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Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership

Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership

by William R. Torbert

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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


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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Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
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The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Bill Torbert
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60509-634-6

Chapter One

Fundamentals of Action Inquiry

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.

A small example of action inquiry may seem ridiculously simple. Here is a company president speaking by phone to her special assistant:

"I'm assuming you are handling the Jones contract. Let me know if you need assistance."

The president makes her assumption explicit and advocates that the special assistant seek her support, if necessary, to assure the job gets done. The assistant may say, "What? I've never heard of the Jones contract." Or, "I thought Paul was taking care of that." Or whatever the truth is, if it is incongruent with the president's explicitly stated assumption and offer of assistance. Many of the day-to-day frustrations of work life can be avoided by such brief assumption-testing action inquiries.

But even such obvious types of checking and inquiry as this president displays are rare in business, professional, and familial conversations. Consider the recent simulated operating room study of medical residents receiving training on how to avoid errors (Rudolph 2003). This study shows that in over 4,000 comments by the lead physician during simulated operating crises, only three combined some direction about what to attend to with an inquiry about what the assistant was learning. This small number occurred in spite of the fact that half of these young doctors were trained in a specific method for inquiring in the midst of action only minutes before the simulation. Yet their much more deeply internalized need to appear independent, competent, and knowledgeable interfered with showing the vulnerability necessary to learn the data that can prevent error (as a number of them acknowledged in postscenario interviews).

A shift in awareness is needed, a shift to a kind of awareness that shows us the opportunity to make a comment like the president's. This kind of awareness transcends the sort of implicit self-image that prevents medical residents from seeking colleagues' help in the operating room and instead attends responsively to the real need both the patient and we have for help. What is this awareness? How can we gain access to it in a timely way?

The Underwater Pipeline Project Manager

For some clues, let's listen in as Steve Thompson, a highly competent and well-paid manager, reconstructs a confrontation with his boss, Ron Cedrick. Steve's team is laying underwater pipeline when a storm begins to blow around their North Sea platform.

British National Oil Company had contracted with Ron Cedrick to construct and install its "single anchor leg mooring system" that can fill oil tankers at sea, eliminating the need for hundreds of miles of pipeline from the offshore oil fields. The initial underwater construction had been completed in a picturesque and protected Norwegian fjord. But we were now saturation diving for 8- to 12-hour periods from aboard a 600-foot derrick ship in the February North Sea, which can be unpredictably violent.

The most critical part of this dangerous procedure is the launch and recovery of the six-man bell through the "interface"—the wave-affected first 25 feet below the ocean surface. Rough seas have separated more than one diving bell from its winch. When this happens, there is little hope of returning the divers alive.

It was my first job as project manager, so it was of particular importance to me that the crew was doing an outstanding job and Cedrick was extremely pleased with our performance. Famously aloof, Cedrick wore a shiny gold metal hard hat. And, no matter how difficult, his projects always came in ahead of schedule.

The bell had just gone into the water for an anticipated 12-hour run when the wind changed direction and was coming at us from the same direction as the moderate swell, just as it does before it really blows. I alerted the shift supervisor to keep an eye on the weather and went up to the bridge for a look at the most recent forecast and facsimile, which confirmed my suspicions.

Just then, Cedrick came up to me, "I personally appreciate the fine job you and your boys are doing and I know it'll continue. I know the weather's getting up a bit, but we have to complete the flowline connection today to stay ahead, so we need to keep that bell in the water as long as we can before we let a little ole weather shut us down. I've seen the respect those boys have for you and I know they'll do what you ask."

"Yes, sir" I responded confidently. What was going on inside me at that moment sounded different, though. The moment I reviewed the weather on the bridge, I became tense with fear. I was afraid I wouldn't have the strength of character to shut down the operation in the face of my overwhelming desire to succeed objectively and in Cedrick's eyes. I was also afraid I would have to deceive my people into thinking that pushing our operating limits was justified.

The outcome was all too predictable. I kept the bell in the water too long. The weather blew a gale. The recovery of the bell through 20-foot seas was perilous. I compromised the safety of the divers and set a poor precedent for the permissible operating parameters. I received no satisfaction from the major bonus Cedrick gave me for "pulling it off"—we did complete the flowline connection. Inside me, the awareness that I had manipulated and jeopardized the safety of my fellow workers galled my illusion that I was an honest, ethical man.

After the emergency was over and the mission successfully accomplished, Steve Thompson could simply have congratulated himself for getting the job done in the face of significant obstacles and for winning the praise of his superior. Instead, his awareness was alert and vulnerable in a way that revealed a serious weakness of character to him that few have the strength of character to face. He became aware of a serious incongruity between his espoused or proclaimed values and his actual actions.

We were led into the Steve Thompson story by two questions about the kind of awareness associated with action inquiry. What is this kind of awareness that transcends all our implicit self-images that cramp awareness and prevent us from acting with integrity, mutuality, justice, and inquiry? And how can this kind of awareness be accessed in a timely way even in an emergency?

The case itself shows us no positive answer to these two questions. Steve did not display such awareness during his encounter with Cedrick, nor in the action-packed hours that followed. He got the job done and the divers out safely, despite the turmoil and danger. The story illustrates a type of awareness in action that puts action first and inquiry later, or not at all. Steve has a well-honed awareness of how to adjust himself and his team behaviorally from minute to minute to changing conditions. In engineering and social systems theory, we call that a high reliability capacity for digesting and learning from single-loop feedback (information that tells me whether or not my last move advanced me toward the goal). Reliable single-loop learning is critical for reaching goals efficiently and effectively, and Steve obviously demonstrated this quality of awareness in this case.

By the end of his experience, Steve also demonstrates a second quality of awareness that is much more difficult to describe. It seems something like an awareness that transcends one's self-image, since he sees his "illusion" about himself "destroyed." But it is not yet an empowering awareness that allows him in the midst of the turmoil to see a leadership initiative that generates greater legitimacy as well as efficiency and effectiveness.

Let us review more closely what happens in Steve Thompson's experience. At a certain specific moment, he becomes aware that there is a significant disharmony among several of the personal forces that motivate him. There's his desire to please his boss, innocent and constructive enough in itself, you might ordinarily think. Then there's his desire to perform efficiently and effectively, ordinarily considered the most constructive of inclinations in a work setting. Thirdly, there's his desire to deserve his team's respect by holding their well-being uppermost. Finally, there's his self-image as an honest, ethical man.

These four good chunks of Steve's soul find themselves in a new and stormy juxtaposition to one another during the outer storm in the North Sea. He reports his inner experience as "tense with fear" and "galling." He describes the outcome as the "destruction" of his "illusion" that he is honest and ethical.

But just a minute—what is really going on here? Is that self-image really an illusion? Isn't Steve's story to himself at the time and when he later writes it up the very essence of honesty? Isn't the whole reflective process that he chooses to engage in afterwards the very essence of ethical inquiry? How else may we develop true, ethical integrity except by the compassionate, unsparing observation of our lack of integrity?

By receiving feedback and reflecting on what he wrote, Steve gradually realized that yes, of course, he possessed a real, and a real strong, ethical concern. Indeed, this concern was motivating his entire self-criticism. He came to realize that two subtle qualities pushed him out of shape at the time of the storm, one by its presence and one by its absence. The quality whose presence pushed him out of shape was Cedrick's clever use of multiple types of power (his legitimate and potentially unilateral power as a superior; his authority and fame as an expert in his craft; and the sheer seductive, man-to-man power of his down-home-Texas-macho talk about "a little ole weather"). At the time of the storm, Steve could feel the effect of Cedrick's use of power on himself, and he could feel the implicit illegitimacy of the pressure. At the same time, however, he could not name what was happening to him, nor imagine a way to defang it. This happens to a lot of us, if not all of us: When certain types of power are directed toward us, we become stunned or hypnotized, unable to articulate to ourselves what is happening to us, and unable to take creative action in response.

The quality whose absence pushed Thompson out of shape was a kind of attention or vision that can impartially observe both the storm going on outside us and the storm going on within, which we can call super-vision.

Single-, Double-, and Triple-Loop Awareness

Systems theory offers a framework for naming and understanding supervision (Deutsch 1966; Torbert 1973). In systems theory terms, during his crisis with Cedrick and the weather in the North Sea, Steve successfully dealt with single-loop feedback. He adjusted his behavior throughout the storm in such a way that the men below were recovered safely. But he also experienced a jolt of double-loop feedback that he couldn't fully digest. He knew vaguely that this feedback required him to transform his structure or strategy, not just amend his behavior. We might say he needed to clarify that when the goals of efficiency, effectiveness, and legitimacy clash in a situation, legitimacy usually deserves to come first, effectiveness second, and efficiency third (because in the longer run, efficiency is only sustainable if it leads to effectiveness and effectiveness is only sustainable if it leads to legitimacy). We might also say that Steve needed to learn that when the existing authority structure (Cedrick, in this case) uses power in a way that threatens the legitimacy of the enterprise, a counterinitiative based on a kind of transforming power that enhances mutuality is called for.

But the very notion of transforming power that enhances mutuality is unfamiliar to most people, so it is not surprising that it was unfamiliar to Steve. Moreover, most of us treat our current structure, strategy, or action-logic as our very identity. To accept double-loop feedback can feel equivalent to losing our very identity. We will tend to resist that, unless and until we feel a still deeper spiritual presence within us that allows us to continue to feel ourselves as ourselves even as we try different roles, or masks, or strategies. This deeper spiritual presence or super-vision is not based on a self-image, but rather on experiencing the actual exchange occurring among the four territories of our experience—our attention, our strategies, our actions, and our outcomes. In systems theory, this is called triple-loop feedback because, as shown in Figure 1.1, it highlights the present relationship between our effects in the outside world and (1) our action, (2) our strategy, and (3) our attention itself. Triple-loop feedback makes us present to ourselves now. (When Thoreau said he'd never met a man who was quite awake, we think he meant he'd never met a man continually present to himself in this way.)

By role-playing alternative actions he might have taken in a training setting, Steve gradually realized that he needed to listen into, but not identify with, many other aspects of the situation of which he'd been implicitly aware at the time. At first, he thought the only alternative was to have disagreed with Cedrick in a direct confrontation instead of saying "Yes, sir." But he hadn't been completely confident that he would have to bring the team up early at that point, even though the weather report was worrisome. So why risk confronting the boss then?

A simple third alternative, which he next enacted, would have been to respond to Cedrick exactly as he did at the time, but then bring the bell out of the water earlier. In reflection, he realized that, to respond to the real situation in a timely fashion, his awareness at the time would have to have been able to embrace several disharmonious systems of energy—the actual external weather system, the team diving system, Cedric's psychological system, and his own psychological system. For example, his awareness would have to have been able to embrace Cedrick's very real compliment about how well the men thought of Thompson (not just its manipulative context) and to remember and feel clearly at that time his own usual sense of himself—that others' respect for him was based on his professional good judgment, not on being a daredevil or a servile, easily manipulated conformist. In other words, to respond to Cedrick exactly as he did at the time, but then bring the bell out of the water earlier, he would have had to feel as he was beginning to feel during the role play—that his power and Cedrick's power could mutually balance and enhance one another, like the balance of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the U.S. government.


Excerpted from ACTION INQUIRY by BILL TORBERT Copyright © 2004 by Bill Torbert. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Bill Torbert is professor of management at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, former graduate dean and director of the Ph.D. Program in organizational transformation and a consultant to such organizations as Gillette, Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, Volvo, Lego, Pilgrim Health Care, Danforth Foundation, and the National Security Agency, He is the author of numerous books, including Learning from Experience and Managing the Corporate Dream.

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