Overcoming Organizational Defenses


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"Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning"  
by Chris Argyris. Prentice Hall, 1990. 169pp.
Reviewed by Rev. Peter Coutts 
Oakridge Presbyterian Church

"It is difficult to change things at our church". We say this because we experience and feel the difficulty. Have you ever found yourself hesitating to say something that, if said, might improve things, but you couldn't bring yourself to speak because your comments might make another person feel threatened or embarrassed? Have you found yourself stuck in the bind between knowing that your actions would be helpful, but you hesitate because you know your actions would create conflict? Have you ever been in a group whose goal is to figure out why things are going wrong, but the group gets mad at anyone who really takes the goal seriously enough to look under the surface? If you've experienced something like this, you have had a close encounter with your congregation's defensive routines.

Chris Argyris from Harvard's Business School has been exploring these behaviours for three decades, and in the process has become one of the best respected authorities on management. This short book is thick with theory and illustrations about how organizations can develop a high level of competence at avoiding its real issues. As I read through the book I found myself repeatedly finding parallel behaviours within congregations and presbyteries I know, as well as within our denomination's national organization.

Argyris' basic thesis is this, that "managements, at all levels, in many organizations create, by their own choice, a world that is contrary to what they say they prefer and contrary to the managerial stewardship they espouse. It is as if they are compulsively tied to a set of processes that prevent them from changing what they believe they should change". With this assessment provides his starting point, Argyris spends the bulk of the book unpacking these impediments to organizational change. His main topics include:  

how the prevalent social virtues of our society, while laudatory in theory, are frequently applied in ways which work against us,
how we typically avoid putting ourselves and / or others into situations which may be perceived as either threatening or embarrassing, even if it would be for their benefit,
that organizations grow to use defensive routines skillfully and sub-consciously,
how organizations learn to cope with their defensive routines by creating by-pass mechanisms, thus "underground" management practises,
how the values and beliefs we espouse can be quite different from the ones we actually act upon
how we make the defensive routines undiscussable, and then make their undiscussability also undiscussable,
how all this generally produces a feeling of "malaise" within the organization, which really sees what is going on but feels powerless to change things.

Given the real depth of the problems being outlined by Argyris, at first pass his solutions can seem too simple. While it is true that what he suggests by way of remedies is straightforward in concept, even a modest amount of reflection on some actual situation the reader is aware of will quickly show that accomplishing it would take some effort and patience:

learning, as a group, to talk honestly and openly about what really is at hand. "The most fundamental assumption of the underground managerial world is that truth is a good idea when it is not embarrassing or threatening -- the very conditions under which truth is especially needed.",
learn to look beyond the symptoms of the problem to the dynamics underlying them. Argyris calls this "double loop learning". Never stop asking the question "why?"
be concrete, not abstract, about solutions to problems, work at improving communications that will reduce the number of assumptions people make in interpretting directions and actions. Work at enabling people to really understand each other.

A 700 word review can in no way do justice to a book with a wealth of wisdom like this to mine. Occasionally the author's attempt to squeeze so much information into so slim a volume works against him in not providing sufficient amplifications, illustrations or examples. However, if you have seen change frustrated in the church or some other organization, this text will quickly prompt your own personal illustrations. Used in conjunction with Ronald Heifetz's book, "Leadership without Easy Answers" (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994), you will gain a solid understanding of how to lead change.

Stay tuned for a future article summarizing this book.

Peter Coutts @ Oakridge Church, London
(519) 471-2290 (VOICE) 471-0128 (FAX)