Double-Loop Learning

Do you prefer to do things right or do the right things?

Double-loop learning was created in the mid-1980s by Chris Argyris, a leading organisational trainer. It is an educational concept and process that involves teaching people to think more deeply about their own assumptions and beliefs. He articulated double-loop learning in his book, co-written with Donald Schön, called ‘Organisational Learning‘.

Single-loop learning involves changing methods and improving efficiency to obtain established objectives (i.e., “doing things right”).

Double-loop learning is different because this involves changing the objectives themselves (i.e., “doing the right things”). As Martin (2013) notes,

Single-loop learning focuses exclusively on actions and outcomes. When we find an outcome we do not like, we tend to revisit and redesign our actions to achieve a better outcome….Double-loop learning does not simply go back to action; it goes further to the theories and thinking that informed that action. It challenges and redesigns the thinking.

Argyris and Schön argued what we should be prepared to do is to challenge our deep seated set of interpretations, assumptions, values and models and search for better, more reliable assumptions and models.

Argyris studied learning processes in considerable depth and said that most of us define learning too narrowly as mere problem solving, which means we focus on identifying and correcting errors in the external environment. He says that solving problems is important but really what we should be doing is also look inward and reflect critically on our own behavior.

He argues that double-loop learning is necessary if practitioners and organisations are to make informed decisions in rapidly changing and often uncertain contexts (Argyris 1974; 1982; 1990).

Single-loop learning is “following the rules” and double-loop learning can be thought of as “changing the rules” – there is another type of learning as well and that is triple-loop learning or “learning how to learn” by reflecting on how we learn in the first place.

So, what type of organisation do you work in and what type of learning does your leadership team follow?

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