Lord of the Loops

August 22, 2009

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Organizational learning involves the detection and correction of error. When the error detected and corrected permits the organization to carry on its present policies or achieve its present objectives, then the error detection and correction process is single-loop learning. Single-loop learning is like a thermostat that learns when it is too hot or too cold and turns the heat on or off.  The thermostat can perform this task because it can receive information (the temperature of the room) and take corrective action.  Double-loop learning occurs when error is detected and corrected in ways that involve the modification of an organization’s underlying norms, policies, and objectives….Most organizations do quite well in single-loop learning but have great difficulties in double-loop learning.  (C. Argyris & D. Schon. 1978. Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective. pp. 2-3).

The first step in confronting a problem is realizing that you even have one.  Where you go from there determines how you learn, and how you learn affects how you lead.

Single-loop learning accepts that something did not work the way it was supposed to and asks how can we fix it?  It accepts the status quo, but tries to make things better through incremental improvements.  The goal of single-loop learning is to correct the symptoms of the problem.

Double-loop learning first does the single-loop to put out the fires caused by the problem, then challenges the status quo by asking a series of why questions: Why are we even doing this? Why does it have to be done like this?  The goal of double-loop learning is to dissolve the root problem.

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The real leverage for transformational change is in the double-loop.  It is the only path to the pinnacle of learning, where we can create a unique future for ourselves and those we have been given the privilege to lead because we understand why things work and why our employees behave the way they do.

Assume responsibility to train yourself in this kind of thinking and problem solving. Model this behavior for those around you and the logic of the loops will spread with a few.

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