Archive for July, 2009

Internal Listening and Anger Management

July 31, 2009

Compare Scenario A and Scenario B. What is the difference between the orientations of (hypothetical persons) Esbert and Isko?


Scenario A: Esbert

Office co-worker: “You’re stupid!”

Esbert:“You’re damn worse!” (then boxes co-worker in the face)

Scenario B: Isko

Office co-worker: “You’re stupid!”

Isko: “I am not sure what made you say that.”

Notice that Esbert in Scenario A is externally-attentive, while Isko in Scenario B is internally-attentive. Read about “internal attention” in the following blog posts: “L13- Learning How to Learn”, “The Reflective Knowledge Worker” and “External Attention Can Block Your Learning”.

Probably, the sequence of internal states in Esbert went like this:

  1. Statement from office co-worker –>
  2. Esbert feels angry –>
  3. An intention emerged in Esbert –>
  4. Verbal reaction by Esbert –>
  5. Action by Esbert.

I liken this sequence to a “run-away train” because:

  • An external stimulus put Esbert in the run-away train.
  • Esbert is NOT in conscious control; he did not decide to ride the run-away train.
  • Once Esbert rides the run-away train, it takes him through.
  • The process is a “reaction”: an automatic, externally-initiated behavior.

On the other hand, Isko who is internally-attentive will be aware that he is riding a potentially run-away train. He is aware as he is going through 1-2-3-etc. In other words, he is aware of his anger as well as any intentions arising from that anger. However, because he is so aware, he has the choice of consciously getting off the run-away train. He can stop at 2 or 3 before going to 4 or 5.

Internal listening gives Isko the power of choice that Esbert did not have! Awareness empowers Isko with conscious choice. Awareness allows Isko to consciously control his anger, compared to anger controlling Esbert unconsciously.

Listen to Aristotle writing in The Nicomachean Ethics:

“Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not easy.”


Aristotle was the mentor of Alexander the Great, the man who conquered the world from the Mediterranean to India. It is likely that Aristotle also mentored Alexander in how to conquer the world within. It is highly possible that Alexander the Great had Power of the Third Kind.

Alexander the Great

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L22- 200% Listening

July 26, 2009

During the past four weeks, I have visited five Asian countries. When I travel from the Philippines, my home country, to a less-developed country, one of the striking cultural differences I notice is less ability or willingness of sales people to listen to customers. The opposite is true; when I travel to a more developed country, I am always pleasantly surprised at how much better waiters, stewardesses and sales people try to sense what I, the customer, want and serve me better.

Two weeks ago, I asked a university professor from an Asian country his evaluation of a consultant sent to their campus from another Asian country. His answer was one terse word: “useless”. The online evaluation submitted by the counterpart faculty member was a more shocking negative description of the quality of the service they received. Later, I found out that there were several gaps in the process of matching what the client needs and what technical services will be provided.

Last Friday, I was in Singapore having afternoon tea with a management consultant on business excellence. He told me how unclear was his terms of reference in a consultancy service engagement he was entering with an SME (small/medium enterprise) in another Asian country last year. What did he do? Before starting the project, he called up the owner-manager of the SME and clarified precisely what the SME needs and what services he can provide.

There is no doubt that the ability to listen to customers leads to the ability to create more value, both for the customers or buyers (consumer’s surplus = the positive difference between the consumer’s satisfaction, measured as the price she is willing to pay, and the price she actually paid for a good or service) and for the producers or sellers (producer’s surplus = the positive difference between the price of a good or service and its unit production and distribution costs). There is a direct causal link between enterprises’ ability and willingness to listen to customers and the GNP of the national economy. See a previous blog post: “Q3- The Customer is King; But the King is Blind!?”

At the enterprise level, companies stay competitive by listening better to their customers, and by using the knowledge they gain as inputs to their process or product improvement, redesign or innovation. Customer knowledge is the most valuable input to internal organizational learning processes such as business process improvement, R&D or organizational streamlining.

At the lower level of teams and groups, a similar cause-and-effect link operates. Listening is an ingredient in productive group communication. In a previous blog post, “L12- Listening”, I listed several actions that block 100% listening. Let me reproduce them here:

  • Mentally prepare what he will say next while the other person is still talking
  • Mentally comment or judge what a person is saying
  • Recall past experiences, good or bad, about the person talking
  • Automatically defend himself when criticized instead of trying to better understand the reasons and background behind the criticism
  • Retrieve his past emotions, good or bad, he had on the person talking now
  • Fail to listen completely because of an expectation about what the speaker will say
  • Lecture on what he knows about a topic even if the other person is not interested or is not asking about it
  • Notice or get irritated at the bad grammar, bad logic or bad attitude of the person talking
  • Interrupt by saying something when the other person is not yet finished talking
  • Enter a conversation with the belief that there is little he can learn from the other person
  • Talk very long or give long lectures or monopolize the conversation and as a result the other person has less time to talk
  • Think about something else related, or unrelated, to what the person is saying now
  • Mentally dismiss whatever the person is saying because of his belief about the low credibility or trustworthiness of the person talking
  • Focus more on the emotion of the person talking than on what he is saying
  • Answer a question but say so many other extra things unrelated to the question
  • Do something else such as read something while the person is still talking
  • Get distracted by noise or any other external stimulus
  • Etc. etc.

What do you notice? 99% of blocks to listening are internal to the listener!

To fully listen, we must pay 100% attention to the speaker, but at the same time, we must also pay 100% attention to any internal blocks within us. In other words, we must practice simultaneous external attention and internal attention. You may review two bog posts on indigo skill of internal attention: “The Reflective Knowledge Worker” and “L13- Learning How to Learn”.

“200% listening” is the skill of paying full attention to the person speaking while AT THE SAME TIME paying full attention to — and managing — any internal block to listening that may present itself while the speaker is talking. Like the two-faced Roman god, Janus, 200% listening is the practice of simultaneously looking at two worlds, which in this case, are the external world and the internal world.


The second part requires constant practice and constant self-improvement. The second part is parallel to the internal organizational learning processes that a truly customer-oriented company brings itself to do in response to what it senses externally from its customers. There are technologies and tools in customer relationship management, customer surveys, quality management, etc. at the organizational level, but unfortunately there are far fewer parallel tools at the individual and group level.

200% listening is one such tool.

We will touch on a few others in the L Series. In the next blog post, I will describe how internal attention can be used in anger management.


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When Judgment Closes the Door to Productive Communication

July 23, 2009

What is your MBTI score? Are you and a “P” or a “J”? P-types are people who are good at observing, researching, analyzing, etc. J-types are people who are decisive, finishers, doers, etc. Actually, people are generally a mix of “P” and “J”. A person’s type can be measured along a P-J scale, where his mix is leaning either towards “P” or towards “J”.

An “extreme P” or an “extreme J” is both a curse and a blessing. An “extreme J” person is a very quick decision maker, but he tends to jump to conclusions/decisions based on bias, impressions or insufficient information. An “extreme P” is excellent in making studies, but his weakness is indecision and “analysis paralysis”. The balanced person is one who can be a “P” or a “J” depending on what is appropriate for a specific situation. He can suspend judgment in order to better sense what is going on, but he can also make a quick decision when a situation calls for it.

Ability to suspend judgment is an ingredient in organizational learning; it is a necessary ingredient in generative dialogue.

You wish to now your MBTI score? You can take a free online test (press “Ctrl” while clicking HERE). The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is based on Carl Jung’s observation about personality types. The fourth or last letter in your MBTI type is either P or J. Your score there will tell you how far you are from the midpoint or balance.

In problematic relationships or in situations of hostility between groups, productive communication can be killed by inability to suspend judgement on the part of both parties, which in turn can be the consequence of an inability to be aware of one’s judgments. If both parties entertain opposing or incompatible judgments, and both hold judgments based on what to each of them are fundamental values, absolute truth or even God’s will, then the door to productive communication or negotiation between them closes.

This can happen in international relations, between religious fundamentalists, between political parties holding extreme views, in marriages, in civil disputes, etc.

Take these two incompatible judgments:

Hamas suicide bomber: “I should give my life for my people and our just cause; if I die, God will reward me with paradise.”

Israeli soldier: “I should fight for Israel and for my people; God gave this land to us.”

The result is violence, a sign of failure of communication:


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How We Form Judgments of Other People: Female Circumcision, Lying, the Jury System and the Scientists’ “Sacred p<.05"

July 20, 2009

This afternoon I was watching a BBC news report about the new Egyptian law banning female circumcision — the traditional practice of cutting off the clitoris of young girls. A survey revealed that 70% of Egyptian women respondents say they were circumcized. Westerners judge such practices as barbaric. Interviewed by BBC, an Egyptian mother entertains an opposite judgment, namely, that uncircumcized females are unclean. “They must be cleansed. Who will marry them if they are not circumcised? It will bring shame to the family.”

Some of our judgments of people were clearly culturally-dictated. Others were the result of obscure personal decisions we made sometime in the past.

What is your answer to this question: “After how many times that you catch a person lying when you conclude that the person is a liar?”



I asked many of my friends this question. The answer ranges from once to thrice. It is rare that people wait for four or more occasions of lying before concluding that the person in question is a liar. We make a judgment on trustworthiness after we see a behavior pattern repeated only one to three times.

That is how quickly we make conclusions about a person’s untrustworthiness. We are quick to judge untrustworthiness. Trust, on the other hand, takes longer to build. This means that for most people, they do not like to bear the (material) risk or cost of trusting someone whose future action shows he is not trustworthy. To them this cost is more important than the (goodwill) cost from not trusting someone when in fact he is trustworthy. Material costs seem to be more important to most people than goodwill costs.

In the American jury system, if only one juror in twelve entertains reasonable doubt, a man cannot be condemned for a criminal offense. In Scotland, there are fifteen jurors (thanks to Michael Heaney for pointing this out). The reason is that Western legal systems consider the cost (to the individual accused) of condemning an innocent person to be more important than the cost (to the rest of society) of not punishing a guilty person. In the Western mindset, an individual’s rights are paramount.

In modern scientific practice, a conclusion is not accepted for publication if the probability that that conclusion is wrong is more than 5%. This is the “sacred p<.05" criteria among scientists. Scientists' criterion for acceptance is stricter than the jury system. To scientists, getting at the empirical truth is a more strict procedure than establishing criminal guilt in a Western jury system.

There is a big problem from this scientific practice.

If accepting vs. rejecting a scientific hypothesis entails very substantial economic and social consequences (e.g. global warming, cancer from cigarette smoking, etc.), insisting on the "sacred p<.05" criterion is foolish. The social costs of making wrong decisions on hypotheses about the sex life of fruit flies is miniscule compared to the social costs of making wrong decisions on hypotheses about the global climate or cancer from cigarette smoking.

What I am saying is that the p<.05 decision rule is incomplete. It must be weighed by the total planetary costs and benefits of making wrong decisions: the costs and benefits of accepting a hypothesis when in fact it is wrong and the costs and benefits of rejecting it when in fact it is correct.

But back to how people construct their mental models.

Our judgments and assumptions about other people, and the process by which we adopt them, are often unconscious and obscure. Here is a practical way to make them explicit for conscious re-evaluation. Only if these judgments and assumptions are made explicit can we revisit them and ask questions such as: How have they been (unconsciously) affecting my decisions on the person? Are these judgments/assumptions still valid? If not, how do I revise them?

Select a person with whom you have problematic communications or relationship. Let’s call him Reuben. Fill in the following incomplete questions:

Reuben should… (enumerate)
Reuben should not… (enumerate)

What I like about Reuben are… (enumerate)
What I don’t like about Reuben are… (enumerate)

Reuben has a bad habit of… (enumerate)
Reuben has a good habit of… (enumerate)

Just list whatever comes to your mind, without editing or censoring. The objective is to make these judgments and assumptions explicit so that the owner of these judgments and assumptions can objectify and examine them, and see whether they are still valid and scrutinize whether they are based on deeper assumptions that can be further re-examined.

Not doing the above could mean that our communication with the person will continue to be problematic. Since we cannot identify possible root-causes within ourselves, then we continue to be the victims of our own assumptions and we cannot resolve the problematic communication.

These are tools in personal knowledge management and organizational learning. Ability to manage one’s mental models is one of the five disciplines of a learning organization, according to guru Peter Senge.

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L21- On Michael Jackson, or Our Mental Models of People We Know

July 18, 2009

Through our experiences with friends and colleagues, we form a mental model of each person we know.

1. The “Business Card” Stage

When you meet a person for the first time, you tell each other basic facts about yourselves. You exchange business cards (or calling cards or name cards). You get to know superficial information about each other:

  • Name
  • Organizational affiliation
  • Position in the organization
  • Academic “pedigrees”
  • Telephone numbers: direct landline, cellphone, fax line
  • Geographical addresses: work and residence
  • Email address
  • Website of the organization

When you accept each other as a friend or a link in a virtual social network such as Facebook or LinkedIn, the same thing happens when you access each other’s profile page, except that you get usually more information about each other through this medium. Members of social networks can also update, add/modify, decide who gets to see how much about himself and engage in a large variety of voluntary interactions with each other.

People can become “acquaintances” but this is a superficial level of relationship. Most relationships stop at this stage. A small percentage proceeds to the next stage.

2. The “Regularized Communication” Stage

When two people communicate regularly for personal, work-related, social or other reasons, they begin to see behavior patterns of each other and they form mental models of each other. This process is very often an unconscious process on both sides. Our mental model of a person we know consists of:

  • Memories of his actions particularly those that we liked or disliked
  • Personal or work-related qualities we attach to the person based on the pattern of our experiences with him
  • Labels or words we associate with the person
  • Our judgments or attitudes towards the person or how he “measures up” to our own internal standards
  • Our memories of pleasures or hurts we experienced with or due to (in our perception) the person
  • Our level of comfort or trust on the person
  • Etc.

3. The “Mutually Imprisoned” Stage

It is an unfortunate fact that in most cases, we form and revise mental models of people we know largely in an unconscious and therefore unsystematic manner.

Yet, our mental models of people we know, once established inside our heads, affect the way we behave and communicate with those people. They provide screens which color or slant our perceptions of those people. We stop seeing them as they truly are because our mental models act as if we are looking at them through colored eyeglasses or lenses. If our mental models of a person includes a strong judgment we have formed about him, for better or for worse, that person becomes the beneficiary or victim of our (internal) judgment.

We stop seeing people as they truly are because our experiences about him from the past intrude in how we experience him in the present. Our mental models then become our self-inflicted but unconscious mental box or mental prison that dictates how we relate to the person for the rest of our life. Then, we both become the unknowing victims of our unconscious mental models of each other. Unfortunately, we are often unaware that we have entered the “mutually imprisoned” stage.

A common negative result of this tyranny of our mental models of each other is divorce. It is likely that spouses who have come to dislike each other have formed mental models of each other that are no longer true representations of the other person. A well-known positive result of the tyranny of our mental models is the public adulation over Michael Jackson. It is likely that the mental model of Michael Jackson in the mind of a fan is a distant or perhaps distorted representation of the true Michael Jackson. Whether positive or negative, our unconscious mental models can act like tyrants who distort our thinking and seeing without our knowledge and permission.

To escape this stage, we need tools for consciously managing our mental models about people we work with — a pre-requisite for productive learning and working together as a group. We need Indigo Learning Practices.



Thanks to Wikimedia Commons and my acknowledgement to Alan Light for the use of the image in this blog post.

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External Attention Can Block Your Learning

July 15, 2009

The difference between double-loop learning and single-loop learning is self-reflection, whether organizational or individual. Looking for root causes in double-loop learning can be directed outwardly or inwardly. Outwardly-directed double-loop learning looks at possible root-causes of ineffective action such as:

  • Organizational policies and assumptions behind policies
  • Standards of work performance and assumptions behind such standards
  • Organizational culture: communication practices (e.g. “undiscussables”), informal norms and roles, interpersonal relationships
  • Leadership styles and their effect on staff behaviors

Outwardly-directed double-loop learning can also be called “organizational self-reflection.” On the other hand, inwardly-directed double-loop learning is “individual self-reflection.”

Inwardly-directed double-loop learning works faster and better when the knowledge worker is a reflective person, or when he practices internal attention. Learning is a feedback process, and learning is facilitated when the knowledge worker installs a feedback loop within himself. The key to this feedback loop is internal attention.

In an ordinary day in the office, the knowledge worker’s attention is mostly directed outward:

  • Listening to what the boss is telling him
  • Attending to a phone call
  • Reading a memo
  • Calling your secretary
  • Signing a letter
  • Checking your emails
  • Looking at lunch options in the company cafeteria

The above is very common.

Inwardly-directed attention happens when:

  • You check your reactions, mentally and emotionally, during a phone call
  • Being aware of your judgments as you weigh the possible implications of a memo
  • Detecting a hint of irritation in you as you call your secretary
  • Seeing a momentary hesitation on your part just before you sign a letter, and reflecting shortly afterwards where the hesitation is coming from
  • Thinking about the option of asking an important and urgent question to your boss instead of continuing to attend to your emails
  • Sensing that today your body seems to be craving for protein and a less hurried pace of eating.

The ideal situation is constant or moment-to-moment external-plus-internal attention.

A person who is 99% externally attentive will learn more about things outside himself. When action or its result goes wrong, he will look for external causes or blame others. If he is part of the problem, he won’t see it because his attention is externally-directed. He can still perform double-loop learning, but the root causes of problems that he will see are only external organizational root causes and not internal or personal root causes. He observes external data but not internal data. In effect, he sees only 50% of the world.

The common habit of external attention can be an effective block to total learning.

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Memories (or Past Experiences) Can Block (or Unblock) Learning

July 12, 2009

When he was a child, his mother often scolded and beat him for wrong-doings big and small. Once, she hit him so hard that his nose bled. She would pick up a stick or broom and hit any part of his body with it. As a result, he developed a habit of smartly justifying his actions to escape beatings from his mother. He became “allergic” or over-sensitive to blame — real or imagined — from anyone, quickly jumping to justifications whenever he thinks someone is blaming him. Any negative or seemingly-negative feedback is interpreted as blame and triggers his automatic justification and defensive mechanism. It is so difficult for him to accept — and learn from — negative feedback. Inability to acknowledge his own mistakes had led to failures in learning.

He is now past middle age. His mother had died many years ago, but he still remembers the pain of those beatings. Mixed feelings of love and hate, warmth and coldness, fill his heart whenever he thinks of her. It was a good thing that later in life he became aware of this “programming” from his past, and he tries hard to be aware each time his “blame issue” tries to automatically kick in so that he can catch it and prevent it from controlling his behavior.

That is a real story. Here is a second story.

She was an unwanted child. Her mother, resentful of her arranged marriage, heaped her anger on her daughter. She beat her often. Stripped her naked and left her in the garage. She destroyed her self-esteem. She grew up assertive and fighting for her rights and needing to be treated as a special person, and to be listened to and heard. Interestingly, she developed to be a person who treats her close friends as special people, and she developed the skill of listening and trying to understand other people. In other words, what she craved for herself, she gave to other people. As a result of her excellent listening and empathetic abilities, she has learned and knows so much about the complexities of human behavior. Close friends and colleagues go to her for advice on life matters or simply to imbibe her healthy and freeing perspectives.

Here is a third true story, which influenced me very much.

Life, the saying goes, begins at 40. But when he reached the age of 40, he experienced a life-threatening illness. This illness stayed with him for about four years. Contemplating the prospect of dying, he began to ask questions about life that he never asked or thought before. He saw the value of life and living in a way he never saw before. He had to struggle to inwardly accept his situation. After four troubling but learningful years, he learned to let go. He learned to face and look at death with less and less fear. He embraced death as he would embrace life. Then something happened: he was healed! He has a new lease to life! After coming to terms with death, he now saw himself embracing life and living life more fully. Now, he looks at the world with the eyes of a child absorbing most everything! He entered an excellent personal learning mode!

Gandhi-ji said, “live as if you will die tomorrow; learn as if you will live forever.”


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Your Judgement Can Block Your Learning

July 9, 2009

Quoting Anthony De Mello again:

    “… what you judge you cannot understand. …if you desire to change what is into what you think should be, you no longer understand.”

When you judge you measure what is in front of you against the standards, expectations or values inside your head. You are trying to fit ‘what is’ to your concept of ‘what should be’. Judging can block your learning, which is why one of the requisite skills in a learning organization is the ability to suspend judgment.

For example, a productive brainstorming process is a two-stage process: a free-for-all no-judgment no-evaluation idea generation stage followed by a weeding-out selection or judgment/evaluation stage to arrive at the single or few best ideas. The first stage uses divergent thinking where the P-type (MBTI type) members exercise their right-brain talents of idea generation. The second stage uses convergent thinking where the J-type members exercise their left-brain screening and judgment talents. Brainstorming would be less productive if the J-types are allowed to control the first stage, or the P-types are allowed free rein in the second stage.

In the 12 Manners of Voicing (see blog entitled “L14- Voicing”), the least productive of learning are those that entail exercising judgment (the brown areas below) and the most productive are those that require suspending judgment and respecting the other person (the green areas below).



In the 12 Types of Learning (see blog entitled “12 Types of Learning”), the most productive of understanding one another are those types (those on the left side of the diagram below) where a person can show to another her past experiences that throw light in how she came to adopt her current beliefs, paradigms, interests and values. This is why story listening (NOT storytelling) is a most powerful tool for learning and understanding.

Listen to Anthony de Mello: “the shortest distance between a human being and truth is a story.”

12 ways we learn


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L16- Concepts Can Block Learning

July 7, 2009

“From the moment you teach a child the word ‘tree’ he can no longer fully experience a tree” said Anthony De Mello from India.

Concepts are fine tools for organizing and communicating our experiences of the world. Concepts and mental models also enable us to recognize what otherwise we hardly notice. Mental models are just that: models of reality. But if concepts become rigid beliefs or we equate them with reality itself, then concepts can imprison our thinking. If we invest our ego in our concepts, they become our “pet concepts” or “pet theories” and close our mind to other or new theories. We stop testing concepts against our experience and the experiences of other people. And we cease to learn. I wrote a blog on “We found the enemy: our own concepts!”

Religious and political concepts can possess and control minds. As a matter of survival, religious and political institutions preserve concepts (e.g. doctrines and beliefs) and impose sanctions on its members against thinking freely and challenging those concepts. As a result, it takes years, decades or even centuries to unlearn concepts that no longer work. Theological concepts can control our thinking and block achievement of the very purpose and essence of religion. De Mello also said,

    “The final barrier to your vision of God is your God-concept. You miss God because you think you know.”

In a doctoral defense by a graduate student at the Asian Social Institute, I sat in the faculty panel which included a monsignor (a rank between priest and bishop). At some point in the defense proceedings I pointed to the difference between “God as a concept” and “God as personal experience”. The monsignor’s subsequent remarks revealed to me his surprise at recognizing the difference seemingly for the first time.

A learning conversation is possible when people talk about their experiences, but unlikely among people attached to their respective concepts. Moshe Idel and Bernard McGinn edited such a learning conversation on “Mystical Union in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: An Ecumenical Dialogue”. Mystical union is a personal experience of God; which is different from theological concepts of God. Do you think a learning conversation is equally possible between a Jewish theologian, a Christian theologian and a Muslim theologian?

Working with mental models is one of the five disciplines of a learning organization, according to guru Peter Senge. Below is a slide from one of my presentations on organizational learning, which lists some skills in working with our own mental models.

mental models

Staying too long in a professional area of practice or in an academic discipline or in a type of work poses the danger of being stuck with the concepts in that area or type of work. One way of continuously refreshing one’s repertoire of concepts is to shift or learn a completely new area of professional practice.

It worked for me…several times.

After a bachelor’s degree in physics, I took an M.S. and Ph.D. in physical biology. The new concepts in the life sciences were completely new and different from those of the physical sciences and mathematics. After I earned my doctoral degree I practiced through consulting in environmental management, which added the human and social dimensions. Afterwards, I accepted a position in policy studies in a university think tank, which introduced me to governance and equipped me to later accept an appointment in the Philippine government as Assistant Director General for Policy of a government body that directly provides analysis and policy advice to the Philippine President. For seven years I was immersed in the real world of politics and governance. What a change! In shifting from the academe to government, the learning opportunities opened before me were literally vast! When I went back to the academe, my interests went to development and non-government organizations. I co-founded CCLFI, a non-profit foundation for organizational learning and change, knowledge management (KM) and knowledge-based development. That was 13 years ago [as of August 2011], when I practically started KM in the Philippines and at the University of the Philippines. What a learning journey!

I learned to:

  • Shift my area of professional practice several times, thus preventing me from being stuck on the concepts of one area;
  • Compare, cross-fertilize and synergize concepts of one discipline with those of another;
  • See that different principles from two or more disciplines are actually the same principle, e.g. the Weber-Fechner law in psychology is essentially the same principle as the law of diminishing marginal utility in economics, and the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics is parallel to Hawthorne effect in sociology;
  • Integrate knowledge across disciplines, e.g. see the different forms of capital across economics, ecology, psychology, organizational development, law, political science, etc. and call them “metacapital”; and
  • Discern trans-disciplinal patterns, e.g. trans-societal Megatrends #1 (see blog Q14) and Megatrend #2 (see blog Q26), or “connect the dots” across seemingly unrelated facts, e.g. the growing importance of intangibles (see blog F2).


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A Tool for Learning to Unlearn: Internal “5 Why’s”

July 4, 2009

Discovering root causes is important in problem solving. A tool in identifying root causes is “5 Why’s.” It is used in TQM, Six Sigma, Lean Six Sigma and other process improvement methods where the causes sought are often technical, procedural, systemic and other external causes.

If “5 Why’s” is used for eliciting root causes of a particular human behavior, then it becomes a tool in double-loop learning. Let us illustrate how to apply “5 Why’s” in internal double-loop learning.

Let us imagine that a quality management problem occurred and it was found out that the immediate cause was a person’s failure to perform a specific action assigned to him. The following is an illustration of the method.

    Why 1: Why did you not do action X?
    Answer1: I don’t know how to do it.
    Clarificatory question: When did you discover that you don’t know how to do it?
    Answer: Much earlier.

    Why 2: Why did you accept the assignment when you know you cannot do it?
    Answer: (pause) I cannot bring myself to say that I am not sure I can do it.

    Why 3: Why can’t you tell frankly you cannot do it in the first place?
    Answer (more likely to be elicited in a private conversation with a trusted colleague): I want to appear that I know; I don’t want to appear that I am stupid.
    Clarificatory question: Do you find yourself in this situation often?
    Answer (after some pause): I guess so, yes.

    Why 4: Why do you keep putting yourself in this situation, only to create more trouble for yourself when you yourself know that it often ends up that you are unable to do your assignments?
    Answer (elicited only after the person sees his own pattern of behavior): I really don’t know; it just keeps happening.

    Why 5: Please recall many similar situations in the past, even as far back as your childhood. Study these situations. What do you see or discover?
    Answer (after several days or weeks of recall and reflection): I remember I was so hurt and humiliated and afraid when my mother kept scolding me saying “You are really very stupid and incompetent” every time I cannot do something. I just avoided those feelings next times by not saying anything.

I offer the following observations in relation to the above.

  1. If a BPI team has not established a trustful culture of learning, the team cannot go past Why 1 or Why 2 because the first questions will trigger defensive reactions, rationalizations or even debate that will fail to get at the root causes.
  2. According to Harvard Professor Chris Argyris, BPI cannot really get at many root causes unless individual team members are willing to delve into why they keep on doing what they do or why they keep not doing what they don’t do (Why 2 and Why 3 and up). Argyris calls this “double-loop learning” which he said requires deliberate effort because often people are not aware of the reasons behind their own patterns of behavior.
  3. Deeper levels of “why” (Why 3 and up) require time (it cannot be rushed), a trusting atmosphere (it depends on WHO is asking) and a private or one-on-one situations (it depends on a supportive context). It also requires skills of “conscious living” on the person asking the question and candid reflection on the person answering.
  4. Self-discovery at Why 5 can be cathartic and lead to effective self-healing of the automatic behavior pattern. In the specific example above, it also requires a strong enough foundation of self-esteem to be able to get to acknowledge deep-seated emotional hurts unearthed by Why 5.
  5. The ability to unlearn is an extremely rare skill. A knowledge worker who, through practice, can go deep at Why 4 and Why 5 levels is better able to unlearn.


Listen to Lao-tse:

    “He who knows much about others may be learned, but he who understands himself is more intelligent. He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.”

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