|they plan, implement and review their actions. Furthermore, they assert that it is these maps that guides people's actions |
rather than the theories they explicitly espouse. What is more, fewer people are aware of the maps or theories they do use
Having said this, people hold two different "theories of action" about effective behaviour: the one they espouse and the one
they actually use. One way of making sense of this is to say that there is a split between theory and action.
However, Argyris and Schon suggest that two theories of action are involved.
Espoused Theory: The words we use to convey what we do, or what we would like others to think we do is called
espoused theory. The espoused theory of action for that situation is the answer he usually gives when someone is
asked how he would behave under certain circumstances. This is the theory of action to which he gives allegiance, and
which, upon request, he communicates to others.
Theory-in-use: The theory that actually governs his actions is his theory-in-use. They govern actual behaviour and
tend to be tacit structures. Their relation to action, 'is like the relation of grammar-in-use to speech'; they contain
assumptions about self, others, and environment - these assumptions constitute a microcosm of science in everyday
Why is it important to know the distinction?
Making this distinction allows us to ask questions about the extent to which behaviour fits espoused theory; and whether
inner feelings become expressed in action. In other words is there congruence between the two?
Argyris (1980) makes the case that effectiveness results from developing congruence between theory-in-use and espoused
theory. Much of the business of supervision, where it is focused on one's thoughts, feelings and actions, is concerned with
the gulf between espoused theory and theory-in-use or bringing the latter to the surface. This gulf is not a bad thing.
If it gets too wide then there is clearly a difficulty. But provided the two remain connected then the gap creates a dynamic for
reflection and dialogue.
A model of the processes involved in Theory-in-Use
To fully appreciate theory-in-use we require a model of the processes involved.
- When the consequences of the strategy used are what the person wanted, then the theory-in-use is confirmed. This is
because there is a match between intention and outcome.
- There may be a mismatch between intention and outcome. In other words, the consequences may not be intended.
They may also not match, or work against, the person's governing values. Argyris and Schon suggest two responses
to this mismatch, and these can be seen in the notion of single and double-loop learning.
Single and double-loop learning
For Argyris and Schon (1978:2), learning involves the detection and correction of error.
Single-loop learning. Where something goes wrong, it is suggested, an initial port of call for many people is to look for
another strategy that will address and work within the governing variables. In other words, given or chosen goals are
operationalized rather than questioned. According to Argyris and Schon (1974), this is single-loop learning. Single-loop
learning seems to be present when goals, values, frameworks, and to a certain extent, strategies are taken for granted.
The emphasis is on 'techniques and making techniques more efficient'. Any reflection is directed towards making the strategy
more effective. It involves following routines and some sort of preset plans - and is both less risky for the individual and
organization, and affords greater control.
Double-loop learning. An alternative response is to question the governing variables themselves, to subject them to critical
scrutiny. This they describe as double-loop learning. Such learning may then lead to an alteration in the governing variables,
and thus a shift in the way strategies and consequences are framed. It involves the questioning the role of framing and
learning systems which underlie actual goals and strategies. This is more creative and reflective, and involves consideration of
the notions of the good. Reflection here is more fundamental: the basic assumptions behind ideas or policies are confronted
... hypotheses are publicly tested ... processes are dis-conformable not self-seeking. Thus, they came to explore the nature
of organizational learning.
The focus of much of Chris Argyris' intervention research has been to explore how organizations may increase their capacity
for double-loop learning. He argues that double-loop learning is necessary if practitioners and organizations are to make
informed decisions in rapidly changing and often uncertain contexts (Argyris 1974; 1982; 1990). As Edmondson and
Moingeon (1999: 160) put it:
The underlying theory, supported by years of empirical research, is that the reasoning processes employed by
individuals in organizations inhibit the exchange of relevant information (skilled unawareness and skilled incompetence)
in ways that make double-loop learning difficult -and all but impossible in situations in which much is at stake. This
creates a dilemma as these are the very organizational situations in which much is at stake. This creates a dilemma as
these are the very organizational situations in which double-loop learning is most needed.
Model to enhance double-loop learning
The next step that Argyris and Schon take is to setup two models that describe features of theories-in-use that either inhibit
or enhance double-loop learning. The belief is that all people utilize a common theory-in-use in problematic situations. This
they describe as Model I - and it can be said to enhance double-loop learning. Model II is where the governing variables
associated with theories in use enhance double-loop learning.
Model I Argyris has claimed that just about all participants in his studies operated from theories-in-use or values consistent
with Model I (Argyris et al. 1985: 89). It involves making inferences about another person's behaviour without checking
whether they are valid and advocating one's views abstractly without explaining or illustrating one's reasoning (Edmondson
and Moingeon 1999: 161). The theories-in-use are shaped by an implicit disposition to winning (and to avoid
embarrassment). The primary action strategy looks to the unilateral control of the environment and task plus the unilateral
protection of self and others. As such Model I leads to often deeply entrenched defensive routines (Argyris 1990: 1993).
Exposing actions, thoughts, feelings can make people vulnerable to the reaction of others. Yet here, it is only by interrogating
and changing the governing variables, the argument goes, is it possible to produce new action strategies that can address
changing circumstances. In Model I, the core injunctions that people strive to satisfy their actions include:
- Define goals and try to achieve them - that is, not try to develop, with others a mutual definition of shared purpose
- Maximize winning and minimize losing - that is treating any change in goals, once they are decided on,
- Minimize the generation or expression of negative feelings - which would be interpreted as showing ineptness,
incompetence or lack of diplomacy.
- Be rational - that is, remaining objective and intellectual and suppressing feelings.
Model I - the master theory-in-use - exists in all industrialized cultures. It applies to everyone in those cultures - men and
women, the rich and poor, the well and the poorly educated, the young and the old. It is indifferent to religious, ethnic and
racial variations. It is as if Model I were wired into the human mind. Surface behaviour may vary, but the underlying theory-
in-use does not. It remains constant - and it scales.
Model II Chris Argyris looks to move people from a Model I to Model II orientation and practice - one that fosters double-
loop learning. He suggests that most people when asked, will espouse Model II. As Anderson (1997) has commented, Argyris
offers no reason why most people espouse Model II. The significant features of Model II include the ability to:
- Call upon good data and to make inferences
- It looks to include the views and experiences of participants rather than seeking to impose a view upon a situation
- Theories should be made explicit and tested, positions should be reasoned and opened to exploration
- Be seen as dialogical - and more likely to be found in settings and organizations that look to shared leadership.
It looks to emphasize common goals and mutual influence, encourage open communication, and to publicly test assumptions
and beliefs, and combine advocacy with inquiry (Argyris and Schon 1996; Bolman and Deal 1997: 147-8).
As Edmondson and Moingeon (1999, 162) comment, employing Model II in difficult interpersonal interactions 'requires
profound attentiveness and skills for human beings socialized in a Model I world'. While they are not being asked to relinquish
control altogether, they do need to share that control.
Chris Argyris and Donald Schon suggest that each member on an organization creates his or her own representation of
image of the theory-in-use of the whole (1978:16).
- They need to know their place in the organization, it is argued.
- Chris Argyris and Donald Schön suggest that each member of an organization constructs his or her own representation
or image of the theory-in-use of the whole (1978: 16).
- The picture is always incomplete – and people, thus, are continually working to add pieces and to get a view of the
whole. They need to know their place in the organization, it is argued.
- An organization is like an organism each of whose cells contains a particular, partial, changing image if itself in relation to
the whole. And like such an organism, the organization’s practice stems from those very images. Organization is an
artifact of individual ways of representing organization.
- Hence, our inquiry into organizational learning must concern itself not with static entities called organizations, but with
an active process of organizing which is, at root, a cognitive enterprise. Individual members are continually engaged in
attempting to know the organization, and to know themselves in the context of the organization. At the same time,
their continuing efforts to know and to test their knowledge represent the object of their inquiry. Organizing is reflexive
- [Members] require external references. There must be public representations of organizational theory-in-use to which
individuals can refer. This is the function of organizational maps. These are the shared descriptions of the organization
which individuals jointly construct and use to guide their own inquiry….
- Organizational theory-in-use, continually constructed through individual inquiry, is encoded in private images and in
public maps. These are the media of organizational learning. (Argyris and Schön 1978: 16-17)
With this set of moves we can see how Chris Argyris and Donald Schön connect up the individual world of the worker and
practitioner with the world of organization. Their focus is much more strongly on individual and group interactions and
defenses (dynamic complexity) than upon systems and structures (detailed complexity).
By looking at the way that people jointly construct maps it is then possible to talk about organizational learning (involving the
detection and correction of error) and organizational theory-in-use.
For organizational learning to occur, ‘learning agents’, discoveries, inventions, and evaluations must be embedded in
organizational memory’ (Argyris and Schön 1978: 19). If it is not encoded in the images that individuals have, and the maps
they construct with others, then ‘the individual will have learned but the organization will not have done so’ (op. cit.).
- In this organizational schema single-loop learning is characterized as when, ‘members of the organization respond to
changes in the internal and external environment of the organization by detecting errors which they then correct so as
to maintain the central features of theory-in-use’ (ibid.: 18).
- Double-loop learning then becomes:
… those sorts of organizational inquiry which resolve incompatible organizational norms by setting new priorities and
weightings of norms, or by restructuring the norms themselves together with associated strategies and assumptions.
(Argyris and Schön 1978: 18)
The next step is to argue that individuals using Model I create Organizational I (O-I) learning systems. These are
characterized by ‘defensiveness, self-fulfilling prophecies, self-fuelling processes, and escalating error’ (Argyris 1982: 8). O-I
systems involve a web of feedback loops that ‘make organizational assumptions and behavioural routines self-reinforcing –
inhibiting “detection and correction of error” and giving rise to mistrust, defensiveness and self-fulfilling prophecy’
(Edmondson and Moingeon 1999:161). In other words, if individuals in an organization make use of Model I learning the
organization itself can begin to function in ways that act against its long-term interests. Indeed, in a very real sense systems
can begin to malfunction. As Argyris and Schön (1996: 28) put it, ‘The actions we take to promote productive organizational
learning actually inhibit deeper learning’. The challenge is, then, to create a rare phenomenon – an Organizational II (O-II)
Here we come to the focus of organizational effort – the formulation and implementation of an intervention strategy. This,
according to Argyris and Schön (1978: 220-1) involves the ‘interventionist’ in moving through six phases of work:
By running through this sequence and attending to key criteria suggested by Model II, it is argued, organizational
development is possible. The process entails looking for the maximum participation of clients, minimizing the risks of candid
participation, starting where people want to begin (often with instrumental problems), and designing methods so that they
value rationality and honesty.
Have you seen links
that show espoused
theory but has
us the link at
Have you seen links
that show this gap?
Drop us the link at
The dimensions that people
are trying to keep within
acceptable limits. Any action
is likely to impact a number
of such variables. Thus any
situation can trigger a
trade-off among governing
What happens as a result of
an action. These can be
both intended - those the
actor believe will result - and
unintended. In addition,
these consequences can be
for the self and/or others.
The moves and plans used
by people to keep their
governing variables within
the acceptable range
Have you seen links
at work? Drop us
the link at
Have you seen links
that show Model II
at work? Drop us
the link at
Click here to
||Mapping the problem as clients see it. This includes the
factors and relationships that define the problem, and the
relationship with the living systems of the organization.
||The internalization of the map by clients. Through inquiry
and confrontation the interventionists work with clients to develop
a map for which clients can accept responsibility. However, it also
needs to be comprehensive.
||Test the model. This involves looking at what ‘testable
predictions’ can be derived from the map – and looking to practice
and history to see if the predictions stand up. If they do not, the
map has to be modified.
||Invent solutions to the problem and simulate them to
explore their possible impact.
||Produce the intervention.
||Study the impact. This allows for the correction of errors as well
as generating knowledge for future designs. If things work well
under the conditions specified by the model, then the map is not
Further reading and references:
Argyris, M. and Schön, D. (1974) Theory in Practice. Increasing professional effectiveness, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Landmark statement of 'double-loop' learning' and distinction between espoused theory and theory-in-action.
Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1978) Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.
Argyris, C., Putnam, R., & McLain Smith, D (1985) Action Science, Concepts, methods, and skills for research and
intervention, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. [The entire book is available for download from: Action Design: http://www.
Argyris, C. (1993) Knowledge for Action. A guide to overcoming barriers to organizational change, San Francisco: Jossey
An interview with Chris Argyris – includes discussion of model I and model II organizations. (from Thought Leaders)
Action Science Network – includes an outline of action science (and model I and model II) and a detailed bibliography of
Chris Argyris – useful, short biography by Bente Elkjaer
Chris Argyris – brief biography from Harvard Business Review.
Good communication that blocks learning – article by Argyris for Harvard Business Review, 1994
Motivation Theory –article reviewing Argyris’ concern with increasing interpersonal competence.
Chris Argyris – Page from the Monitor Group (where Argyris is a director) with links to some of his publications.
How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2001) 'Chris Argyris: theories of action, double-loop learning and organizational
learning', the encyclopedia of informal education, www.infed.org/thinkers/argyris.htm. Last update: