Single loop learning – “add another column”

Look at that diagram. If you think you haven’t seen if before you haven’t been paying attention. It is everywhere in organisations. You won’t have seen it because it hides behind a lot of different disguises.
Like the following, heard when something written down on paper is handed in to some people who are paid more than you, “it’s not quite there it needs…

  • “…some benchmarking data in.”
  • “…to be more robust. Less detail”
  • “…to be more directive. More detail”
  • “…more of the big picture, move it up a level “
  • “…too high level, need something more specific”

Call it “add an extra column” as that’s what most often happens. An extra column is added with something extra in it.  But it is never right,and only ever not quite there.
There is a problem, and people try to solve it with tinkering. Tinkering with a report, tinkering with a scorecard, with a set of planning guidance. Managers don’t have the right information or at the right time, or in the right format, or with too much/too little analysis etc. This is not the problem and it isnt the solution either

This is single-loop learning. In that diagram above managers have an “action strategy”, which is a set of activities that they carry out (or ask you to) in order to get some consequences. They might have asked you for a set of performance information. You do it, but those consequences are never right, they are never right because the “action strategy” (report performance indicators) never CAN get them what they want. You are being asked for something that they don’t really need.  And because you keep on giving them it, but it is never right, it can only ever be wrong. You are trapped in an endless and increasingly vexing positive feedback circle, and you wont be able to break out of it until there is…double loop learning.

In single-loop learning you are checking, is what is happening matching with what we asked for? In double-loop learning you are asking is what you are asking for the right thing at all.

Look at the picture below.
what and how

Double-loop learning is asking if you are doing the right thing. It is checking the underlying assumptions and mental models and asking whether they in themselves are the right thing.

You are trapped in single-loop learning if you find yourself

  • endlessly applying different technological solutions to something that isn’t a technological problem
  • facing the same problem coming round again and again and it never goes away
  • adding an extra column. There is nothing in the world that needs an extra column.

What’s this got to do with purpose and systems thinking?

The model of single/double-loop learning matches something else…

governing variable  –>  action strategy      –>consequences

thinking                   –>          system              –>   performance

In the Vanguard method the model that Thinking drives and shapes the System which produces Performance I think closely matches single/double loop learning. Single-loop learning equates to tinkering with the system, not addressing the thinking that may be underlying the problem.

There is a place for single loop learning.  It isn’t a bad thing. If you are experimenting with method in the work then you are doing single loop learning. But it is only part of the learning that needs to take place and it is the easiest to do, it’s so tempting just to restrict yourself to it as the prize seems so much closer if you just add that extra column.

A big post all about Chris Argyris covering more than single/double loop learning
A lot of different Chris Argyris resources in one place

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3 Responses to Single loop learning – “add another column”

  1. Pingback: Stick around, you might learn something | thinkpurpose

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