they had discussed their concerns they acted as though they were not avoiding anything. failing to see that progress could be made even if ideas were expressed sloppily. Usually are activated with the purpose ting others or not making The problem manager defensive trouble. then that is a match. They then designed ways to reduce these factors. They covered up their avoidance. to In organizations take them for granted. the same thing happens in strategy velop These implementation. and most important. how to reduce prevents the causes are they and we pay little or no attention them. the embarrassment about one another. acted as though That these problems is. carries it out. but that it does not alert the to the fact that the organization and does not allow candid that use defensive inquiry.

. the und&l’ *ng masterprogram are alike . “Hell. South America. They rarely test their conclusions. Africa. Indeed. and Asia.” . they do not differ across such diverse cultures as North America.position in the company.” He realized that they had saved $210 thousand. He also realized that the organizational defensive routines that had caused the high costs and prevented them from being reduced had not been touched. we’ known ve first-line supervisors presented what the senior executive described as an “earful. the specifics vary with the indi- vidual’ age. position in the coms pany. How come they had needed the workshop to get things out in the open? Not surprisingly. Individuals who adbere to these rules also use defensive reasoning. .” The senior executive present agreed that he did not want to dampen the festive mood but neither did he want to leave the question unanswered. . I asked. This is an example of designed error. the underlying master programs are alike. education. this for years. and he was grateful. they keep their premises and inferences to tbemselves. “How long did you Fiknow that these causes of poor quality existed?” At first they seemed bewildered. . For example. India. And everyone is having such a good time. THE “HUMAN WAY” ‘ CONTROL ID EMBARRASSMENT We have found that human beings have master programs in their heads that tell them how to deal with embarrassment Although and threat. and functional discipline. Western Europe. “Are you sure you want an answer to that question? You’ open up a can ll of worms.After we had had a few drinks I asked the supervisors to reflect on their diagnosis and their actions. These master programs have one fundamental set of rules: (<We havefound thathuman beings have master programs in their beah that tell them bow to deal withmbarr assmentand that. andfunctional d&ipline. one supervisor said. For the next several hours the nally one individual said.” That means that for years the first-line supervisors had been designing and implementing actions they knew were counterproductive. since they had known about the causes for years. Although the specificsvay with . The group was ready for the next battle. age. education. I asked what had prevented them from taking corrective actions years ago.

concluFor premises and inferences test their other. ing options. the course was to help participants learn to correct activities competitive and prevent such errors. “the best” in strategy mentation they unknowingly as their strategy) rassment designed was developed and implesee how to the best techniques We set out to teach ternal environment and external capabilities. “Believe that produced control in the face of embarrassment and threat are themselves embarrassing. and testpro- development and to help participants shoot themselves (as well in the foot whenever they to deal with embar- such judgments requires use the theories of control ductive reasoning. STRATEGYAND CONTROL Strategy is another tool that executives use to make their world more manageable. Act as though them. 2. core ideas require individuals and analytical. the undiscussability adhere to these of rules to matters is the fact that when professionals frustrate each reasoning. an individual says. data are collected rigorously. I know what I am talking about . and inferences and conclusions logic that is not self-sealing. the environment is threatening. and deepen the cover-up. they typically blame the organizational defensive routines. are tested by and threat. they use the very the conclusion. we have two theories of how people try to be in control. unaware hence the of their ther bypass and cover-up. To make developing scenarios. The core concept of Technical and Human Theories of Control strategy. It follows that the educational were designed to cover: 1.” ll effect. are highly are often which lead to furAll of these actions skillful.1.if you confront so and so on that strategic issue. Complicating line or strategy The technical to be rigorous core the you are not bypassing and to test their ideas in ways The “human” that is almost 3. For example. 4. it creates still more and threat. the ideas about they do. ideas require that are not self-sealing. the technical me. which is likely to intensify the defensiveness. how to be in Ironically. It contains a core set of ideas about how to dethe exfine the business and success. especially when the implementation of strategy will be relatively straightforward. under which . rarely For example. keep their They and when when themselves. premises are made explicit. you’ get in trouble. “I know it is correct. in it is correct because I believe That is self-sealing logic. The implementation violates Whenever embarrassment and reactions people involved of the human theory theory of control of control. 2. identifying strategic options. this occurs. The conditions In short. If it happens that they are aware of the negative impact. Individuals who also use defensive they sions. reasoning example. Finally. increase the frustration. and about what are for analyzing impact. Our learning experience to deal with this dilemma. They report that they are in a double bind. Don’ discuss steps 1 and 2 while they t are happening. Bypass embarrassment and threat whenever possible. reasoning reverse.” he or she is saying. both activate their respective theories of control. hasten the bypass. unable change their behavior. Don’ discuss t the undiscussable. generating alternative choices.

Each group had the authority to design and (with approval of the top board) implement a strategy. and their ors ganizational defensive routines. Several weeks before the conference the session. They worked out what background information they should prepare to bring to center. In addition. The cases were mailed to me about three weeks before the sessions were to begin. 10 6Gbe second three-hoursession was on organizational defensiveroutines: bow theycan limit learnzing and bow limited learning can lead to strategydiscussionswithgaps and inconsktencies that go unrecognized or undiscussed. The Second Step: Control The First Step: Collecting Data Our teaching method began with visits to the top-management teams at their respective During the first day of the conference. and where each could connect with the other’ discipline when s describing his own views. we focused on providing the key concepts of our respective disciplines as they related to the problems that were illustrated by the cases.3. the teams sent a document to the two faculty members outlining the work they had done and the work they intended to accomplish during the five-day session at the conference center. 5. The teams outlined their thoughts about the strategic problems they wished to solve. The core concepts in the human theory of control. The connection of these four domains of learning with every individual as well as with the actions of these individuals as a team. Professor Saias and I met for one day before the session to identify the key strategic ONE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT I will now provide a brief description of the learning environment created for four top-management groups. This exercise influenced what ideas each of us would present at the outset. of the strategic implementation. The conditions under which the activation of these concepts will necessarily lead to the distortion.. if not sabotage. A key objective was to make the participants aware of their particular theory of human control. their team’ theory. 4. and human problems that would arise. hostage to de- locations. each member was asked to write a brief case about an important human problem that he or she expected to face in implementing the strategy.” . and to teach them how these factors can hold strategy formulation and implementation signed error.

ganizational treated When defensive routines inquiry. utive what he was feeling and thinking heard the general manager’ s ecutive said the response confirmed strategy . would ask the participant what might prevent their use. and the implementation issues to be The general manager then encouraged others to speak. around most issues that we discuss.” topics discussable. pant could say. I was pleased to hear you say that. to check to make sure you still do. As the behavioral faculty member. it became clear that he was asking for a major change. they were The general manager wanted individuals to be candidup to a point. “Of course. “I believe nemesis around of the difficult these defenses. session was on orhow they can learning can routines: The second three-hour defensive “Yes.” saying apologized. Several agreed with the executive. he realized that he was violating what he espoused in the plenary session and in his first response know.” to the executive’ question. the questions yet to be answered.” The Third Step: Formulating and Implementing Strategy Each team went into a small room to begin formulating and designing implementation strategies. After he finished his introduction he asked for comments. the impact defensive (oror individual) arose.” Professor Saias.” responded the executive.~ routines sooner than we had expected. I was the one who ended the plenary session by saying I think they were imthem my portant. nemesis. a partici- discussed. “I think that I may have made an error in raising the executive said. The general manager became very upset and asked.“ as a matter of legitimate The groups began to examine of organizational and individual ‘ Yes. whose discipline was strategy. Toward the end of the session one of the general managers remarked on how productive it would be if “all of us could commit to reducing Personally. the session especially to note any the participants might raise regardthe strategic concepts being taught For example.” he said. Indeed. The facilitator asked.The first three-hour I attended challenges ing whether session was on strategy. One executive asked. The general manager the question. “What the devil is going on? I thought the major directions of our strategy had been agreed upon. or answer. For example. “Are we to take the ideas on organizational defensive routines seriously?” The general manager answered. “it is not easy to hear this. but we cannot use them in our organization. As he continued speak. ‘ What normally goes on at these meetings that leads people to hold back on such data?” The re- 11 .” I called could be implemented. If you recall. not easy to say ~0.” The facilitator intervened to ask the execas he The exhis fears: reaction. Group A’ general manager began by s reviewing the strategic thrust that had been developed so far. I would follow up with questions about the individual and organizational defenses implied in the question ganizational limit learning. s “But you “and it is he said. This sparked a spirited discussion often punctuated with examples from the participants’ organizations. ” and I wanted felt that.” the direction of the to “I most certainly The executive of making he wanted strategy then said that in the spirit and how limited “undiscussable to question developed lead to strategy discussions with gaps and inconsistencies that go unrecognized or undiscussed. they are my so far. “These ideas make sense.indeed.

” When we examine this incident. made significant alterations to the technical thrust of their strategy after certain relevant defensive routines were revealed. For example. All groups been presented. of strategy This is your baby. Participants described several qanizationul defensive routines involving &oing along’ with a higk-level executive [who. the group also did not think was an example it. until some players that these could not be easily challenged. a group describing defensive routines we see that implementation. they believed. “I saw you wanting this strategy. not taking into account that he believed it was not likely to be implemented. reaction His reac- posed a strategic thrust. The general manager’ s of dismay and bewilderment defensive of an individual initial routine. I figured given your strong commitment to it and the lack of support get from others. some group members also became aware of their individual protective reactions. appeared This occurred most often when It disagreed but felt they issues of implementation that when with substantive features were discussed. why some participants about the resistance that might occur and why some felt they could challenge technical ideas only by waiting tion was discussed. manager] one as [the general perhaps not as dramatic. The strategy makes good sense and thus is not easy to refute. Often this led to an examination of organizational defensive routines that had not surfaced earlier. said. must say. and was automatic and skillful. until their implementaOften that meant techni- 12 CUbe facillitator askeg ‘ What normally goes on at these metings that leads people to bold back on these [wgative] data?’The responses were candid. could have utive when they believed that the supervisor was wrong but was also emotionally committed to his or her position. one general manager op- “caused” several members to withhold technical ideas about strategy. Group members also described defensive routines that prevented them from testing their understanding of what issues could be discussed. I did not realize that I would I now that it made sense to go along. organizational Participants defensive described routines inexec- versations threatening. he was compelled examined tion was inconsistent with what he had been espousing. waited until the moment came to discuss their others had similar doubts. For example. They could then raise questions about the viability of the technical ideas. was wmngj.” . Other though that could be embarrassing or “going along” with a higher-level examples of defensive routines. which were to withdraw and distance themselves from con- With the help of the facilitator. When he consciously to rethink considto ered the probable organizational resistance his position. As the discussion continued.sponses several volving were candid.

The third level involved they actually at the first two levels combined This learning occurred at several levels. The Fourth Step: Implementation The second level of learning alizing the dilemmas the cases writsulted from one’ behavior. cal information ing so produced technical ductive be inaccessible. and forthright to be But ate group and organizational defensive routines that led to self-reinforcing patterns. participants believed candid. for that feature of their theory of control behavior which ticipants actions to work. In addition. they were candid discouraged producing they were unaware that it is important and straightforward. In almost all of the cases in which they did not. Finally. and (2) how 13 .cal issues would be challenged appear to be solved. and/or censor technirelated to strategy. They were often unaware that they were producing interpersonal errors and that they were communicating to others that they were unaware. The next level involved learning that the first three levels combined to cause individuals to massage. Further. s participants they realized and paradoxes that re(whether it was The groups also discussed For example. Their doconditions in which important information and/or tended to vague. especially if they are controversial. The first level involved becoming aware of the inconsistencies and gaps that one produced through one’ behavior. the participants became aware of their personal human theory learning of control. ten by the participants. learning that the to cremanner was important. This discussion made it possible for the participants to interrupt the cycles that they had felt could not be interrupted. sive reasoning. other times they did not. Yet the tests they themselves also learned why used the were weak and often self-serving. individuals began to learn (1) how to craft their conversations so they could act consistently with the new norms. Identifying these consequences was itself liberating for the participants because most of them had believed that they were “undiscussable. they believed that it is a good idea to test the validity of ideas. The others covered up the participant’ s inconsistencies and acted as though they were not doing so. s For example. and of this consequence the participants it. only to ceeded. it enabled them to identify ways to avoid these self-sealing ruts. Each participant others did not discuss his or her inconsistencies and gaps: Because the participant was perceived as unaware. and business reasoning was dominated lieved that it is a good idea to identify ror in order to correct it. in a way that while bean er- others from being the same. to discuss them could be embarrassing for him or her. forthright. between and what also became to ac- the first par- aware of how unaware discrepancy complish they had been of the what they meant produced.” Examining this issue led individuals to make public their private views about what constituted acceptable behavior whenever in the group the potential and the organization distort. Proby defenambiguous. These sessions are described in detail in publications listed at the end of this article. however. the target of the cover-up also covered up the fact that involved rethe he or she felt like a target. hours later. They saw how They it made in which them poor learners under conditions who acted unilaterally it or not) did so because consistent with their personal theory of human control. Sometimes their cover-ups suc- for embarrassment or threat existed. In summary. Moreover. the recipient of their had to act in a submissive is the kind of behavior considered ineffective.

would have been hesitant to discuss openly how blind they had been about the problems of implementation. to monitor the plans’ implementation. ongoing learning mized . the group discussed for that would earlier. Professor had new Saias and I had designed course for the new mem- a crash “catch-up” bers. the CEO and several others were able to say that the reason they were hesitant to take the sales executive’ s scheduled for discussions and meetings during lunch. with the help of Professor Saias and myself. two features of discussion. I should this matters like to highlight First. but this failed. They They believed that the sales structure how unaware they had created might well be counterproductive. how will we transfer business information that is now inaccessible and ambiguous into information were within that is accessible and clear?” By the way. ourselves example. later. In one group several senior executives focused on how frustrated and concerned they were about the impact of the implementation. the groups returned Several groups for lems. in several groups members significantly changed their substantive positions on strategy.to see when they were not acting consistently. the and the being them six months of implementation to identify problems that they had not foreseen. experiences which routines. separating the technical and the behavioral began to blur. As the week progressed. For example. through dinner. especially. integration between strategic Professor By the third the behavioral day. It is fair to add.the learning was transferrable. once these new norms created-once these groups. All this learning against was continually tested probthe task of solving real business The Sixth Step: Follow-Up Six months a three-day members. problems They had had “beenough havioral” zational successful sessions. The Fifth Step: Implementation The groups returned organizations and began tures of their strategies. session. defensive in their dealt with organithat they could in their strategy begin to confront group that they had previously covered up. During these sessions the groups continued to modify their strategic plans and. Whenever someone asked. and into the late hours of the evening. They also would have been unwilling to admit that the frustrations of implementation were leading them to change their minds about the technical strategic thrusts to which they had agreed. The second feature is the discussion of “deeper” problems. six months had gone beyond Saias and I found our expectations. subject. As the participants talked about running silent and deep. members because oped that the new were able to learn some things faster they were in a group that had develfor on-line learning and estabto their colleagues. important technical information surfaced that changed their outlook on strategy formulation. have been undiscussable The sales executives. For example. more The next time new we will allocate time to teaching was legiti- to any business skills The Fourth Step: Continued Learning the boundary lished norms to permit reflection on action. “Is all this really necessary?” the answer was another question: “If we do not change. to their respective to implement fea- 14 . also discussed they had It had taken been of some of its consequences. however. The crash course did not provide the in-depth learning that had been available participants.

Having learned from the session. s Routines (Ballinger-Harper L. He insisted. but not about himself so much as about the impact the new strategy was having on the organization. even though both were significant. please refer to the special instructions 15 . the history fessionals ness of their endeavor. to do so. respects of their corporations have pressed to expand a program. team development. Change. s policy 1989) describes & Row. of how frightened It is the first time in educational He said he was apprehensive. Irving routines that focuses is Chris Argyris’ Strategy. was surprised however. the strategies 1. In all cases SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY The program ideas Donald that design was based on a series of in Chris Argyris and Wesimin Practice (Jossey-Bass. Moreover. The participants cess as ongoing. in strategy about strategy seriously was because about the recommended group) managers attend that their managers future sessions. Crucial Decisions how defensive and im- were implemented and monitored in ways that participants described as effective. on strategy are presented Schon’ Theory s 1974) and Organizational Learning (Addison ley. which helped him to think about how to craft the organization.concerns changes. they (The Free Press. (and their they perceived that he felt frightened Two of these pro- They did not wish to base changes on reasoning used by an executive have made plans For them. not frightened. They recommended further investments of time and money. line managers The educational the wholethat senior proat It is also the pressure in their eyes. accurately him with concrete to express about more first time that they are applying the corporate level to educate members of the corporation so they can emulate the skills of their two teachers. They were examples. It is difficult to make an assessment of the fourth case because the company was sold and the participants did not return to the conference center. their actions. saw the learning they believed was frightened. however. the boundaries 3. formulation If you of this wish to make photocopies articles in or obtain reprints or other ORGANIZATIONAL DYNAMICS. A book plementation & Defensive 1985). 1976). reprint service on page 76. Janis’ book. the CEO and several others explained that they were especially executive sounded. he asked his fellow team members what he had said or done that had led them to believe he was personally able to provide his conversation his apprehension apprehensive. can harm plementation. indeed that he was apprehensive about discussthe sales he ing such issues because they believed was unaware separating education. The sales executive to hear this. experience. The leaders of the three teams communicated to their managers that the learning experiences were helpful. several observations may be made at this time based on how the participants “voted” through except one. 2. organizational development. and strategy have become fuzzy and irrelevant. Moreover. NOTES ON EFFECTIVENESS The systematic study of the program’ efs fectiveness will have to wait for the results of the research.

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