People Packaged in Ideas – On Critical Thinking in Organizational Culture

September 17, 2018 • ILE LAB • Boaz Tamir

In the field of product development, critical thinking is a methodological principle intended to transform an idea into a low risk, successful product

Fist-Fights in the Managers’ Meeting

At the doctoral seminar at MIT led by Edgar Schein, we often analyzed the organizational culture and managerial style of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) – the company that developed computer technology that, during the 1980s, challenged IBM’s monopoly over the computer market.  In his book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Schein describes in detail the company’s managers’ lively meetings, led by founder and CEO Kenneth (Ken) Olson.

Ed, who spoke softly, almost in a whisper, presented his ethnographic research into DEC’s cultural organization with a life-like description of the wild arguments in the meetings and managerial sessions that he observed.  There were moments, he said, when he feared that a meeting would deteriorate into physical violence; yet, to his surprise, only moments after the meeting ended, the participants could be observed in the cafeteria, laughing and joking comfortably with each other.  The artifacts of the organizational culture at DEC included trust, values and basic assumptions, on the basis of which they were able to conduct the passionate (sometimes aggressive) arguments that provided an effective platform for shared learning, examination and problem solving.

Edgar Schein’s Fruitful Argumentative Culture

It was Ed who brought the culture of constructive argument to the departmental seminars and researchers’ learning sessions that he facilitated at the Sloan School of Management.  In turn, each of the researchers in the group presented his or her research, ideas, thoughts or events in which they had participated.  My previous familiarity with the usually-reserved faculty members and students had not prepared me for the noisy experiences in which my colleagues and fellow-students even dared to go after their teachers.  Ed was not in the least perturbed by the barrage of sarcastic comments and the attempts to shake up the positions that each of the presenters brought to the group, while I remember very clearly how terrified I was, when, as a new participant, I had to present a draft of my research to Ed’s seminar’s firing squad.

After weeks of intense work, I had a draft, which, I thought, didn’t leave the participants in the seminar any opportunity to attack me.  I was wrong.  A few minutes into my presentation, a volley of questions, cynical comments and disdainful looks was fired at the immature ideas that I, a PhD student at MIT, had the audacity to present.  I looked to Ed, begging for help, and while his expression was empathic, he made it clear that he had no intention of throwing me a life vest.  As we were leaving the seminar, as I was feeling that my entire world had been destroyed, Ed told me softly, “It was a valuable meeting.  I hope it will be useful…”

Useful?! I looked at him in despair.  But he smiled and went on his way.  To my surprise, in the coming meetings, I didn’t experience any of the disdain that I had felt in that traumatic meeting, and I didn’t feel ashamed at all.

After getting used to the style of the research meetings at MIT, I learned to appreciate their critical thinking and the humbleness that doubt and criticism can bring.  Each and every participant was committed to critiquing the idea, and not the person, and to examining the topic from different points of view, disrupting basic assumptions, and searching for new ways to look at the subject.

Advancing Science or Advancing Yourself?

At academic conferences, I found the same argumentative style and volleys of questions, albeit less potent than those that I experienced in the departmental seminars at MIT.  But I was once told that at academic conferences, the discussion is actually mostly about ego games that are so characteristic of competition among academics.  At these conferences, I feel that I am participating in a people market, in which ideas serve merely as packaging for zero-sum political games in which there is no trust or shared goals, so that fruitful, useful learning becomes very difficult.

The values of the fruitful critical discussion can exist only on the condition that the participants share mutual trust and a common goal of in-depth learning.  In a group like that, everyone is a partner on the journey towards understanding, and all ideas – but never people – are fair game.

Between a Creative Idea and a Sustainable Product

In order to transform a visional dream into a sustainable reality, the professional developmental environment must bridge the tension between creative thinking and critical thinking, and between optimistic entrepreneurship and cautious conservatism.  To allow for free creative thinking, it is important to spread a safety net that includes front loading the risks by empirical criteria for judgement, according to scientific experimentations (Plan-Do-Check-Adjust).

Ed Schein developed his values over years of facilitating discussions based on critical thinking.  It is difficult to understand the depth of his books, “Humble Consulting” and “Humble Inquiry” without understanding the critical thinking that is at their base, which Schein (together with his son, Peter) articulated in his most recent book, published in 2018, “Humble Leadership:  The Power of Relationship, Openness, and Trust.

Edgar Schein’s writings have enabled me to understand the principle of critical thinking found in the heart of organizations that develop products according to the LPPD principles.

Boaz Tamir, ILE.

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