REFLECTING ON WHAT?
On-line Conference on Don Schön's Reflective Practitioners
Dr. Willem J.A.M. Overmeer
Duxx Graduate School of Business
Leadership Monterrey, NL, Mexico
Theseus International Management Institute Sophia Antipolis, France
E-mail: Wovermeer@IBM.net Wovermee@Stern.NYU.Edu
New York City Feb 18, 1998
A friend of mine once met Don Schön at a party. He
was impressed by Don's work but had never met him. As he walked up to
Don and introduced himself he said "I like your work". Don looked
at the daughter on my friend's arm and said "I like your work too".
Apart from showing a graceful way of deflecting a talk about work at a
party and a sense of quick wit, this mini vignette illustrates a Don's
reluctance to talk about his work and about "reflections" as
such. When others talked about reflection (under non-party conditions),
Don often wondered "reflection about what?" and implored "you'd
have to think about SOMETHING". And a close colleague of Don, Jeanne
Bamberger, added that when kids play the game of continuously repeating
a world like 'rhubarb', the word starts to lose its meaning after twenty
times and increasingly becomes a mere sound distorted by a rapid pronunciation.
Words in good currency, like "reflection", she said, run the
risk of a similar fate.
Indeed, many of us in business schools and consulting have
witnessed the tide of 'in-words' like "core competence" that
become grist for a particular kind of a mill -- that is, a mill that generates
sound bites with the following, predictable dynamic: (i) an idea emerges
as a powerful concept for a thoughtful few, (ii) it is discovered as a
hot topic by a growing group of converted, (iii) it becomes a worn-out
phrase discarded 'en masse' as 'old hat'. The early stages of this dynamic
can be discerned in the work of Schön (as well Argyris's work and
their joint work) when looking at the references people make in scientific
papers about 'organizational learning'. You will see a host of perfunctory
references, e.g. taking a concept such as "a theory of action"
and use it to support for or even equate it with something the author
wants to say. Don himself early on understood this dynamic and was wary
of it. Several times in his career, when his work struck a chord with
a larger group, he deliberated stepped back so as not be drawn into the
maelstrom of the later stages of this dynamic. He also understood how
"talk of change is often a substitute for engaging in it"(Schön,
1970). Hence, his reluctance to engage in the talk about his work in the
abstract and his keen interest in the practice of others.
Let me illustrate the problem of "talking about reflection
rather than engaging in it". I teach a course 'Intelligence-in-Action'
at Duxx Graduate School of Business Leadership in Monterrey, Mexico. One
participant, a former diplomat, had serious difficulties understanding
and solving differential equations and courageously decided to reflect
on the difficulties he experienced in learning mathematics.
To give you a sense of his attempt, his paper had the following
headings: "Definitions", "Goals", "How to measure
the process of learning?", "The problem: describing the initial
point of measuring", "Understanding the problem", "Creating
a solution", and "Conclusion".
NOWHERE in his paper did he attempt to show how he would
ACTUALLY go about solving a differential equation. The outcome of his
reflection (in "Creating a solution") was the design of "my
ideal class for learning how to solve a derivative". This would involve
a teacher who would: (i) "explain a real situation and state a question",
(ii) "explain all or at least a few causes of that are capable of
changing the situation described", (iii) "explain what is the
real goal to obtain", etc.
Apart from the fact that his teacher had done these kinds
of things in class, this strategy precluded him from engaging in the very
problem he tried to address. His paper demonstrated considerable skills
in "thinking", even in "reflecting on his thinking",
but it was disconnected from the problem he tried to address -- solving
differential equations. While, perhaps, an extreme case, in my work in
a number of leading professional schools, I have seen multiple versions
of this problem of disconnectedness between "thinking" and "doing".
And, Seymour Papert (1980) states: "You can't think seriously about
thinking without thinking about something".
It is against this background that Don usually invited practitioners
to write cases about their practice -- i.e. to describe what they actually
did to address situations that were difficult for them. He then asked
them to reflect on "what they were thinking as they were doing it".
One of the things practitioners often discovered was that they had non-trivial
difficulties writing a case about their own practice. It was not that
they were not doing anything, often quite the opposite. The question they
were struggling was "how can I describe / capture what I do in such
a way that it can become subject to reflection?" and "for what
purpose do I reflect?" Here Don would provide help and become a "co-inquirer"
into their practice. He would focus on how a practitioner framed the problem
he was facing, and how the framing complicated the addressing of the problem.
For instance, in the course I described above, one participant,
and an heir to a family business that was experiencing severe financial
difficulties, wrote a case about firing employees. The case included his
rendition of a dialogue he had with an employee to be fired, a woman suspected
of having "a bad attitude" and being "very aggressive".
The dialogue showed HOW he got into trouble -- an escalating conflict
that led the woman to go to the local government agencies, thereby complicating
the task of laying off people. The participant wanted to fire people without
upsetting them and, as a result of this framing, would "ease in"
his conversations in the following way:
(i) He started out by trying to "break the ice"
and asking her "have you been okay?" She answered with a terse
"Yes thank you".
(ii) He then told her that "our company is passing
through a very difficult time, the situation is getting more serious every
day, and we are not being able to support the level of expenses that we
are have now". She responded with exasperation "So, what are
you trying to tell me?"
(iii) Next he tried to be "nice" to her by saying
"You have been working for us for several years, and I am very grateful
for your collaboration; but now we come to a point were we need to ask
you to leave the company". Aggravated, she answered pointedly "So,
you are going to fire me now?" to which he responded "Don't
take it that way, it is just that I have to do this".
The employee responded to his "easing in" with
increasing exasperation (sensing indirectness) and became increasingly
upset in large part BECAUSE of his strategy of easing in. This strategy
was grounded in the framing of the problem -- a dilemma of how "to
fire without upsetting the one being fired". The way the practitioner
framed the task made it increasingly difficult for him to address it.
What he wanted to avoid -- the employee becoming upset -- actually did
happen but mostly through his own behavior. Underneath this framing of
the problem, it turned out, was another framing of the problem -- firing
as "severing a tie" or "amputation". Instead of merely
breaking off a relationship unilaterally, the practitioner began to see
that he could provide help because of his standing in a social network
and could call other firms that might be in need of workers.
Don focused on this design task and tried to help practitioners
become aware (i) THAT they intuitively frame and design tasks, and (ii)
that THE WAY they frame tasks gets them into trouble of their OWN making.
Very often this trouble complicated their task to the point of overwhelming
them (as in the case of the practitioner mentioned above), or, in Herbert
Simon's terms, to the point that it overloaded their bounded capacity
for information processing. Don then helped practitioners reframe and
redesign the task in a way that would undo some of the added complexity
thereby making the task more manageable. This, in turn, would lead to
new design dilemmas which might upset the practitioner. For instance,
a participant may not see as his task to assist laid-off employees in
finding a new job because it puts an extra work load on him in already
taxing circumstances of keeping a family business afloat. It is under
the conditions of facing an upset practitioner who may challenge him that
Don showed a deeper competence. Don not only tried to articulate and develop
this competence; he also tried hard to help others to develop this competence
Drawing on Dewey, he would describe this competence as being
able: (i) to face the "radical uncertainty" inherent in an indeterminate
situation of practice, (ii) to continue to inquire and to keep moving"
so as to "transform the situation into a more manageable one",
(iii) to engage, when necessary, in "on-the-spot experimentation"
within the action frame (so as to make a difference).
If we take Don's advice about "reflecting on SOMETHING"
seriously, then what are the implications for this "on-line"
conference? What does it mean to have a conference on "reflective
practice", in particular when the conference is "on-line"?
Don would probe for examples of the practice of participants. After he
would have explored their cases, he might ponder how some of his ideas
expressed in book form, actually help participants in their work as teachers,
consultants, researcher, administrations, etc.? What would they do differently
in concrete case? How does their work test his theory? And, faced with
such a novelty as an "on-line conference", Don would probably
be alert as to how this technology influences the quality of the dialogue
that is taking place. I hope that every participant of this conference
will heed this advice.
D.A. Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: how professionals
think in action, New York: Basic Books, 1983.
D.A. Schön, Beyond the stable state, New York: Norton,
Seymour Papert, Mindstorms, New York: Basic Books, 1980.
A terrific example is Giovan Francesco Lanzara, "Shifting
stories", in D.A. Schön (ed.), The reflective turn, 1989.
the list of Conference papers]