Double-Loop Learning

Double-loop learning looks deeper by exploring your mental models and assumptions that drive your actions

Double-loop learning is one of the most powerful leadership tools I draw on. Too many leaders don’t draw on double-loop learning. I can tell because they spend too much time reacting, and not enough time truly learning and improving the system. We can summarise double-loop learning well with this proverb:

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

A lot of leaders remain in single-loop learning mode. Think of single-loop learning like this: You see an issue and you try to rapidly solve it. Once you feel you’ve resolved the issue, you move on to the next one. Although solving issues is better than ignoring issues, working in single-loop learning mode is very shallow.

Single-loop learning means taking action and seeing results

Over a longer time period, single-loop learning might also be a time-sink as you find yourself reacting to the same or very similar situation. You might get faster or better at making decisions and taking action. But you might also be spending energy where you don’t need to, and worse, where you shouldn’t have to. This is why double-loop learning is so powerful.

Double-loop learning encourages you to look further and deeper than your initial observation. The goal of double-loop learning is to look at the broader system, explore assumptions and challenge your instinct to make a quick decision based on what you’ve observed. To find out more about the origin of double-loop learning be sure to read up on Chris Argyris and Donald Schön. The most accessible book I’ve read on their ideas is Discussing the Undiscussable by William R. Noonan. HBR also has two articles I like, “Teaching Smart People to Learn (1991)” and “Good Communication That Blocks Learning (1994).”

To get started with double-loop learning I like to ask questions like:

  • Is there a pattern of similar events over time? Is the pace between events accelerating?
  • What contributed to the situation we’re in? (There are often several elements)
  • How can we amplify it (if it’s desirable) or how to do we dampen or prevent it altogether (if it’s undesirable)?
  • Why am I taking this specific action?
  • What other alternative actions did I consider?
  • Do I even need to take action?

Use these tips below to get started with double-loop learning:

  1. Make time to reflect – Single loop learning feels faster. Resolving an issue feels right, but if you solve the issue again and again you lose more time in the long-term. Invest a bit of time now to step back and model the broader system to understand hidden connections. Not sure how? Check out the Fundamentals of Systems Thinking course to get you started but most importantly, make time to reflect.
  2. Seek other perspectives – One of the reasons why effective post-mortems work is that they bring different people together, each with different observations and opinions. The model you co-create with everyone in a post-mortem is richer and includes details you never had.
  3. Focus on incentives – Goals are powerful but often misused in organisations. Goals (and their rewards) influence how people act and the decisions they make. When I focus deliberately on double-loop learning, I seek the rules and goals of the system that incentivise people. Without changing those, you’re unlikely to make lasting change.
  4. Identify the limits of your influence – You ultimately control only how you behave and the decisions you make. Everything else you influence. Any formal lines of authority might increase your degree of influence but your formal authority always has limits. Search for the boundaries of what you can currently influence but don’t go too much further or you’ll end up frustrated.

Single-loop learning is quick but often ineffective. Double-loop learning requires more time but when used well, helps leaders solve problems for good. Try practising double-loop learning today.

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