The maddening insufficiency of being well informed

I’m continuing my deep-dive into Kegan-world and recently finished reading:

How the way we talk can change the way we work: seven languages for transformation

It was a joy of a book to read, primarily focusing on Kegan and Lahey’s “Immunity to Change” framework, which I’ll cover in a different post. This post is about a powerful insight that was buried in the book’s epilogue, but is one of my biggest takeaways from reading it.

It’s this notion of “the maddening insufficiency of being well informed” as Kagan and Lahey call it. Here’s how they explain it:

Imagine that you are a conscientious and concerned physician practicing at this moment in history. There has never been more known about the human body, not greater capacity for the practitioner to access this knowledge. There has never been such a storehouse of medical technologies or pharmaceutical sophistication. There has never been as much known about the way the relationship between doctor and patient plays a critical role in effective intervention. In so many ways, doctors have never been so well informed with respect to diagnosis and treatment.

Yet if you go behind the scenes with many doctors, they take you to a repeatedly poignant place of frustration and even helplessness: the widespread noncompliance of patients in their own treatment. No increased capacity to diagnose illness correctly, prescribe proper treatment, or communicate sensitively with the patient has any effect on this weak link in the healthcare chain: many patients won’t alter the behaviors that make them sick or take the medicine that will make them well. Imagine the frustration of a physician who has worked to master the necessary knowledge, who is profoundly well informed, in possession of the knowledge that should really make a difference – and who comes to discover its stymieing insufficiency.

Imagine you are a management consultant or a business analyst. You and your team members are frequently engaged to assess the operations and structures of organizations, to diagnose the constraints in current arrangements, and suggest new strategies and choices to help companies better realize their ambitions or even redesign their view of their purposes.

There may never be a business equivalent of the Genome Project, but within its own terms the accelerated capacity of management specialist to study organizations and their practices has been extraordinary. Because of new technologies and ever-more-sophisticated software, it is possible to array, sort, and quickly reassemble enormous amounts of data. Social science research and theory has dramatically increased the capacity of analysts to assess the dynamics of groups and individuals. […]

But again, if you win the confidence and trust of many thoughtful and conscientious management consultants, you might be surprised that they are often very concerned about the insufficiency of being well informed, about the insufficiency of knowing what it seems is just exactly what needs to be known, of knowing even what the head of the client organization feels needs to be known: a considerable proportion of the good advice consultants proffer – they will tell you when they are being deep down candid – is not followed, even when the client has been effectively involved throughout the process. The client welcomes the plans, pays for the work, endorses it as just what the company should do. And then nothing happens.

Imagine you are a junior high school teacher, a school principal or a superintendent. You have already found your professional purpose lifted from your nation’s backwaters to the front page of the newspaper and the first minute of politicians’ campaign speeches. You and your school are now being unfairly asked to provide almost every need a child has to grow up strong and healthy. You know that your school cannot do everything – but that it can do so much more than it does. You know your classroom, or school, or school system will only improve if the children within them find themselves in ongoing powerful learning relationships and learning experiences.

Yet, as a distinguished colleague of ours at Harvard often says, “Ninety five percent of what we need to know to provide excellent learning opportunities for all of our children is probably already known”. We are already well informed and it is maddeningly insufficient.

What we already know about what we need to do to make our schools more effective is a lot. We are asking teachers to reconstruct their roles, from being dispensers of knowledge and drill masters to becoming learning coaches, hosts of learning communities, and creators of student-driven learning designs. Many teachers are not making these shifts, and people inside and outside the school world take this as indication that they are not really committed to the changes. But what if they are deeply and genuinely committed to these changes – yet are still not making them?

We are asking schools leaders to become chief instructional officers and shift the bulk of their attention from technical, business, and political administration, to the key activity that is the life blood of their organizations, namely, learning: the learning of students, the learning of faculty, the learning of their fellow administrators. What if the many school leaders who are not making these changes lack neither the knowledge of the importance and the value of the change, nor the commitment to make such changes?

Despite this maddening insufficiency, they end on a positive, optimistic note:

Perhaps the new age will focus not just on the buildup of more knowledge but also on the fashioning of new relationships to the knowledge we already have. Perhaps we will learn to welcome and engage not merely our commitments to bring heaven to earth but also our competing commitments to keep hell off earth. Perhaps we will learn to move our big assumptions to a place where we have them, rather than the more customary place where they have us.

Perhaps we need leaders who are able both to start processes of learning and to diagnose and disturb existing processes that prevent learning and change, the active, on going immune system at work in every individual and organization.

If you read thus far and are still intrigued – read the book!

The maddening insufficiency of being well informed

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