14 January 2010

Great Books, Part 2

The book I'm in the middle of now is The Reflective Practitioner, by Donald Schon. It's another book that I've read a few times over the years, but always from a library. Now I've got my own copy and I'm marking it up like crazy.

"Reflective Practice" is about "knowledge-in-action," an intuitive, often undescribable approach that is more craft than process. Schon looks at the practice of medicine, law, engineering, architecture and urban planning, and examines the divergence between academia and practice (also described as the dilemma between academic rigor and practical relevance). He argues that skilled practitioners exhibit "a kind of rigor that is both like and unlike the rigor of scholarly research..."

Schon writes about the practitioner who makes "innumerable judgments of quality for which he cannot state adequate criteria, and he displays skills for which he cannot state the rules and procedures." It's basically the antithesis of the idea that "if you can't describe what you do as a process, you don't know what you're doing."

Schon says a good practitioner does indeed "know" what he or she is doing. The knowledge is expressed in the action, because words and diagrams are inadequate to convey the knowledge. He's quite critical of the positivist model of technical rationality and its belief that "empirical science was not just a form of knowledge but the only source of positive knowledge of the world." In contrast, Schon asserts that "competent practitioners usually know more than they can say."

It's a great book - albeit heavily intellectual and occasionally a bit dry. But I love it and heartily recommend picking up a copy.


catmeal said...

Ironically, I have had this exact experience while facilitating continuous process improvement(CPI) events. Some facilitators have the idea that they can come into an event with absolutely no knowledge of the topic, that their only job is to use the tools they have been taught in their CPI courses to get a group of people to agree. Those people should never be facilitators!
While facilitators are not there for their expertise about a given topic, they should do everything they can to learn the basics of the groups language (especially acronyms), issues, culture, history, etc. - given that you only have so much time to prepare for an event. This level of rigor and effort in pre-event research frees the practitioner from lower-level "survival" thoughts and allows them to channel their CPI knowledge effectively. This has some similarity to Maslow's (sp?) Hierarchy of Needs.
The true benefit of getting subject matter experts together to discuss a topic, design a process, or solve a problem is that the whole may be greater than the sum of the parts. This is how the group reaches "self actualization." If the group members don't feel safe and valued, they're not going to contribute. They don't want to be embarassed in front of their peers. It's just plain pride. Why should the facilitator be any different? Research removes the basis for some of these fears and builds the level of trust the facilitator has with the group. This is a pretty poor way to explain it, but you just have to trust me.
Anyway, I've been in events where I was the only one in the room who could see how we were going to get the results we needed at the end of the week because I had it all mapped out in my head. Even though I was using tools that the other facilitators knew, they couldn't see how to make the connections until the event was over. People who rely too much on a given method or approach or tool just because they understand, even though it's not right for a given situation or isn't working they way it had in similar situations, are doing their customers a disservice. To be a practitioner is to use those tools as a safety net, not a crutch. You also have to let go of your fears and your pride, at least when you're facilitating. You have to be an expert yet vulnerable; you have to listen to what people are saying, even if it sounds critical, and not take it personally or cause you to give less than your best out of self preservation. More to follow...

catmeal said...

Finally, we need to stop thinking that we can get the same results as an "expert" practitioner just because we use the same methods. You know what I'm talking about because we've all been there. How many people took Covey classes in the 90's? I did. I listened; I did the exercises; I explored my roles and listed my priorities... Do I still use anything from those classes today? Not really. I know people who do, but to assume that everyone is going to be forever changed and never fall off the path of enlightenment is just not realistic.
I feel the same way about some of the stuff I learned from Dale Carnegie. As I took those classes, I had to stop and think about the authenticity of learning techniques for "winning friends and influencing people." If you need to "win" people, are they really your "friends"? Don't get me wrong, I'm not against taking these and all the other classes available. I think we need to latch onto the "good" and useful things these folks teach and chalk the rest up to experience. Don't even get me started on the whole P90X thing. I wouldn't mind looking like Tony Horton, but I don't want to be him (and I certainly don't like listening to him go on and on...).
It's good that I came across these topics the night before I head to Miami for 4 days of Business Process Reengineering training by Hammer and Company. I hope to learn some good stuff, but I will incorporate that knowledge into my own value system and allow it to expand my way of thinking. Those things will occur in my conscious and subconscious, but the degree to which they resonate in me is determined by who God made me to be.
If Michelangelo created a value stream map of his painting process, complete with the accompanying business rules, architecture views, checklists, and operating instructions, would I be able to follow those things and create the same level of brilliant work that he did? No. His technical skill translated what was in his soul into his art. I aspire to his level but not in his craft.
It would be high praise indeed if we all spent as much time trying to become who God made us to be as we did envying and imitating those we admire.

The Dan Ward said...

Great stuff - thanks! I love your last line in particular. I think it was Henri Nouwen who talked about looking to the great saints of the past for "illumination, not imitation."

So, stuff like best practices, "proven methods," and all the rest are, as you said, best applied in the attempt to be who God made us to be, in our own lives & contexts. I recommend we treat them as being descriptive, not prescriptive.

And btw, you definitely strike me as a Reflective Practitioner... :)