Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

Being a scholar-practitioner, humble inquiry, human and non-human systems

With recent invitations to mentor graduate students, I’ve had to more strongly assert my identity as a scholar-practitioner.  It’s now been over 10 years since I “graduated” from a career at IBM of 28 years.  University students are often amused to discover that, besides having spent a lot of time around universities, I first entered a Ph.D. program in 1982.  When I met my future spouse, I was a doctoral student.  Many years later, I’m still a doctoral student.

My colleagues in the Systems Changes Learning Circle have surfaced an interest in humility.  This reminds me that in spring 1982, I met with Edgar Schein in his office at the MIT Sloan School of Management.  (In the end, I was #2 on a list of 1 for admission into the doctoral program on information systems research, so my life took a different path).

The ties from organization development back into systems theory surfaced in a 2021 interview with Ed Schein.

— begin transcript of Rainey and Schein (2021) —

[35:30 Chris Rainey] Ed, I’ve seen you speak quite a few times, now, about diagnosis versus intervention. Could you share more of your thoughts on this, because I found it very interesting.

[35:42 Ed Schein] Well, I think, the thing that we haven’t yet come to terms with, is a phrase that important philosopher by the name of [Sir Geoffrey] Vickers stated, is the human systems are different.

[35.99] Human systems are not amenable to physical science diagnosis, research, testing experimentation. The minute we try to intervene in the human system, we discover reactions and consequences. So, diagnosis, as an offshoot of research, is something that may work in biology or physics or chemistry, but is it absolutely impossible to do in the human system.

[36:37] So I need to know stuff, so I have to intervene in such a way that it will produce knowledge. And to call that research is really ridiculous, because the researchers in charge controls everything.

[37:00] The interventionist starts with humility and says, how can I — like Captain [David] Marquet [author of “Turn this ship around”] — create a situation where I will learn what I need to learn.

[37:08] So the ethics of intervention have to guide that process.

[37:13] What can I say or do, that will not offend people, it will interest them that will get them to open up? That, as a way of diagnosing is legitimate, but it’s informed not by the needs of the diagnostician. It’s informed by the ethics of the interventionist.

[37:38] It’s what I say and do, as an effect, and I want to do it in such a way that I will get the diagnostic information I need.

[37:49] The doctor has to build the trust of the patient, that the patient will actually tell truthfully what’s going on, or there’ll even be a wrong diagnosis. I think that medicine is learning very quickly this idea of doctors building a humble level to relationship — I say level 2, in contrast to level 1 pure just diagnostic role related, versus level 2 personalized intervention humility we’re in.

— end transcript of Rainey and Schein (2021) —

Without invasive procedures, a doctor gains insight from the patient (or his/her caregivers).  The diagnostician is not the interventionist.  This comparison of organizational consultation leading to humble inquiry comes through in a personal career review by Schein in 2019.

— begin excerpt of Schein (2019) —

The issue is: In any given situation, do we ask or tell? And if we are wise enough to ask before telling, in what way do we ask? Does asking serve a special function in the communication process? The answer to these questions is, I realize, the key to my last 60 years of work.

The Work of the Scholar/Practitioner

The ideas that constitute the answers to these questions were not invented by me. They were empirically forced onto me by the various kinds of good and bad experiences I had as a teacher, consultant, human relations trainer, coach, and helper. Observing experience closely, analyzing it, categorizing it, clarifying it, and eventually developing concepts to explain it has been my forte and preferred method of studying interpersonal, group, and organizational dynamics. Though I started as an experimental social psychologist, I realized early that the traditional scientific methods inherited from the physical sciences did not lend themselves to studying human behavior. At the same time, I was always intrigued by Kurt Lewin’s assertion that you do not really understand an organization until you try to change it. Becoming a T-group trainer and designer of workshops showed me how applicable that observation is at the personal and group level. In turn, I comfortably took on a new identity, that of scholar/practitioner.

I came to call the scholarship side of this identity clinical inquiry, and I published a small book and several articles on that method of research.1 The practitioner side of it involved continuing to do various kinds of consulting and to introduce experiential methods into the classroom. I found that becoming an interventionist was consistent with being on the faculty at a school of management, in the sense that if management is anything, it is the craft of “intervention.”  [p. 10]

  • 1See Schein, E.H. (1987). The Clinical Perspective in Field Work. Sage; Schein, E.H. (1993). “Legitimating Clinical Research in the Study of Organizational Culture.” Journal of Counseling and Development, 71, 703-708; and Schein, E. H. (2008) “Clinical Inquiry/Research, Revised” in P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.) Handbook of Action Research, Second Edition. Sage.

My arc of learning was created by the discovery that there are many different ways to intervene and that one of the least effective is to tell -– to give advice, to make recommendations, even to step in as surrogate leader or manager. My clients taught me early on that they did not want my advice, they wanted help, and that advice was generally not helpful for two important reasons: (1) they had already thought of it, and (2) they had rejected it because it would not fit into their culture, i.e., it could not be implemented. It was my good fortune that these clients, such as Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), taught me what is really helpful, which is to aid the organization in doing more effectively what it is trying to do –- to improve its interpersonal, group and organizational processes.2

  • 2See Schein, E. H. (1969). Process Consultation. Addison-Wesley; and Schein, E. H. (1999). Process Consultation Revisited. Addison-Wesley.

Clinical Inquiry

The essence of the idea was not so complicated -– help the client with what he or she or they are trying to do. But figuring out what they were trying to do required inquiry of various sorts, because clients often were not themselves aware of just what they were trying to do, or they focused the consultant on the wrong issues.  [p. 11] [….]

Humble Inquiry

To my amazement, books on communication spend a lot of time on listening and on communicating clearly, but contain hardly a word on asking. Yet if you don’t ask good questions, there is nothing to listen to. I devoted a chapter in Helping to different forms of asking and decided that this chapter really required expansion into a book. I came to this conclusion based on the frequency of being told things gratuitously and my discovery that I did not really like being told things. Yet we live in a culture in which telling things is valued, while asking is a sign of weakness. I also discovered in my work on safety that many accidents result from a failure of upward communication. Not only is it inappropriate in our culture to tell the boss he or she has a problem, but bosses typically create a climate in which it is not safe or prudent for subordinates to speak up. Many messengers get shot, more messengers get ignored, and often the boss says, “Don’t bring me a problem unless you have a solution.”.  [p. 13]

–end excerpt of Schein (1999) —

In the organizational engagements where Schein has been involved, the interventionist would be a manager or executive.  The individuals with knowledge are workers or employees who are impacted.  In non-corporate environments, the roles might have different titles, yet the separation between those closest to the knowledge and the decision-makers who invoke policy may exhibit similar dynamics.

Let’s make sure that we have an authentic understanding of what Vicker’s specification that “human systems are different” means.  Human systems are a subype of animal systems.  A subtype has more properties than a supertype.  Thus a human system is an animal system … with additional properties.  Animals may have the capability to pick up tools in their natural environments, and use them, e.g. a chimpanzee can use a stick to rummage for insects.  Human beings created more complex artifacts as technology, that has led to the anthropocene.

Sir Geoffrey Vickers said, in a 1978 recording in the Open University archive:

— begin transcript of Vicker (1978) —

These systems, certainly at the human end are almost all extremely unstable. And they’re mostly unstable because of the destabilizing effect of this one element in the whole thing, man. And we destabilize them because the monsterous magnifyined powers of technology are not balanced and probably cannot be balanced by any corresponding understanding of the effect of what we’re doing. So although we have enormous powers of change, we have very, very limited powers to change in a predictable way.

We probably can’t know even in theory what those limits are. And the one limit we do begin to know is the opposite of what we knew before.

— end transcript of Vicker (1978) —

The preedisposition of the Systems Changes Learning Circle is to inquire not only into human systems, but also the ecology as a texture into which multiple lifelines — both human and non-human — interweave.


Rainey, Chris, and Edgar H Schein. 2021. Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. Web Video. HR Leaders. London: HRD Leaders Ltd. Audio podcast available at

Schein, Edgar H. 2019. “On Communication: Process Consultation, Helping, and Humble Inquiry.” Reflections 13 (2): 10–13. ISSN 1524-1734 .

Vickers, Sir Geoffrey. 1983. Human Systems Are Different. Harper & Row. Accessible on the Internet Archive at

Edgar Schein, in interview for HR Leaders Podcast

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • RSS (Mastodon)

    • daviding: “Diachrony (or diachronic shifts) resurrects a word from 1857…” April 10, 2024
      Diachrony (or diachronic shifts) resurrects a word from 1857, better expressing *changes through time*. A social practice publication in 1998 contrasts synchronic with diachronic.
    • daviding: “Web video introduction of 15 minutes for 1-hour Lunch and Le…” March 22, 2024
      Web video introduction of 15 minutes for 1-hour Lunch and Learn #CentreForSocialInnovationToronto on "Systems Changes Dialogues for Social Innovation" invites practitioners for upcoming monthly meetings. Evocative animated images, details deferred to conversations with mentors.
    • daviding: “Web video of slides from "From Unfreezing-Refreezing, to Sys…” March 21, 2024
      Web video of slides from "From Unfreezing-Refreezing, to Systems Changes Learning" for Dialogic Drinks of #EQLab represents only 1/5 of the time compared to peer-led discussions. Concise hosting called for brevity, and richer presentations. #SystemsThinking
    • daviding: “Hosting multiple Dialogic Drinks on "From Unfreezing-Refreez…” March 8, 2024
      Hosting multiple Dialogic Drinks on "From Unfreezing-Refreezing, to Systems Changes Learning" online, March 12 (Europe), March 14 (Americas), March 15 (Australia). #Leadership meets #SystemsThinking . Short presentations, longer discussions
    • daviding: “"Climate change has no map that we know of. Each time a new…” February 15, 2024
      "Climate change has no map that we know of. Each time a new scientific study returns something we studied before, it's always going to arrive faster and be worse than we thought before". Episode 5, #DavidLHawk "What to do When It's too Late" #SystemsThinking "Instead of cause-effect thinking, effects coming from prior effects, not […]
  • RSS on IngBrief

    • The Nature and Application of the Daodejing | Ames and Hall (2003)
      Ames and Hall (2003) provide some tips for those studyng the DaoDeJing.
    • Diachronic, diachrony
      Finding proper words to express system(s) change(s) can be a challenge. One alternative could be diachrony. The Oxford English dictionary provides two definitions for diachronic, the first one most generally related to time. (The second is linguistic method) diachronic ADJECTIVE Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “diachronic (adj.), sense 1,” July 2023, For completeness, prochronic relates “to […]
    • Introduction, “Systems Thinking: Selected Readings, volume 2”, edited by F. E. Emery (1981)
      The selection of readings in the “Introduction” to Systems Thinking: Selected Readings, volume 2, Penguin (1981), edited by Fred E. Emery, reflects a turn from 1969 when a general systems theory was more fully entertained, towards an urgency towards changes in the world that were present in 1981. Systems thinking was again emphasized in contrast […]
    • Introduction, “Systems Thinking: Selected Readings”, edited by F. E. Emery (1969)
      In reviewing the original introduction for Systems Thinking: Selected Readings in the 1969 Penguin paperback, there’s a few threads that I only recognize, many years later. The tables of contents (disambiguating various editions) were previously listed as 1969, 1981 Emery, System Thinking: Selected Readings. — begin paste — Introduction In the selection of papers for this […]
    • Concerns with the way systems thinking is used in evaluation | Michael C. Jackson, OBE | 2023-02-27
      In a recording of the debate between Michael Quinn Patton and Michael C. Jackson on “Systems Concepts in Evaluation”, Patton referenced four concepts published in the “Principles for effective use of systems thinking in evaluation” (2018) by the Systems in Evaluation Topical Interest Group (SETIG) of the American Evaluation Society. The four concepts are: (i) […]
    • Quality Criteria for Action Research | Herr, Anderson (2015)
      How might the quality of an action research initiative be evaluated? — begin paste — We have linked our five validity criteria (outcome, process, democratic, catalytic, and dialogic) to the goals of action research. Most traditions of action research agree on the following goals: (a) the generation of new knowledge, (b) the achievement of action-oriented […]
  • Recent Posts

  • Archives

  • RSS on

    • 2024/03 Moments March 2024
      More work than play for first part of month, in anticipation of trip to Vancouver to visit family.
    • 2024/02 Moments February 2024
      Chinese New Year celebrations, both public and family, extended over two weekends, due to busy social schedules.
    • 2024/01 Moments January 2024
      Hibernated with work for most of January, with more activity towards the end of month with warmer termperatures.
    • 2023/12 Moments December 2023
      A month of birthdays and family holiday events, with seasonal events at attractuions around town.
    • 2023/11 Moments November 2023
      Dayliight hours getting shorter encouraged more indoor events, unanticipated cracked furnace block led to replacement of air conditioner with heat pump, too.
    • 2023/10 Moments October 2023
      Left Seoul for 8 days in Ho Chi Minh City, and then 7 days in Taipei. Extended family time with sightseeing, almost completely offline from work.
  • RSS on Media Queue

    • What to Do When It’s Too Late | David L. Hawk | 2024
      David L. Hawk (American management theorist, architect, and systems scientist) has been hosting a weekly television show broadcast on Bold Brave Tv from the New York area on Wednesdays 6pm ET, remotely from his home in Iowa. Live, callers can join…Read more ›
    • 2021/06/17 Keekok Lee | Philosophy of Chinese Medicine 2
      Following the first day lecture on Philosophy of Chinese Medicine 1 for the Global University for Sustainability, Keekok Lee continued on a second day on some topics: * Anatomy as structure; physiology as function (and process); * Process ontology, and thing ontology; * Qi ju as qi-in-concentrating mode, and qi san as qi-in-dissipsating mode; and […]
    • 2021/06/16 Keekok Lee | Philosophy of Chinese Medicine 1
      The philosophy of science underlying Classical Chinese Medicine, in this lecture by Keekok Lee, provides insights into ways in which systems change may be approached, in a process ontology in contrast to the thing ontology underlying Western BioMedicine. Read more ›
    • 2021/02/02 To Understand This Era, You Need to Think in Systems | Zeynep Tufekci with Ezra Klein | New York Times
      In conversation, @zeynep with @ezraklein reveal authentic #SystemsThinking in (i) appreciating that “science” is constructed by human collectives, (ii) the west orients towards individual outcomes rather than population levels; and (iii) there’s an over-emphasis on problems of the moment, and…Read more ›
    • 2019/04/09 Art as a discipline of inquiry | Tim Ingold (web video)
      In the question-answer period after the lecture, #TimIngold proposes art as a discipline of inquiry, rather than ethnography. This refers to his thinking On Human Correspondence. — begin paste — [75m26s question] I am curious to know what art, or…Read more ›
    • 2019/10/16 | “Bubbles, Golden Ages, and Tech Revolutions” | Carlota Perez
      How might our society show value for the long term, over the short term? Could we think about taxation over time, asks @carlotaprzperez in an interview: 92% for 1 day; 80% within 1 month; 50%-60% tax for 1 year; zero tax for 10 years.Read more ›
  • Meta

  • Creative Commons License
    This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
    Theme modified from DevDmBootstrap4 by Danny Machal