Kent Bottles: Why Smart People Don’t Learn from Failures

January 18, 2010 at 10:42 am 8 comments

My ICSI colleague Claire Neely recently mentioned that the classic Chris Argyris article “Teaching Smart People How to Learn” had been an “aha” moment in her efforts to learn how to better teach and reach physicians. While I don’t think I have ever read that article, I had been impressed with Chris Argyris, especially his work with Donald Schoen.  Claire emailed me the article, and it really is a classic that needs to be read. (

Originally copyrighted by the Harvard Business Review in 1991, Argyris’ article succinctly outlines the challenges we all face in a knowledge economy, and he concludes that learning is imperative for individual and organizational success in such a global marketplace.  People have to master technical skills, work effectively in teams, form productive relationships with clients, and critically reflect on and change their own organizational culture. Managers and leaders have to guide and integrate the autonomous but interconnected work of highly skilled people.

Argyris distinguishes between single loop and double loop learning.  “A thermostat that automatically turns on the heat whenever the temperature in a room drops below 68 degrees is a good example of single loop learning. A thermostat that could ask, ‘Why am I set at 68 degrees?’ and then explore whether or not some other temperature might more economically achieve the goal of heating the room would be engaging in double loop learning.”

Many professionals like doctors have been almost always successful and so they are not good at learning from failure. When their single loop learning goes wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism and blame others but not themselves for the failure. They are not good at double loop learning.  Effective double loop learning depends on how we feel and how we think.  Argyris believes there is a universal tendency for us to design our actions according to four values: to remain in control, to win and not lose, to not feel negative, and to be rational.  Their purpose is to keep us feeling safe and competent and happy.

The business consultants Argyris studied were skilled at rationally analyzing and improving their clients’ problems and challenges, but they were defensive and reluctant to ever admit their own contribution to failed engagements.  In Joseph LeDoux’s 2000 book The Emotional Brain, the battle between the amygdala and the neocortex for control of the brain is discussed.  We are designed to procreate and get out of trouble fast.  In times of perceived danger, our brains are designed to allow the fear system (amygdala) to take control of the brain and to override the conscious, deliberate, rational system (neocortex).  Argyris’s business consultants are using their neocortex when analyzing their clients’ business and their amygdala when responding to management’s feedback on their own performance.

Timothy Wilson in Strangers to Ourselves takes this line of thinking even further when he develops the concepts of the adaptive unconscious and consciousness.  Our five senses take in 11 million pieces of information at any one time, but we are only conscious of 40 pieces of information.  The other 10,999,960 pieces of information are still affecting us, mostly through the fear system.  The adaptive unconsciousness system is multiple, detects patterns, deals with the present, is automatic, precocious, and sensitive to negative information.  The conscious system is single, an after the fact checker, takes the long view, is controlled, is slow to develop, and is sensitive to positive information.

Argyris describes ways for leaders to become aware of the ways they reason defensively and automatically.  He believes that until leaders model the ideal behaviors necessary for learning in a double loop way staff will be unable to overcome their automatic, unconscious rejection of feedback and constructive criticism that makes them feel embarrassed, vulnerable, and unhappy.

I was thinking about double loop learning from failure when I read a front page New York Times article about how American business leaders rarely take responsibility for bad outcomes. “‘American culture does not put a premium on apology,’ said Michael Useem, professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. ‘The level of anger in this public in general is extremely high against those who led Wall Street into the abyss, in part because they never stepped forward to apologize for the mess they made.’”

“ The former Time Warner chief, Gerald M. Levin, caused jaws to drop last week by taking the blame for ‘the worst deal of the century,’ the decade-old merger of America Online and Time Warner. Yet few other chief executives, including the handful of Wall Street chieftains who acknowledge missteps, have embraced his plea to accept personal responsibility for decisions that have caused pain, loss and suffering for many ordinary Americans.”

The 10th anniversary of the failed AOL/Time Warner merger revealed a lot about American business leaders who should read Chris Argyris’ article (

Sydney Finkelstein, a management professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and author of a recent book, said: “Out of the 100 or so companies we looked at, only one acknowledged managerial culpability — Andy Grove at Intel for the company’s handling of the Pentium. We specifically looked at many other companies and found none who admitted managerial error, let alone apologized for it.”

The importance of learning from failure was highlighted for me when I read about a new study that concluded that a UNICEF program that spent $27 million to decrease child deaths from disease in West Africa has failed; a higher survival rate in some regions that were not included in the program was discovered. This latest study is in addition to criticisms of UN initiatives over the past two decades that have invested $200 billion in such programs without clear benefits (

A disturbing and sad example of how defensiveness and inability to accept the lessons of failure can be disastrous is the ongoing investigation into botched prostate cancer treatments at the Philadelphia VA where 97 of 114 patients treated over a six-year period received incorrect doses of radiation (

“Changes in the VA’s position during the 19-month investigation bother Steve Reynolds, director of the division of nuclear material safety for NRC Region III, which oversees the Veterans Health Administration.

‘If you look at the facts of the situation, they had major problems at VA Philadelphia,’ Reynolds said. ‘The doctors, the medical physicists, the radiation safety officer, the radiation safety committee – they weren’t doing their jobs as we expected them to do.’” (

I do not want to end this blog on such a depressing note.  There are examples where people do exhibit double loop learning and the ability to learn from failure.  Bill Callahan is a football coach who is famous for being fired in rapid succession by the Oakland Raiders and the University of Nebraska for failing to win enough games.  He is now the offensive line coach for the New York Jets and is praised for being one of the best; three of his players just made the Pro Bowl.  “Having worked as a coordinator and a head coach at the pro and college levels, Callahan believes he can better appreciate the simplicity of coaching one position.”  He has learned something from failure. (

Entry filed under: General Info. Tags: .

Gary Oftedahl: Learning from Aesop Kent Bottles: Check Lists & Decision Trees v. Spontaneity & Imagination


  • 1. Trisha Torrey  |  January 18, 2010 at 12:30 pm


    This is a fascinating way to explain what often doesn’t make sense — that intelligent people can’t learn from failure because they have other motivators that are more important to them.

    Would be interesting to see this analysis applied to why most physicians can’t seem to apologize to their patients when they fail either. Not just apologies for big picture failures (like your VA example) but to individuals.

    How can we take this knowledge and improve the possibilities beginning in medical school – or even earlier?


  • 2. e-Patient Dave  |  January 18, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    I agree with Trisha. So, now that we understand this, what can we do about it?

  • 3. Gregg Masters  |  January 18, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    Oh my, 1 out of 100+ companies’ surveyed admit to their pride based incompetence, ie, managerial culpability!

    Clearly we’re in too deep, i.e., afflicted with the disease of self righteousness, most likely borne from the need to perform for mommy and daddy’s approval, and need to be saved from ourselves.

  • 4. DrV  |  January 18, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    Nice post.
    Reminds me of the words of Seth Godin in Tribes, “The secret of being wrong isn’t to avoid being wrong. The secret is being willing to be wrong. The secret is realizing that wrong isn’t fatal. The only thing that makes people and organizations great is their willingness to be not great along the way.”

    Trisha – One issue to address: How should plaintiff attorneys be allowed to use apologies from physicians?

  • 5. Charles Atkinson  |  January 19, 2010 at 3:44 am

    As founder of the Whole Brain Corporation with Ned Herrmann, I would suggest that thinking and solving problems in the four metaphorical quadrants of the brain would be exponentially better.

    But I love your post and the comment from Gregg Masters!!!

  • 6. Trisha Torrey  |  January 19, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    DrV – good question, of course.

    It would be (relatively) simple if attorneys had access only to paperwork, facts and other evidence, and not the personal conversations that take place between a wronged patient and a truly apologetic provider.

    Statistics show that when an apology is offered, the rate of filed lawsuits is (something like) 1/3 of what it is when no apology is offered.

    Here’s one patient’s perspective:

  • 7. David Harlow  |  January 20, 2010 at 9:49 am

    @Kent – great post

    @Charles – Could you say more about this model?

    @DrV, @Trisha – About 2/3 of states have “I’m Sorry” laws, which means that apologies are not admissible in court as proof of a physician’s culpability ina malpractice proceeding. The psychic benefit of the apology – both to patient and provider – is incalculable. The monetary benefit, however, is calculable, and the news about the University of Michigan’s health system in the past several months – malpractice payouts cut in half – while not attributable entirely to their medical apologies policy, makes it clear that “Sorry Works.” The protected apology, it is important to note, is a simple “I’m sorry” — not “I screwed up.”

    An effective medical apology program needs to include (1) the initial simple apology, (2) a commitment to engage in a root cause analysis and to ameliorate systems issues that are identified (as the hematopathologist did in Trisha’s case), (3) an apology accepting blame, if that is what the root cause analysis shows, and (4) a settlement offer (which in this context can often be far lower than a judgment in a med-mal trial).

    Interested physician groups or health care institutions may contact me regarding presentations and trainings on developing and implementing medical apologies policies and procedures, provided by a multidisciplinary team.

  • 8. Eric Rumsey  |  January 29, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Kent, Thanks, interesting. Have you thought about gender in considering willingness to learn from mistake? — Somewhat tangential on this, your article makes me think back to the 1980’s when I did mediated Medline searching for healthcare people, an interesting operation from which I learned much about medicine, and from which I learned to navigate the intricacies of the NLM Medical Subject Heading system. I was often struck by the way male physicians were much less open to my suggestions about how to do the search than female physicians — Male physicians more likely to be in the “doctor is always right” mode of thinking?


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