How to increase your consulting success ratio. Wisdom from Harvard’s Argyris


From Intervention Theory and Method of Behavioral Science View.


Professor Chris Agyris, Harvard. 1970.  pages 16-20.

Professor Koestenbaum invited me to share with him the central theory and methodology from which I operate transforming whole systems.

 It comes from Dr. Argyris who was an adjunct professor in my Pepperdine Masters program in Organization Development.  Our entire class agreed that Argyris was the most boring professor and his readings were the most difficult but what he had to say was the most important  principles or practices that we received in our entire masters program.

 I have here a couple of pages that distills what we as a class called the Holy Trinity of OD:  valid data, free choice or free will and internal commitment.

 I now dictate from his book:

 Basic requirements for intervention activity

 Are there any basic or necessary processes that must be fulfilled regardless of the substantial issues involved, if intervention activity is to be helpful with any level of client (individual, group or organization)?

 One condition that seems so basic as to be defined axiomatic  is the generation of valid information.

 Without valid information, it would be difficult for the client to learn and for the intervention is to help.

 A second condition almost as basic flows from our assumption that the intervention activity, no matter what its substantive interests and objectives, should be so designed and executed that the client system maintains its discreteness and autonomy. Thus free, informed choice is also a necessary process in effective intervention activity.

 Finally, if the client system is assumed to be ongoing (that is, existing over time), the clients require strengthening to maintain their autonomy not only  vis-a-vis  the interventionist but also vis-a-vis other systems. This means that their commitment to learn and change has to be more than temporary. It has to be so strong that it can be transferred to relationships other than those with the intervention is and can do so (eventually) without the help of the interventionist.  The third basic process for any intervention activity is therefore the clients internal commitment to the choices made.

 In summary, valid information, free choice, and internal commitment are considered integral parts of any intervention activity, no matter what the subject and objectives are (for example, developing a management performance evaluation scheme, reducing intergroup rivalries, into increasingly degree of trust among individuals, redesigning budgetary system or redesigning work). These three processes are called the primary intervention tasks.

 Primary tasks of an interventionist (Change Agent) 

 Why is it necessary to hypothesize that in order for an interventionist to behave effectively and in order that the integrity of the client system be maintained, the interventionist has to focus on three primary tasks, regardless of the substantive problems that the client system may be experiencing?


Valid and useful information

 First, it has been accepted as axiomatic that valid and useful information is the foundation for effective intervention. Valid information is that which describes the factors, plus their interrelationships, that create the problem for the client system.

 There are several tests for checking the validity of the information.

In increasing degrees of power they are public variability, valid prediction and control over the phenomena. The first is having several independent diagnoses suggest the same picture. Second is generating predictions from the diagnosis that are substantially confirmed  (they occurred under the conditions that were specified). Third, is altering the factors systemically and predicting the effects upon the system as a whole. All these tests, if they are to be valid, must be carried out in such a way that the participants cannot, at will, make them come true.  This would be a self-fulfilling prophecy and not a confirmation of a prediction. This difficulty with a self-fulfilling prophecy is the indication of more about the degree of power and individual (or subset of individuals) can muster to alter the system then about the nature of the system when the participants are behaving without knowledge of the diagnosis. For example, if an executive learns that the interventionist projects his subordinates will behave  (a) if he behaves (b), he might alter (b) in order not to lead to (a), such an alteration indicates the executive’s power but does not test the validity of the diagnoses that if (a) then (b).

 The tests for valid information have important implications for effective intervention activity. First, the interventionist’s diagnoses is must strive to represent the total client system and not the point of view of any subgroup or individual. Otherwise, the interventionist could not be seen only as being under the control of a particular individual or subgroup, but also his predictions would be based upon inaccurate information and thus might not be confirmed.

 This does not mean that an interventionist may not begin with, or may not limit his relationship to, a subpart of the total system. It is totally possible, for example, for the intervention is to help management, blacks, trade union leaders, etc. With whatever subgroup he works he simply should not agree to limit his diagnosis to its wishes.

 It is conceivable that a client system may be helped even though valid information is not generated. Sometimes changes occur in a positive direction without the interventionist having played any important role. These changes, although helpful in that specific instant, lacked the attribute of helping the organization to learn and to gain control over its problem-solving capability.

 The importance of information that the clients can use to control their destiny points up the requirement that the information must not only be valid, it must be useful. Valid information that cannot be used by the clients to alter their system is equivalent to valid information about cancer that cannot be used to cure cancer eventually. An interventionist’s diagnosis should include variables that are manipulated by the clients and are complete enough so that if they are not manipulated effective change will follow.


 In order to have free choice, the client has to have a cognitive map of what he wishes to do. The objectives of his action are known at the moment of the decision. Free choice implies voluntary as opposed to automatic; proactive rather than reactive. The active selection is rarely accomplished by maximizing or optimizing. Free and informed choice entails what Simon has called “satisfying,” that is, selecting the alternative with the highest probability of succeeding, given some specified cost constraints. Free choice places the locus of decision-making in the client system. Free choice makes it possible for the clients to remain responsible for their destiny. Through free choice the clients can maintain the autonomy of their system.

 It may be possible that clients prefer to give up the responsibility and their autonomy, especially if they’re feeling a sense of failure. They may prefer, as we shall see in several examples, to turn over their free choice to the interventionist. They may insist that he make recommendations and tell them what to do. The interventionist resists these pressures because if he does not, the clients will lose their free choice and he will lose his own free choice also. He will be controlled by the anxieties of the clients.

The requirement of free choice is especially important for those helping activities where the processes of help are as important as the actual help.

For example, a medical doctor does not require that the patient with a bullet wound participate in the process of defining the kind of help he needs. However, the same doctor may have to pay much more attention to the processes he uses to help patients when he is attempting to diagnose blood pressure or cure high cholesterol. If he doctor behaves in ways that upset the client, the latter’s blood pleasure may well be distorted.  Or, the patient can develop a dependent relationship if the doctor cuts down his cholesterol– increasing habits only under constant pressure from the doctor– and the moment the relationship is broken off, the count goes up.

 Effective intervention in the human and social spheres requires that the process of help be congruent and with the outcome desired, Free choice is important because there are so many unknowns and the interventionist wants the client to have as much willingness and motivation as possible to work on the problem. With high client motivation and commitment, several different methods for change can succeed.

 A choice is free to the extent the members can make their selection for a course of action with minimal internal defensiveness; can define the path by which the intended consequence is to be achieved; can reduce the choice to their essential needs; and can build into their choices a realistic and challenging level of aspiration. Free choice therefore implies that the members are able to explore as many alternatives as they consider significant and select those that are central to their needs.

 Why must the choice be related to the central needs and why must the level of aspiration be realistic and challenging? Make people not choose freely on realistic or on challenging objectives? Yes, they may do so in the short run, but not for the long if they still want to have free and informed choice. A freely chosen course of action means that the action must be based on an accurate analysis of the situation and not on the biases or defenses of the decision-makers. We know, from the level of aspiration studies, that choices which are too high or too low, which are too difficult or not difficult enough will tend to lead to psychological failure. Psychological failure will lead to increased defensiveness, increase failure and decrease self-acceptance on part of the members experiencing the failure. These conditions, in turn, will tend to lead to distorted perceptions by the members making the choices. Moreover, the defensive members may unintentionally create a climate where the members of surrounding and interrelated systems will tend to provide careful censored information. Choices made under these conditions are neither informed nor free.

 Turning to the question of centrality of needs, a similar logic applies. The degree of commitment to the processes of generating valid information, scanning, and choosing may significantly vary according to the centrality of the choice to the needs of the clients. The more central the choice, the more the system will strive to do its best in developing valid information and making free and informed choices. If the research from perpetual psychology is valid, the very perception of the clients is altered by the needs involved. Individuals tend to scan more, ask for more information, and be more careful in their choices when they’re making decisions that are central to them. High involvement may produce perceptual distortions, as does low involvement. The interventionist, however may be a greater probability of helping the clients explore possible when the choice they are making is a critical one.

Internal Commitment

 Internal commitment means the course of action or choice that has been internalized by each member that he experiences a high degree of ownership and has a feeling of responsibility about the choice and its implications. Internal commitment means that the individual has reached the point where he is acting on the choice because it fulfills his own needs and sense of responsibility, as well as those of the system.

The individual who is internally committed is acting primarily under the influence of his own forces and not induced forces. The individual (or any unity) feels a minimal degree of dependence upon others for the action. It implies that he has obtained and processed valid information that he has made an informed and free choice. Under these conditions there is a high probability that the individual’s commitment will remain strong over time or under stress, or when others challenge the course of action. It also implies that the individual is continually open to re-examination of her position because she believes in taking action based upon valid information.





2 Responses to “How to increase your consulting success ratio. Wisdom from Harvard’s Argyris”

  1. rolandsullivan Says:

    From the arguably number 1 business philosopher of the 20th and 21st Century… Professor Peter Koestenbaum.

    “This information on Argyris at Pepperdine was taken down 43 years ago, close to half a century ago.
    After reading the above, I went over the Wikipedia pages on Argyris and his work with Putnam and Schön (I met the latter at Pepperdine).
    My first restatement of your summary (yours trumps mine, but helps me absorb what you so profoundly say) would be
    (1) accurate data,
    (2) freedom and free will,
    (3) autonomy and self-sufficiency or self-procreation, -replication.
    It all adds up to viability (merely processing what you yourself stated so well).

    Your sending this and thinking about all of that and sharing it, and then requesting my editing your earlier statement — are all expressions of sharp thinking, high level of responsibility and good business practice. And

    I can scarcely find the words to thank you, dear friend.

    Peter. “


  2. Marion Marbry Says:

    Very efficiently written information. It will be useful to everyone who usess it, including yours truly :). Keep up the good work – looking forward to more posts.


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