Double-Loop Learning and How Agile Approaches Change the Game to Thrive in Times of Change

All paths lead to the same town. 

I love it when dots finally connect, or when we have a name, or label, or vocabulary to express a concept that’s been around for a while, that people intuitively know from experience.  It makes it easier to share with others that don’t.  Here’s a bit of interesting research that might explain why agile practices can have a profound impact on creating powerful, highly effective learning organizations, and high-caliber execution machines.

In the article, Chris Argyris: Theories of Action, Double-Loop Learning and Organizational Learning, by infed, we learn about theories-in-action vs. espoused theory, and double-loop learning vs. single-loop learning.

Single-Loop Learning vs. Double-Loop Learning
If learning involves the detection and correction of error, then Single-Loop learning is about finding and fixing problems within a set of governing variables.  It simply looks to operationalize the values, goals, and plans.  That’s not a game changer.  Double-Loop Learning, on the other hands, looks to question the governing variables themselves.  Here is an elaboration from the article:

  • Single-Loop Learning – According to the article, “Single-loop learning seems to be present when goals, values, frameworks and, to a significant extent, strategies are taken for granted. The emphasis is on ‘techniques and making techniques more efficient.”
  • Double-Loop Learning – According to the article, “Double-loop learning, in contrast, ‘involves questioning the role of the framing and learning systems which underlie actual goals and strategies … Double-loop learning is necessary if practitioners and organizations are to make informed decisions in rapidly changing and often uncertain contexts.”

Theories in Use vs. Espoused Theory
Theories-in-use are what you actually use and do in practice.  On the other hand, espoused theory is what you say you do, which may be completely different.  Here is an elaboration:

  • Theories-in-Use – According to the article, theories-in-use are “those theories that are implicit in what we do as practitioners and managers … They govern actual behavior and tend to be tacit structures. Their relation to action 'is like the relation of grammar-in-use to speech; they contain assumptions about self, others and environment - these assumptions constitute a microcosm of science in everyday life'”
  • Espoused Theory – According to the article, espoused theory is “those on which we call to speak of our actions to others … The words we use to convey what we, do or what we would like others to think we do.”

Model I and Model II – Theories-in-Use
Theories-in-Use can either enhance or inhibit double-loop learning.  Model I inhibits.  Model II enhances.  Here’s a summary:

  • Model I – According to the article, “It involves ‘making inferences about another person’s behaviour without checking whether they are valid and advocating one’s own views abstractly without explaining or illustrating one’s reasoning’ (Edmondson and Moingeon 1999:161).  The theories-in-use are shaped by an implicit disposition to winning (and to avoid embarrassment). The primary action strategy looks to the unilateral control of the environment and task plus the unilateral protection of self and others. As such Model I leads to often deeply entrenched defensive routines (Argyris 1990; 1993) – and these can operate at individual, group and organizational levels.”
  • Model II – According to the article, “The significant features of Model II include the ability to call upon good quality data and to make inferences. It looks to include the views and experiences of participants rather than seeking to impose a view upon the situation. Theories should be made explicit and tested, positions should be reasoned and open to exploration by others. … Found in settings and organizations that look to shared leadership. It looks to: Emphasize common goals and mutual influence.  Encourage open communication, and to publicly test assumptions and beliefs, and combine advocacy with inquiry.”


Model I – Theories-in-Use

Model II – Theories-In-Use

The governing Values of Model I are:

  • Achieve the purpose as the actor defines it
  • Win, do not lose
  • Suppress negative feelings
  • Emphasize rationality

Primary Strategies are:

  • Control environment and task unilaterally
  • Protect self and others unilaterally

Usually operationalized by:

  • Un-illustrated attributions and evaluations e.g.. "You seem unmotivated"
  • Advocating courses of action which discourage inquiry e.g.. "Lets not talk about the past, that's over."
  • Treating ones' own views as obviously correct
  • Making covert attributions and evaluations
  • Face-saving moves such as leaving potentially embarrassing facts unstated

Consequences include:

  • Defensive relationships
  • Low freedom of choice
  • Reduced production of valid information
  • Little public testing of ideas

The governing values of Model II include:

  • Valid information
  • Free and informed choice
  • Internal commitment

Strategies include:

  • Sharing control
  • Participation in design and implementation of action

Operationalized by:

  • Attribution and evaluation illustrated with relatively directly observable data
  • Surfacing conflicting view
  • Encouraging public testing of evaluations

Consequences should include:

  • Minimally defensive relationships
  • High freedom of choice
  • Increased likelihood of double-loop learning

What’s interesting in the article is that most people "say” they use Model II, but that’s simply “espoused theory”.

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