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Action Inquiry

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Bill Torbert and associates illustrate how individuals and organizations can progress through more and more sophisticated "action-logics" -- strategies for analyzing the world and reacting to it -- until they will eventually be able to practice action inquiry continually. Offering action inquiry exercises at the end of the chapters, the book moves from junior managers beginning to practice action inquiry through CEO's transforming whole companies, to world leaders transforming whole countries, as exemplified by Czech president Vaclav Havel. Through short stories of leadership and organizational transformations, this groundbreaking book illustrates how action inquiry increases personal integrity, relational mutuality, company profitability, and long-term organizational and environmental sustainability.

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ONE Fundamentals of Action Inquiry

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By “action inquiry,” we mean a kind of behavior that is simultaneously productive and self-assessing. Action inquiry is behavior that does several things at once. It listens into the developing situation. It accomplishes whatever tasks appear to have priority. And it invites a revisioning of the task (and of our own action!) if necessary. Action inquiry is always a timely discipline to exercise because its purpose is always in part to discover, whether coldly and precisely or warmly and stumblingly, what action is timely.

These sentences are easy enough to read and to write, and they make action inquiry seem obviously worthwhile. When don’t you want to act in a timely fashion? Yet action inquiry is also the hardest thing in the world to do on a continuing basis (at least so it feels to some of us who’ve been working and playing with it for three or four decades). The difficulty arises partly because of the unusual degrees of awareness of the present situation that high quality action inquiry requires. The difficulty arises partly because of the many different and potentially conflicting political pressures and standards of timeliness that may be at play in a given situation. And the difficulty arises partly because of how hard it is to develop a taste for making ourselves vulnerable to change at the very moment when we are also trying to get something done.

 

TWO Action Inquiry as a Manner of Speaking

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On the basis of Chapter 1, you can now begin to practice action inquiry within yourself whenever you wish (though you may find, as we did in our early years of practice, that you need a lot of support to cultivate this wish). By the end of this chapter, you will have received enough guidance about how to practice action inquiry in conversations to begin practicing the interpersonal quality of action inquiry at work and in other areas of your life. You may even find you would like to share the practices with a select group of friends or co-workers. Just as we saw in Chapter 1 that the primary value for ourselves in exercising personal action inquiry is a deeper sense of integrity, so we will find in this chapter that the primary value for our relationships in exercising interpersonal action inquiry is a deeper sense of mutuality.

Let’s begin this chapter by listening in to Anthony as he makes a first try at action inquiry that leads him into a rich vein of leadership learning that transforms his division and his career. Later in the chapter, we describe a specific way of exercising action inquiry each time we speak. And we end the chapter with a specific discipline that small groups who wish to improve their leadership effectiveness can use. But first, let’s gain an intuitive appreciation for action inquiry and see how you can practice it no matter what your formal position may be in your organization or family.

 

THREE Action Inquiry as a Way of Organizing

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In Chapter 1, we illustrated how we can each practice first-person action inquiry within ourselves. This is action inquiry in which we seek the attentiveness—the presence of mind—to begin noticing the relationships among our own intuitive sense of purpose, thoughts, behaviors, and effects. In this way we gradually generate increasing integrity within ourselves.

In Chapter 2, we examined some up-close illustrations of how we can practice second-person action inquiry in our conversations with others. In this action inquiry, we seek to interweave framing, advocating, illustrating, and inquiring to better name what is occurring from all players’ perspectives. Thus we gradually generate greater mutuality and mutual commitment to whatever conclusions we reach. Moreover, we noted that effective and timely second-person action inquiry requires the participant to exercise first-person action inquiry at the same time. In this chapter, we introduce action inquiry as a way of organizing people, knowledge, and resources across space and time, with the aim of sustainability. We call this third-person action inquiry, since it goes beyond ourselves to include others present in the current moment, as well as others who may never come to know one another. This latter group is related to one another over time through an organizational, network, or market structure, for example, the stock market. Toward the end of the chapter we will examine the stock market as a a third-person way of organizing through action inquiry that involves literally millions of people. But before we get to that, we will describe an organizational transformation on a much smaller scale, involving hundreds of people rather than millions—a change at a graduate school of management. And before that, we will briefly recount some of the experiences of a three-person partnership during its first year of establishing a business. And before that—indeed, next—we will explain how action inquiry functions as a way of organizing.39

 

INTERLUDE Action Inquiry: The Idea and the Experience

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In Chapter 1, we introduced action inquiry at the personal scale as a kind of super-vision in the midst of action that simultaneously learns about the developing situation, accomplishes whatever tasks appear to have priority, and, if necessary, invites a re-visioning of the task (and potentially of your own self, as in Steve Thompson’s case after he began reexamining his experiences in that North Sea storm).

We focused on how action inquiry begins within ourselves, as an effort to become aware of four territories of experience. The story of Steve Thompson in the North Sea illustrated how, in order to exercise transforming leadership in an emergency, we need to cultivate a kind of inquiry in action that allows us to receive and digest three types of feedback:

Through single-, double-, and triple-loop feedback, action inquiry can help us increase the efficiency, the effectiveness, and the legitimacy of our actions, while simultaneously generating an inner sense of integrity. When our actions generate outer efficacy and inner integrity simultaneously, they become timely in a profound way.56

 

FOUR The Opportunist and the Diplomat: Action-logics you probably resort to, but don’t want to be circumscribed by

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So far in this book, in Chapters 1 and 2 we described examples of action inquiry that beginners may try in relation to particular incidents at particular moments of time (and we are all in some sense beginners in each new situation!). We illustrated with Steve Thompson’s and Anthony’s action inquiries. Then, in Chapter 3, we introduced a far more complex sense of action inquiry that embraces a highly nuanced sense of how time horizons and types of power may interweave to help persons, groups, and organizations transform. Obviously, there is a huge gap between the elementary action inquiry of asking a question at a useful moment, and the advanced action inquiry of crafting the entire mission, strategy, performance, and assessment processes of the socially responsible investing movement over 20 years.

Now, in the next several chapters, we wish to illustrate how challenging it is to transform ourselves and help others to transform toward an advanced capacity for action inquiry. There is no step-by-step procedure to follow that will accomplish this mission in a month or a year. Self-transformation toward fully and regularly enacting the values of integrity, mutuality, and sustainability is a long, lifetime path that most of us follow as we grow toward adulthood, but that very few continue traveling intentionally once we become adults. Each major step along this path can be described as developing a new action-logic: an overall strategy that so thoroughly informs our experience that we cannot see it.66

 

FIVE The Expert and the Achiever: The most common managerial action-logics

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The Opportunist and Diplomat developmental action-logics are in some ways pre-managerial action-logics. For one thing, few middle or senior managers are, in fact, found to hold them exclusively (see Table 5-1). For another, neither action-logic can reliably use feedback to generate performance improvements. Put still a third way, the Opportunist and Diplomat action-logics are not yet concerned with generating new systemic value by actions that are timely in the sense of cutting costs through new efficiencies or increasing revenues through new sources of effectiveness. Thus, these two action-logics do not produce many managers, and we can understand why, because they do not produce manager-like actions of forward planning, performance feedback, and operational improvement.

By contrast, as shown in Table 5-1, the Expert and Achiever action-logics together account for the vast majority of all managers—about 80 percent. These two action-logics are also the first two that begin to value single-loop feedback for improved performance. However, they do so in very different ways, and they do not yet encourage double-loop feedback that contributes to their own or others’ development to later action-logics.

 

SIX The Individualist Action-Logic: Bridge to transforming leadership

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In Chapters 1 through 3, we said that action inquiry centers on a process of learning. This learning process is not a mechanistic, automated feedback process producing continuous change, but is instead a bumpy, discontinuous, sometimes upending, and transformational kind of learning. This learning affords individuals and organizations a widening and deepening of vision and new capacities for learning from single-, double-, and triple-loop feedback in the moment of action.

In Chapters 4 and 5, we began to illustrate this bumpy lifetime learning process. Virtually every person goes through several action-logic transformations during early life. We begin life in a stage we call the Impulsive action-logic, which we do not discuss in this book. The vast majority of us transform from the Impulsive action-logic to the Opportunist action-logic sometime between the ages of 3 and 6. A very large majority of us proceed to transform from Opportunist to Diplomat, usually between the ages of 12 and 16. A certain proportion of us transform to the Expert action-logic by the time we are 21. Many more of us do so during the decade after we join the workforce.

 

SEVEN The Strategist Action-Logic: Developing transforming power

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A principal feature of the Strategist action-logic is self-awareness in action. It not only intuitively recognizes other action-logics and itself as action-logics, as does the Individualist, it also intuitively recognizes all action as either facilitating or inhibiting ongoing transformational change of personal, familial, corporate, or national action-logics. If we are aware of ourselves in action in the present and among others who may be framing the situation based on entirely different action-logics, participating in both incremental and transformational change, then the central question becomes: What action is timely now to whom?

The Strategist is fascinated by the possibility of a certain kind of timely action that is recognizable as “on time” in the Diplomat’s sense, as efficient in the Expert’s sense, and as effective in the Achiever’s sense, and that can at the same time support one’s own, or another’s, or an organization’s transformation. A key here is that there is a voluntary quality in a system’s transformation. Timely action by others can support our own transformation by giving us well-framed double-loop feedback, yet at the same time each of us can only increase our freedom and individuality by choosing to digest that feedback and transform. At the same time, we are more likely to digest such feedback and choose the vulnerable path of transformation if we experience our colleagues acting in ways that open them to possible transformation as well. Hence, the little-known and rarely practiced power to transform is a mutual, vulnerable power, disciplined by careful, inquiring attention to the timing of each of the interacting persons, groups, organizations, or regions.

 

EIGHT Transforming Meetings, Teams, and Organizations

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In Chapters 4 through 7, we have been talking about taking an action inquiry approach to transforming the action-logics guiding our own practice. Of course, our own practice in an organization involves us with other co-workers, so a large part of what we have discussed so far has concerned how to diagnose colleagues as well as ourselves and how to experiment with acting differently with our superiors and subordinates. But the focus has fallen consistently on how each of us can improve our own practice through action inquiry.

In this section of the book, we shift our focus to the questions of how to lead teams and organizations through developmental transformations. This shift in focus is subtle but important because we are not shifting the focus away from the individual to the group and we are not shifting the focus simply because we think it’s a good idea to cover these topics. We are shifting the focus to the group and organizational scales because that is what you and any other individual who goes very far in your own practice of action inquiry will want and need to do. In fact, as we have seen in a general way at the end of Chapter 7, Strategist CEOs become highly effective at leading organizational transformation, in part because they are less attached to their own frames and, therefore, more aware of how people, organizations, and societies journey through different frames and action-logics over time.

 

NINE Facilitating Organizational Transformations

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M ultiple developmental processes at different scales (personal, team, organizational, national, etc.) influence one another, either interrupting, inhibiting, or encouraging the developmental process we originally focus on. Can we see these interweaving developmental processes in action and intervene to help whole organizations to transform from one developmental action-logic to another?

In this chapter, we first examine a small software company that is stuck between the Investments and Incorporation action-logics. Then we describe a new merger among three small residential health care companies at the Incorporation action-logic, where the challenge is to transform to the Experiments action-logic. We conclude with an energy company, where the challenge is to transform from Experiments to Systematic Productivity. Each case illustrates how a consultant’s intervention can create a temporary Collaborative Inquiry learning organization within the company, with a great deal of feedback and creative, collaborative decision making, as a vehicle for encouraging each organizational transformation.

 

TEN The Social Network Organization and Transformation Toward Collaborative Inquiry

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In Chapters 8 and 9, we have followed a number of the steps through which any organizing process evolves if the objective is to create a genuine learning organization. Ultimately, a genuine learning organization truly encourages the practice of developmental action inquiry among all its members and is actively open to reexamining and transforming its own assumptions about its environment, its structure, and its strategies.

But, even though those previous chapters describe five steps along the path toward a learning team or organization—Conception, Investments, Incorporation, Experiments, and Systematic Productivity—there is a very significant sense in which a team or organization only reaches the threshold of becoming a learning organization after completing these five steps. Occasionally, an organization is shepherded through one early transformation or another by executives or consultants, as illustrated in Chapters 8 and 9. But most organizations, like most people, evolve through each of these early developmental transformations by a process of more or less traumatic trial and error that is never named, never explicitly recognized as a transformation of assumptions and action-logics, and never undertaken with the intention of eventually establishing a learning organization.

 

ELEVEN The Quintessence of Collaborative Inquiry

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From the perspective of the Strategist/Collaborative Inquiry action-logic, the story we began in Chapter 10 about the disharmony at Sun Health between the majority of the senior management team and the “opposer” and the “cowboy” is not necessarily bad. At the time, the president realized that the “opposer” generated inquiry by her opposition, even if she often did not help such inquiry to reach closure in mutually agreeable action. Firing her could potentially send two negative messages to the company: (1) critical inquiry is not encouraged and (2) people who do not conform to the preferred managerial style will be dealt with summarily. Both these messages would directly contradict the development of a transformational learning culture.

Moreover, lower-level managers were being asked to transform their managerial styles from superior/supervisory assumptions to collaborative/facilitative assumptions (supervisors’ titles were literally shifting to “team facilitator”). Thus, it would be consistent to offer vice presidents the opportunity to transform their styles (if, on further inquiry, they required transforming). Such an exercise would also give the senior management group as a whole the opportunity to learn how such transformation could be facilitated on an ongoing basis. And, if the exercise were to succeed in some sense, then it might become a story that inspired loyalty to the leadership and imitation of its members’ willingness to transform.

 

TWELVE The Fresh Action Awareness of Alchemists

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One day while we were still consulting to Sun Health Care, the organization described in Chapters 10 and 11, Sun’s manager of employee development was describing his unusual contract with Sun. He had recently recontracted with the company, with the quick approval of his vice president and the CEO, to work one day a week as a consultant outside the health care industry. He felt that he needed a practical strategy like this to help him maintain his perspective on his work. Then he said, as a kind of logical conclusion, “You know, you need to keep your self fresh and your ideas fresh.”

It sounds like an attractive idea, doesn’t it? Especially to those of us who feel as though we are run a bit ragged by the demands of our work and our life! Keeping our selves and our ideas fresh? A simple idea—an obvious idea—and an enjoyable experience: Keeping fresh. Wouldn’t we all rather feel fresh than stale? Isn’t it obvious that improving the quality of our actions depends on fresh awareness of what’s at stake, fresh ideas about how to operate more effectively, and fresh energies for actually doing so? Don’t we want to find the right pace and keep changing pace as is freshly appropriate?

 

THIRTEEN Creating Foundational Communities of Inquiry

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In this chapter, we offer brief glimpses of what personal, communal, and institutional cultures of inquiry may come to look like, as we discuss the Foundational Community of Inquiry action-logic of organizing that parallels the Alchemist action-logic in personal development. We are hampered because we have only shadowy and fragmentary illustrations from the past to help stimulate our imagination. We believe that no fully embodied, public, society-wide example of this organizing action-logic has ever existed yet.

But because this is truly an action-logic of the future, we will call, before this chapter is complete, not just on shadowy memories from the past, and not just on some of the particular challenges and opportunities of the present, but also on a kind of social-science/fiction to help us begin to imagine more actively how each of us personally and all of us globally can envision and enact the future.

Table 13-1 shows the theoretical characteristics of the Foundational Community of Inquiry action-logic. The very name for this action-logic of organizing suggests two apparently opposite qualities—foundational stability and the transformational disequilibrium introduced by single-, double-, and triple-loop inquiry. It is the union of these opposites—the edge of chaos, as it is today sometimes named—that we are seeking in a Foundational Community of Inquiry.

 

APPENDIX Concluding Scientific Postscript on Methods of Inquiry

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Suppose someone wished to communicate that the truth is not the truth, since it is the way which is the truth—that the truth exists only as a process … Well, his statement would of course turn into a result …

Kierkegaard

Concluding Unscientific Postscript

This appendix is organized into three distinct sections. The first section covers the Leadership Development Profile (LDP). It describes how you can access and use the Profile to assess your own leadership action-logic. It then proceeds to offer a scholarly account of the development and validity-testing of the LDP measuring instrument itself.

The second section describes the current scientific status of the measure of an organization’s developmental action-logic that we used in the study of 10 organizations to test which did and which did not transform.

The third section describes how developmental action inquiry as a whole has developed over the past 40 years, and how this approach to social science relates to empirical positivism.

Overall, whereas the 13 chapters of this book are addressed primarily to adult professionals and secondarily to all adults in our day-to-day efforts to generate a good life, this “Concluding Scientific Postscript” is addressed primarily to our social science colleagues. Consequently, unlike the body of the book, this appendix assiduously discusses and references related scholarly work. Moreover, the language of this appendix is more technical and scholarly. Thus, we invite our readers to skip on to the beginning of the next section in this appendix whenever the material becomes more technical than is currently useful to you.210

 

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