Evans Incorporated

Basis of good intervention (and Leadership) from Argyris

by Tip Fallon

There is a groundhog-day effect when it comes to change in organizations.  That is, a consultant or internal leader tries to champion a change and goes through the meetings, action planning, getting buy-in, and kick-off activities which simply repeat in the same format but things essentially stay the same.  Why?  The barriers to change are complex, and often ambiguous and sometimes downright invisible.  Luckily, Chris Argyris’s seminal theory on the three basis of good intervention highlight the key active ingredients necessary for real change, which are often lacking in today’s change efforts.  While his writing in Intervention Theory and Method: A Behavioral Science View (1970) is about how an external consultant intervenes with clients, these criteria are valid for leaders as well when making decisions with groups, solving problems, or leading change.

The three criteria are valid and useful information, free and informed choice, and internal commitment.

Valid and Useful Information

a)      The client has to be able to work with data that represents that entire system or organization.
b)      There must be useful or actionable information that the client can influence.

Pitfalls: Working with data that only represents the view of a single group or individual (leads to poor decisions and lack of commitment). Working with data that the participants can do nothing about (leads to disengagement).

Keys to success:  Take a systems view.  Look “one level up” and “one level down” from the group you are working with to understand influential factors.  Share the data with the participants involved so they can validate and own it.

Free and Informed Choice

a)      The client must maintain responsibility and autonomy of their own system.  This means the consultant should not prescribe a choice to the client.
b)      Sometimes the client can be anxious whether from fear of failure or otherwise, and transfer the choice to the consultant, but this would remove freedom of choice from the client.
c)      The client must be able to make a choice for a solution that is both realistic and challenging.
d)      The client must be able to choose solutions that are most central to their needs.  The more central a choice is to someone’s needs, the more likely they are to scan, seek out new information, and make careful decisions.

Pitfalls: Consultant (or anyone) makes a choice on behalf of the participants (leads to lack of engagement).  Participants choose a solution that is not central to their core needs.  The solution is either too ambitious or too mundane.

Keys to success:  Give power to the participant involved in the change to make a choice that is free of consequence or reparations.

Internal Commitment

a)      Conditions should enable the participants to make choices that help them feel responsible and motivated to engage in the solution.
b)      This yields intrinsic (as opposed to extrinsic) motivation.

Pitfalls: Consultant or leader relies on coercion to gain compliance, but does not give power to participants, which is the only way to get internal commitment.

Keys to success:  Empathize with people and their concerns about given choices, even if the choices are not aligned with what a manager or consultant recommends.

Whether you are a consultant or a leader, consider these criteria next time you are working to solve a problem, make a decision, or lead a change.  At Evans Incorporated, we strive to embody these principles as we engage in human centered change both with our clients and in our organization.  It is hard work, but we understand that this model of change leads to the best long-term solutions for individuals and systems.

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