Bring Meaning to Work and Purpose to Spirituality

Practical Competence and Professional Artistry

On my flights to and from London last week, I read MIT professor Donald
Schon's "The Reflective Practitioner – How Professionals Think in Action".
This is a master piece and highly complimentary to what our community is
experimenting with.

Professor Schon was very blunt about the limitations of our educational
systems: "universities are not devoted to the production and distribution of
fundamental knowledge in general. They are institutions committed, for the
most part, to a particular epistemology, a view of knowledge that fosters
selective inattention to practical competence and professional artistry."

Professor Schon then went on to outline an epistemology of practice through
several actual cases of how professionals such as architects, therapists,
city planners and business managers practice their professions in the real
world. He is particularly insightful about the differences between technical
rationality (field 2) and reflection in action (field 3) in professional
contexts. For example, he pointed out that "technical analysts sometimes
attribute the failure of their recommendations to 'personality' or
'politics'. Or they may try to force the situation into a mold which lends
itself to the use of available techniques." It should hardly be surprising -
just it has happened to our universities - our institutions such as Abbott
have also been infected by the same disease. People try to impose a
technical solution on problems that are far more complex because they lack
the capacity, intention and skills of deeper consciousness. It is also not
surprising then that the majority of such solutions backfire, often even
before they are fully implemented. That's when projects fail and turnaround
experts are called in. I myself have made a career out of correcting such
mistake or even disasters. What is the secret recipe? Professor Schon points
out that "in real world practice, problems do not present themselves to the
practitioner as givens. Although problem setting is a necessary condition
for technical problem solving, it is not itself a technical problem, Problem
setting is a process in which, interactively, we name the things to which we
will attend and frame the context in which we will attend to them. It is the
work of naming and framing that creates the conditions to the exercise of
technical expertise."

Madeline and I have been having some lovely dialogues on how to apply the
case method that I presented on April 20 to her particular situation. It is
a fatal mistake to expect the institution or senior management to fix such
fundamental problems. It is up to the individual to develop the capacity,
intention and skills necessary for such work. Her very first task is to name
and frame the "work" that she does at the Blue Cross and Blue Field.
Inevitably, the company job descriptions are framed in technical terms. The
value of a tool like theory U is to help her and others to re-frame her job
and thereby discover new sources of power and synergies. This happens both
professionally and personally at field 3 and 4 as Madeline is experiencing,
sometimes overwhelmingly. This is the process of transformation at work, in
a very real and constructive sense.

On May 31, we will share the cases by Madeline and others who have developed
the capacity and intention for such work. Skills are secondary and can be
improved over time as a learning community. If you find it too difficult to
do a case of your own situation, simply join us and start learning the
skills so that you can practice next time. What we will less able to help
you with, at least initially, are the capacity and intention for such work.
Professor Schon described the most common reactions by most professionals:
"with very few exceptions, they did not believe that the system was
susceptible to change. The risks seemed too great, the stakes too high, and
the chances of success too low." So it's up to you to decide where to spend
your energy at this point of your career/life.

Finally, it's worth quoting professor Schon once again on how this process
works – hopefully on May 31 when we meet: "inquiry, however it may initially
have been conceived, turns into a frame experiment. What allows this to
happen is that the inquirer is willing to step into the problematic
situation, to impose a frame on it, to follow the implications of the
discipline thus established, and yet to remain open to the situation's
back-talk. Reflecting on the surprising consequences of his efforts to shape
the situation in conformity with his initially chosen frame, the inquirer
frames new questions and new ends in view."

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