According to Chris Argyris and Donald Schon, who originated the terms, “single-loop learning” is correcting an action to solve or avoid a mistake, while “double-loop learning” is correcting also the underlying causes behind the problematic action. Underlying causes may be an organization’s norms and policies, individuals’ motives and assumptions, and informal and ingrained practices that block inquiry on these causes. Double-loop learning requires the skills of self-awareness and self-management, and the willingness to candidly inquire into why what went wrong did so, without sliding into defensiveness, blaming others, making excuses, trying to be “nice and positive” to each other, protecting each other’s egos, and other automatic or unconscious patterns of behavior that block honest feedback, inquiry and learning. Single-loop learning looks at technical or external causes; double-loop learning also looks at cultural, personal or internal causes.
A sample problem: delays in completion of work.
Sample questions that lead to single-loop learning:
- Which step suffers most from delays, and what delays that step?
- How can the work process be simplified to reduce completion time?
- What better technology can be used to reduce delays?
Sample questions that lead to double-loop learning:
- What are the bases for setting the standard or expected completion time, and are these bases still valid in this situation?
- If the delay had been noted earlier or it has been recurring or persistent, what prevented those who noted them from reporting or doing something about it? What prevented them from taking the initiative?
- Does it happen often that employees notice a delay but hesitate for some reasons to do something about it? If so, what are those reasons? If it is difficult for employees to talk about those reasons, why so?
- Does it happen that a delay occurs so often that employees tend to no longer notice or talk about it? Why? Or, what led to this pattern of unspoken group behavior?
- If the delay often occurs with a specific employee, what prevented his manager or colleagues from doing something about it earlier? Is there an unwritten agreement or practice to avoid embarrassing co-employees, or to always “be nice and positive” to each other?
- Were there people who believe that some potential root causes of a delay or problem were not considered or were too easily dismissed by colleagues or by managers? Why didn’t these people speak out, and if they did, why were they not fully listened to?
- Is problem recognition, problem analysis or problem solving often dominated only by certain employees, and if so, why does this practice persist?
Double-loop learning requires three skills: self-awareness to recognize what is often unconscious or habitual, honesty or candor to admit mistakes and discuss with colleagues to discover and validate causes, and taking responsibility to act appropriately on what is learned. According to Argyris, “today, facing competitive pressures an earlier generation could hardly have imagined…leaders and subordinates alike…must all begin struggling with a new level of self-awareness, candor, and responsibility” (from Argyris: Good Communication that Blocks Learning, in: Harvard Business Review on Organizational Learning, 1994).
Footnote: read what I wrote more recently on this topic: “Practicing internal watchfulness (hint #11)”