The Utility of Double Loop Learning

Double-loop learning is built into many agile processes, most notably Scrum, and is also the objective of the lessons learned process prescribed by the Project Management Institute Project Management Body of Knowledge.  In agile, the purpose of retrospecting at the end of an iteration or sprint is for the Team to inspect its work processes in the last cycle and learn where they can do things differently in the next sprint so as deliver more, faster and/or with higher quality.

In traditional project management the lessons learned process is designed to provide a basis for organizational learning specifically with regard to completing similar projects in the future.  Within the human condition, double-loop learning occurs whenever an individual changes her mental model, or understanding of how things work or how the world is, based on past experience or education (which includes self-education, such as reading or experimenting) and goes on to apply the new model in the future.

Double loop learning is a concept most closely associated in the business world with the work of Christopher Argyris, a Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus.  He distinguishes single-loop and double-loop learning as follows:

Single-loop learning occurs when errors are corrected without altering the underlying governing values.  For example, a thermostat is programmed to turn on if the temperature in the room is cold, or turn off the heat if the room becomes too hot.  Double-loop learning occurs when errors are corrected by changing the governing values and then the actions.  A thermostat is double-loop learning if it questions why it is programmed to measure temperature, and then adjusts the temperature itself.[i]

Argyris noticed something that many of us in organizations today notice, and he gave it a name:  organizational defensive routine.  These are essentially the stories we tell ourselves and each other or the “truths” we choose to believe that keep us from learning from our experience.  Argyris defines organizational defensive routines as:

. . . any action, policy or practice that prevents organizational participants from experiencing embarrassment or threat and, at the same time, prevents them from discovering the causes of the embarrassment or threat.  Organizational defensive routines . . . inhibit genuine learning and overprotect the individuals and the organization.

Further, Argyris says in “Good Communication that Blocks Learning:”

Each of us has what I call an espoused theory of action based on principles and precepts that fit our intellectual backgrounds and commitments.  But most of us have quite a different theory-in-use to which we resort in moments of stress.  And very few of us are aware of the contradiction between the two.  In short, most of us are consistently inconsistent in the way we act.[ii]

Taken as a set of concepts simultaneously or serially active in an organization, a team, or an individual it is clear that the dissonance between the espoused theory of use and the theory-in-action swathed in an defensive routine replete with defensive reasoning would result in blocks to double-loop learning, or learning which causes change in mental models which drive current and future behaviors. This is particularly salient for people who do knowledge work, which includes, among others, people who work in software development, engineering, organizational leadership, and similar “heady” fields.  College professors would fit in here, too.

A comment on the Harvard Business Review article “Teaching Smart People How to Learn[iii]” which was published as an addendum to that article provides additional insight into the special situation of knowledge workers.  Haridimos Tsoukas notes that “As organizational ethnographers, such as Julian Orr and Etienne Wenger, have shown, daily work in information-rich companies is more decision intensive—more loci for decision making by employees are created.”  He then draws conclusions from Shoshonna Zuboff’s In the Age of the Smart Machine:  The Future of Work and Power that the more “informated” a workplace is, the more reflexive or self-reflection-oriented the workplace is capable of being.  In other words, knowledge workers are in a position to be more retrospective-oriented in their work as a means of doing their work—and doing it better.

And Tsoukas points out that Argyris, in his body of work, repeatedly draws attention to the difficulty practitioners (Argyris’ “smart people”) have in doing reflexive thinking—“double-loop learning.”  He states that this is particularly challenging for knowledge workers who, by definition, work in highly informated environments “because, to the extent that they are more psychologically present at work, they expose more of themselves to others; hence, they are more vulnerable.”

The essence of short-circuiting defensive reasoning so that a knowledge worker can engage in reflexive reasoning and engage in double-loop learning is that knowledge workers bear a greater burden of “constantly challenging yourself, of expanding your horizons, of ‘knowing thyself.’” And, therefore, Tsoukas reasons that “Argyris invites knowledge workers to undertake a primarily moral, not just technical task:  to be open to criticism, to be willing to test their claims publicly against evidence, to accept that they too are partly responsible for the problems they are confronted with.”[iv]

Knowledge workers are more related to their work due to their high degree of psychological interaction with the work; they are often more identified with it.  Therefore, to reflect on the work is often to reflect on themselves, an activity which requires courage in a context of vulnerability.

In “Taking Personal Change Seriously: The Impact Of Organizational Learning On Management Practice” Peter Senge reinforces Argyris’ work on double-loop learning, acknowledging the difficulty of the discipline and that many people will see the implementation of double-loop learning as just too difficult.  For this to change, “people must get to a point where they see that their established ways of coping with their problems are clearly not going to suffice.”[v]

“ . . . That their established ways of coping with their problems are clearly not going to suffice.”  Hmm.  We are right there in much of our problem solving in leadership situations today.  The old models aren’t working, and the way forward is not clear.  Double-loop learning and dialogue across and top to bottom in the organization appear to be the tools we need to find a better way forward.

[i] Argyris, C. (2002). Double-Loop Learning, Teaching, and Research. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 1(2), 206-218. doi:10.5465/AMLE.2002.8509400

[ii] Argyris, C. (1994). Good communication that blocks learning. (cover story). Harvard Business Review, 72(4), 77. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

[iii] Argyris, C. (1991). Teaching smart people how to learn. Harvard Business Review  4(5): 4-15

[iv] Argyris, C. (1991). Teaching smart people how to learn. Harvard Business Review  4(5): 4-15

[v] Senge, P. M. (2003). Taking personal change seriously: The impact of organizational learning on management practice. Academy of Management Executive, 17(2), 47-50. doi:10.5465/AME.2003.10025191

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