Why Chris Argyris Thinks Peter Drucker’s Advice is Flawed

One of the most useful coaching skills I’ve ever gained was the result of Chris Argyris’ critique of Peter Drucker’s advice.   

In Overcoming Organizational Defenses, Argyris argues that sound advice, like that of Drucker and others, inhibits organizational performance.  Argyris’ argument is that “advice” is at a high level of inference and is not operational.  In other words, advice doesn’t spell out, specifically, how to behave.  It focuses on theories and fails to provide the data needed to understand the theory.

Argyris provides a number of examples, including three from Drucker who, he freely admits, is one of the world’s premier authors on mangement.  Argyris quotes first Drucker, and then critiques the statement.

“’Organizitis,’” self-inflicted hypochondria, should be avoided.”

How would other people identify “organizitis” and hypochondria?  How can someone avoid them if they are inflicting them on their organization?  How do they overcome the skilled unawareness that is required to implement the advice?

“Organizational change should not be taken often and should not be undertaken lightly. . . A certain amount of friction, of incongruity, or organizational confusion is inevitable.”

What criteria can be used to specify what is taken often and what is taken lightly?  How much of the inevitable friction, incongruity, and confusion is acceptable?  When does it become unacceptable?

“One can either work or meet.  One cannot do both at the same time.”

Why is it not possible to create problem-solving processes that combine meetings with work?

Suppose that instead of giving advice in your coaching, you chose to accompany your advice with actual statements that illustrate what you would have to say and do?  The following are examples from my white paper on asking questions.  The protocols and scripts are written to explain what to do and what to say when you want to ask questions without being perceived as a dumb ass.

Set the stage: Briefly summarize the project and your relation to it.

“Jim, as you may know I’m working on the . . . . project. This is my first major responsibility as a project manager. Currently, I’m focusing on the product advertising research.”

State expertise: Summarize your marketing research background.

“Jim, over the past three years I’ve had experience with a number of projects, and gained expertise in nearly all project segments including. . . . However, I have no experience in persuasion testing.”

Advice requested: Explain your need for senior expertise in persuasion testing. Ask for senior support person recommendation.

“Since, I have no direct experience in persuasion testing. . . . I’d like your recommendation for the best senior person to support us in that testing.”

Although my example can be viewed as a canned approach, I’ve found that not only entry level workers, but senior managers and execs are constantly asking for this kind of help.  I get questions such as, “How would you say this?  What can I say when someone pushes back as a result of my input?”

Once clients start using my protocols and scripts they come back with more complicated requests.  For example, last week a client said, “One of my customers used a a false analogy to request a service,saying,  ‘So and so did such and such. . . why can’t you do this?’  What can I say to deal with irrelevant analogies without offending the person?”

All of these examples emphasize the necessity of making it possible to actually implement advice.  Giving advice, I’ve learned, is of little value without specific protocols and scripts.  With two or three hours of input and practice writing scripts, professionals at the highest level of an organization have a new approach to improving performance.

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