Why Smart People Don’t Learn from Failures

My ICSI colleague Claire Neely recently mentioned that the classic Chris Argyris article “Teaching Smart People How to Learn” had been an “aha” moment in her efforts to learn how to better teach and reach physicians. While I don’t think I have ever read that article, I had been impressed with Chris Argyris, especially his work with Donald Schoen.  Claire emailed me the article, and it really is a classic that needs to be read.

Originally copyrighted by the Harvard Business Review in 1991, Argyris’ article succinctly outlines the challenges we all face in a knowledge economy, and he concludes that learning is imperative for individual and organizational success in such a global marketplace.  People have to master technical skills, work effectively in teams, form productive relationships with clients, and critically reflect on and change their own organizational culture. Managers and leaders have to guide and integrate the autonomous but interconnected work of highly skilled people.

Argyris distinguishes between single loop and double loop learning.  “A thermostat that automatically turns on the heat whenever the temperature in a room drops below 68 degrees is a good example of single loop learning. A thermostat that could ask, ‘Why am I set at 68 degrees?’ and then explore whether or not some other temperature might more economically achieve the goal of heating the room would be engaging in double loop learning.”

Many professionals like doctors have been almost always successful and so they are not good at learning from failure. When their single loop learning goes wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism and blame others but not themselves for the failure. They are not good at double loop learning.  Effective double loop learning depends on how we feel and how we think.  Argyris believes there is a universal tendency for us to design our actions according to four values: to remain in control, to win and not lose, to not feel negative, and to be rational.  Their purpose is to keep us feeling safe and competent and happy.

The business consultants Argyris studied were skilled at rationally analyzing and improving their clients’ problems and challenges, but they were defensive and reluctant to ever admit their own contribution to failed engagements.  In Joseph LeDoux’s 2000 book The Emotional Brain, the battle between the amygdala and the neocortex for control of the brain is discussed.  We are designed to procreate and get out of trouble fast.  In times of perceived danger, our brains are designed to allow the fear system (amygdala) to take control of the brain and to override the conscious, deliberate, rational system (neocortex).  Argyris’s business consultants are using their neocortex when analyzing their clients’ business and their amygdala when responding to management’s feedback on their own performance.

Timothy Wilson in Strangers to Ourselves takes this line of thinking even further when he develops the concepts of the adaptive unconscious and consciousness.  Our five senses take in 11 million pieces of information at any one time, but we are only conscious of 40 pieces of information.  The other 10,999,960 pieces of information are still affecting us, mostly through the fear system.  The adaptive unconsciousness system is multiple, detects patterns, deals with the present, is automatic, precocious, and sensitive to negative information.  The conscious system is single, an after the fact checker, takes the long view, is controlled, is slow to develop, and is sensitive to positive information.

Argyris describes ways for leaders to become aware of the ways they reason defensively and automatically.  He believes that until leaders model the ideal behaviors necessary for learning in a double loop way staff will be unable to overcome their automatic, unconscious rejection of feedback and constructive criticism that makes them feel embarrassed, vulnerable, and unhappy.

I was thinking about double loop learning from failure when I read a front page New York Times article about how American business leaders rarely take responsibility for bad outcomes. “‘American culture does not put a premium on apology,’ said Michael Useem, professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. ‘The level of anger in this public in general is extremely high against those who led Wall Street into the abyss, in part because they never stepped forward to apologize for the mess they made.’” http://bit.ly/7I9eJx

“ The former Time Warner chief, Gerald M. Levin, caused jaws to drop by taking the blame for ‘the worst deal of the century,’ the decade-old merger of America Online and Time Warner. Yet few other chief executives, including the handful of Wall Street chieftains who acknowledge missteps, have embraced his plea to accept personal responsibility for decisions that have caused pain, loss and suffering for many ordinary Americans.” http://bit.ly/7I9eJx

The 10th anniversary of the failed AOL/Time Warner merger revealed a lot about American business leaders who should read Chris Argyris’ article (http://bit.ly/4uIRIL).

Sydney Finkelstein, a management professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and author of a recent book, said: “Out of the 100 or so companies we looked at, only one acknowledged managerial culpability — Andy Grove at Intel for the company’s handling of the Pentium. We specifically looked at many other companies and found none who admitted managerial error, let alone apologized for it.” http://bit.ly/7I9eJx

The importance of learning from failure was highlighted for me when I read about a new study that concluded that a UNICEF program that spent $27 million to decrease child deaths from disease in West Africa has failed; a higher survival rate in some regions that were not included in the program was discovered. This latest study is in addition to criticisms of UN initiatives over the past two decades that have invested $200 billion in such programs without clear benefits (http://bit.ly/4Htkvt).

A disturbing and sad example of how defensiveness and inability to accept the lessons of failure can be disastrous is the ongoing investigation into botched prostate cancer treatments at the Philadelphia VA where 97 of 114 patients treated over a six-year period received incorrect doses of radiation (http://bit.ly/8FAhL5).

“Changes in the VA’s position during the 19-month investigation bother Steve Reynolds, director of the division of nuclear material safety for NRC Region III, which oversees the Veterans Health Administration.

‘If you look at the facts of the situation, they had major problems at VA Philadelphia,’ Reynolds said. ‘The doctors, the medical physicists, the radiation safety officer, the radiation safety committee – they weren’t doing their jobs as we expected them to do.’” (http://bit.ly/8FAhL5).

I do not want to end this blog on such a depressing note.  There are examples where people do exhibit double loop learning and the ability to learn from failure.  Bill Callahan is a football coach who is famous for being fired in rapid succession by the Oakland Raiders and the University of Nebraska for failing to win enough games.  He is now the offensive line coach for the New York Jets and is praised for being one of the best; three of his players just made the Pro Bowl.  “Having worked as a coordinator and a head coach at the pro and college levels, Callahan believes he can better appreciate the simplicity of coaching one position.”  He has learned something from failure. (http://bit.ly/5adlxY).

Kent Bottles, MD, is past-Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Iowa Health System (a $2 billionhealth care organization with 23 hospitals). He was responsible for the day-to-day operations of a large education and research organization in Michigan prior to his work with in Iowa with IHS. Kent posts frequently at his blog, Kent Bottles Private Views.