The 7 tests of worthwhile advice

The Chris Argyris book Flawed Advice and the Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They're Getting Good Advice and When They're Not is an uncomfortable read. Mostly because it pretty much accuses all workers, and particularly managers, of being skillful liars!

But it's difficult to argue with his conclusions. Just one of the tidbits worth printing out and sticking on your wall as a constant reminder is Argyris' 7 tests for whether you are receiving worthwhile advice:

There are three tests for the validity of advice:

1) If implemented correctly, the advice leads to the consequences that it predicts will occur
2) The advice's effectiveness persists so long as no unforeseen conditions interfere, and
3) The advice can be implemented and tested in the world of everyday practice.

There are four tests for the actionability of advice:

1) The advice specifies the detailed, concrete behaviors required to achieve the intended consequences
2) The advice must be crafted in the form of designs that contain causal statements
3) People must have, or be able to be taught, the concepts and skills required to implement those causal statements, and
4) The context in which the advice is to be implemented does not prevent its implementation.

(paraphrased slightly for clarity)

Many, many management frameworks don't pass these tests. Vague wording; incoherent logic; magical thinking -- it's all there. Although funnily enough, this is not a result of any intent to deceive.

Argyris makes a detailed claim for his belief that most of these problems stem from what he terms "Model I thinking", where:

we act in ways that encourage neither inquiry ... nor the robust testing of the claims that we make ... [we use] self-referential logic: 'Trust me, I know what I am doing' ...
Model I actions create defensiveness, self-fulfilling prophecies, self-sealing processes, and escalating error.

A longer discussion of the flaws of Model I thinking, and its proposed corrective in Model II thinking, would need to be the subject of another post. But suffice to say that if it's ever politically "not done" to question the directives of a superior, if you dig beneath the surface you are very likely to find that the 7 rules of worthwhile advice aren't being met.

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