OUR CHOICES GOING FORWARD – COLLECTIVE INQUIRY VS. SKILLED INCOMPETENCE

***This is a post I had earlier published on LinkedIn, reposting with a few changes***

In his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, Peter Senge refers to Chris Argyris from Harvard. “Argyris argued that most managers find collective inquiry inherently threatening. School trains us never to admit that we do not know the answer, and most corporations reinforce that lesson by rewarding the people who excel in advocating their views, not inquiring into complex issues. Even if we are uncertain or ignorant, we learn to protect ourselves from the pain of appearing uncertain or ignorant. That very process blocks out any new understandings which might threaten us. The consequence is what called Argyris calls skilled incompetence – teams full of people who are incredibly proficient at keeping themselves from learning.”

The attributes of a Learning Organizations – the ability to think critically and creatively, the ability to communicate ideas and concepts, and the ability to cooperate with other human beings in the process of inquiry and action – are more relevant and inspiring now than ever. The rapid explosion of digital and the transformation opportunities created by digital solutions such as IoT require a new paradigm of skills – skills that empower us to thrive in the discomfort of this ambiguity. Being relevant now will mean a deep dive into these continually evolving digital ecosystems, encountering the disruptive forces that could displace our position all along the value chain, and experimenting with business models that create sustainable competitive advantage. Uncertainty and ignorance feel like the new norm. But, like Argyris explains, most corporations have little tolerance for uncertainty, ignorance and doubt. We reward knowledge over inquiry. The systems that govern our incentives, such as performance appraisals, rewards and recognition programs – celebrate heroes and individual achievements over collaborators and collective contributions.

During these last few years as a management consultant, I have constantly grappled with trying to avoid becoming the prisoner of my own posturing – as the problem solver, the subject matter expert, the adviser. I believe this will the most significant shift in the skills that we need going forward – the shift from individual problem solvers to the facilitators of problem solving, from subject matter experts to the ones that help discover blind-spots, from the adviser who knows-it-all to the designer of learning organizations. Our choices seem quite clear – acquire the capabilities for collective inquiry or become redundant with skilled incompetence.