Arygris- Theories of Action

According to Chris Argyris everyone and everywhere (systems) have an internal 'mental map'. These mental maps influence behaviour, thought and understanding. He calls these mental maps Theories of Action.

Theories of Action are made up of a combination of intention and hope (espoused theory). And what actually happens in reality (theory in use). Or; what we say we do and what we actually do.

Espoused theory is the way that systems really want to do things. When they explain their actions and outcomes to others it's this ideal that they draw on. They present, measure and explain actions and outcomes against their espoused theory.

But of course, how systems want things to be, what they want to happen, rarely matches up to the reality of what they actually manage to do. There's a clash between the espoused theory and the theory in use. And that's because 'things' get in the way.

Things such as the influences of the external environment, but also the internal cultural influences. Argyris called these internal cultural influences governing variables. (Similar to Schein's Tacit Assumptions).

Argyris suggests that if places are to learn how to do things better, then they need to understand how and why their theories in  use and espoused theories differ. In other words why their intentions don't match up with what actually happens. To do this they need to understand the influences on behaviour and outcomes.

And that means understanding the external influencing factors, but more importantly for Argyris if they are to own their own learning then they need to examine their governing variables.

That's part of double-loop learning. And will result in a connection between espoused theory and theory in use, changing the internal mental maps that govern actions, and furthermore results will match intention.


In the video below, Argyris explains how communication gets in the way of shared practice. He suggests that It's not that cultural values are incompatibly different. The problem is that people and systems fail to communicate their visions, needs and desires effectively. In fact cultural difference in human values is a myth, theory in use of how to be human transcends country and culture.

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