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Double-Loop Learning - Breaking free of organisational defences

We often find ourselves in situations where, despite our best efforts, we’re just not breaking free of those vexed issues that just seem so intractable.


·      How do we get more people to engage with our offers?

·      How do we respond to reductions in funding and other resources?

·      How do we support and encourage staff to thrive and make the best contributions to our collective efforts?

·      How do we respond to and manage potential or actual conflict, without further escalation and entrenching that conflict?


These and other commonly faced issues can often come to take up large amounts of our time, and no matter how hard we try to resolve them, we just end up back in the same situation, asking the same questions, leaning on the same answers and facing the same results.


At times like these we can feel like we’re on a hamster’s wheel, working really hard and yet making little to no progress.


This experience is due to something called ‘single-loop learning’ which refers to the act of repeating the same actions to the issues and situations we face, even if those actions don’t produce the productive results sought.


As with many of these concepts, single-loop learning isn’t in and of itself problematic and is often a perfectly reasonable response. Looking at the above image we can see that actions occur and the outcome isn’t ideal. But if the outcome were ideal, or even simply acceptable, then single-loop learning would present as responsive and reasonable. After all, if the action lets us move on to other things then why dwell on it? But we tend to rely on this approach even when, as in the image above, the results of our actions result in a mismatch or error. We rely on this approach because it helps us avoid conflict, appear quick, competent and decisive as well as giving the impression that we’re managing the situation. But, because the result of the action doesn’t resolve the situation, we end up back in the same position, and relying on single loop learning, we simply repeat the same action or type of action in our response. And we continue on the hamster’s wheel.


What these situations call for is a reappraisal of the situation, with questioning that challenges taken-for-granted assumptions, preferably bringing other views and perspectives into the conversation to help with the reflective process. This opens up the space for what’s known as ‘double-loop learning’, which involves questioning why we’re facing this situation, what we’re trying to achieve and considering new actions to move us forward. Like the commonly understood, PDSA cycle (plan, do, study, act), double-loop learning asks us to try an action, observe it and respond to the findings of that observation.


Double-loop learning allows us to accept failure and mismatches as a core part of the learning experience, providing key data and evidence to feed our improvements. It opens up the space for new possibilities and new responses to vexed problems. Importantly, it moves away from the surface level, short-term perception of success and creates the space, through cultures of learning and learning organisations, to create diversity of thought, reflection, openness, inclusion and collaboration. Through such approaches we can start to see stuck problems, of whatever magnitude, through new perspectives, create the time and space to try new responses, learn new knowledge and embed deeper collective understanding to sustain progress and improvement.


Ref: Argyyris, C. (1990) Overcoming organisational defences: facilitating organisational learning Allyn and Bacon; USA




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