Double Loop Learning for Surviving & Thriving

learning self-leadership Apr 27, 2020

The world, as we know it, is in a spin. Assumptions we made about life and business have been upended by a tiny virus that has had massive impact on the Global Economy and individual lives. Typically, when we receive feedback to our actions, we make a course correction and carry on, but in this unprecedented time – we need to challenge our assumptions and apply double loop learning.

 What is Double Loop Learning?

Argyris & Schon (1974) proposed double loop learning theory which promotes learning to change underlying values and assumptions. The following diagram explains it:

In single loop learning, we receive feedback from our actions and adjust our behavior accordingly. Indouble loop learning we take a ‘step back’ and challenge our assumptions, beliefs and values about why we behaved that way in the first place. Double loop learning is really ‘disruptive thinking’. 

As with any learning strategy, using the double loop requires asking questions. Some examples would be:

  • What am I trying to do?
  • What is stopping me from doing it?
  • What can I do about it?
  • Who knows what I am trying to do?
  • Who else can do anything to help?

Often, it is difficult to step back from the single loop and get to your assumptions. This is where having a coach or a trusted friend you can help. Get them to ask you:

  • What is important to you?
  • What are you assuming?
  • How do you feel about what is going on?
  • What questions does that raise?
  • How would someone you most admire deal with this situation?
  • Can you think of three options for action?
  • What are the pros and cons of each of these options?
  • What first steps are you going to take?

Double Loop Learning and Self-leadership

With a self-leadership approach to learning we influence out thinking feeling and actions towards our objectives. The self-leader reflects, acts intentionally and then reflects on the results. When the results are unexpected, double loop learning helps the self-leader to question the assumptions that they held about the situation.

With the current Covid-19 pandemic, whilst in lockdown, we all have a pause to reflect on our assumptions.

  • What have we been assuming about our business? 
  • What have we been assuming about our government?
  • What have we been assuming about leadership?
  • What have we been assuming about our planet?
  • What have we been assuming about personal responsibility?

Henry Ford once quipped,

“Thinking is the hardest work we do which is why so few people do any of it”

As an Executive Coach, I am fortunate that I get to ask questions of some very smart people. Recently the conversations have been particularly interesting as we challenge some big assumptions. The focus has typically been on business continuity, but it is my deepest hope that we come out of this current crisis with ‘eyes wide open’, that some of our basic assumptions about how we treat ourselves and our planet need rethinking and new action taken.

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