In Memoriam: Chris Argyris

“When a sage dies all are his kin and should mourn the passing.” – The Talmud

One day in about 2007, Chris Argyris walked into my office at Harvard Business School, where I was teaching at the time. On seeing him, I assumed got lost as he was looking for some other famous faculty member and waited for him to ask directions. But no, he wanted to talk to me about these weird new ‘Web 2.0’ technologies and what they might mean for organizations. I’d been doing some work on this topic and had come up with the concept of ‘Enterprise 2.0;’ Chris (as everyone called him) wanted to learn more about it.

That began one of the best professional relationships of my life, albeit one marred by abject fanboy-hood. Chris was a giant in the field of organizational behavior and a particular intellectual hero of mine, because he provided the most clear and compelling explanations I’ve yet come across of some really important phenomena: why it’s so hard to have honest conversations in almost all organizations, why smart people so often make things worse instead of better, why leaders who sincerely want change find it so hard to make happen, and so on.

I won’t try to summarize Chris’s career by giving his answers to any of those questions here. If you’re interested (and who wouldn’t be?) go check out his books and HBR articles. Reading them will be one of the best investments you can make in improving your understanding of how the world works, and also improving yourself. Reading his work and talking to him didn’t make me a good person, but it sure made me a better one.

I wish his work got the attention it deserves. Part of the reason why not, I believe, is that he was not only clear about organizational failure modes, but also about how much time and effort were needed to get past them. He didn’t offer quick fixes or ‘the 4-hour organization.’ Instead, he stressed that it was a real slog to make things legitimately better. I think his honesty cost him some attention, probably even a lot of it, but that’s a tradeoff I’m sure he was happy with. Chris was the most intellectually honest scholar I’ve met; watering down his medicine to make it go down easier would have been anathema to him.

Chris Argyris passed away on Saturday, November 16. His death impoverishes our world; his contributions great enriched it. I’m glad I got to know him a bit, and sad I’ll never again get the chance to learn  by talking to him.