Today at work I began working on a new endeavor to bring in external executive coaches to our organization. As I was reviewing their PowerPoint presentation, I noticed they began talking about triple-loop learning, but said very little about what it is. If there is a triple-loop, doesn’t that mean there’s a single and double-loop out there too? I quickly realized that most of the executives viewing this presentation would have no idea what triple-loop learning is, let alone, double or single. This then made me wonder how many people out there know what this is, or the importance it plays on our daily lives, both at work and at home. So I decided I’d write a blog post about it and share it with you. Organizations today thrive on information, the more the better. But there seems to be a lack of insight that comes with that knew found information. Lots of us can turn new information (facts organized by outside sources but not yet integrated into one’s thinking) into knowledge. But not many of us give ourselves the opportunity to convert our new knowledge into insight or wisdom. Blame it on whatever or whomever you’d like, but if we’re to ever get anywhere, we need to begin developing a culture of learning. This happens best with an understanding of how learning occurs.
Essentially based on the works of Gregory Bateson, and extended by Chris Argyris, Donald Schon, and Peter Senge, the concepts of single-loop, double-loop, and triple-loop learning help clarify the ways we can learn:
Single-Loop Learning (Incremental Learning)
Are we doing things right? Here’s what to do—procedures or rules.
Single-loop learning assumes that problems and their solutions are close to each other in time and space (though they often aren’t). In this form of learning, we are primarily considering our actions. Small changes are made to specific practices or behaviors, based on what has or has not worked in the past. This involves doing things better without necessarily examining or challenging our underlying beliefs and assumptions. The goal is improvements and fixes that often take the form of procedures or rules. Single-loop learning leads to making minor fixes or adjustments. Think about how a thermostat operates. When it detects the room is too cold, it turns on the furnace. When it detects it’s too hot, it turns it off.
With this kind of system little or no learning occurs and little or no insight is needed. Experts assert that most organizations operate according to single-loop learning – employees establish rigid strategies, policies, and procedures; and then spend their time detecting and correcting deviations from the rules.
You might exhibit this kind of learning when you notice that your employee, Steve has not produced a certain deliverable on time during a project, so you get angry and demand that he produce the deliverable – without ever actually exploring why he didn’t produce the deliverable in the first place.
Double-Loop Learning (Reframing)
Are we doing the right things? Here’s why this works—insights and patterns.
Double-loop learning often unfolds similar to single-loop learning, but goes beyond it. This framework leads to insights about why a solution works. In this form of learning, we reflect on our actions based on our assumptions. This is the level of process analysis where people become observers of themselves, asking, “What is going on here? What are the patterns?” We need this insight to understand the pattern. We change the way we make decisions and deepen understanding of our assumptions. It involves thinking outside the box, creativity, and critical thinking. Also, it often helps people understand why a particular solution works better than others in solving a problem or achieving a goal. Experts assert that double-loop learning is critical to the success of an organization, especially during times of rapid change.
Think back to my example with Steve. Double-loop learning occurs when you engage Steve in a discussion about why he was unable to produce his deliverable. Perhaps your expectations were not realistic.
Triple-Loop Learning (Transformational Learning)
How do we decide what is right? Here’s why we want to be doing this—principles
Triple-loop learning involves principles. The learning goes beyond insight and patterns to context. The result creates a shift in understanding our context or point of view. We produce new commitments and ways of learning. This form of learning challenges us to understand how problems and solutions are related. It also challenges us to understand how our previous actions created the conditions that led to our current problems. The relationship between organizational structure and behavior is fundamentally changed because the organization learns how to learn. The results of this learning includes enhancing ways to comprehend and change our purpose, developing better understanding of how to respond to our environment, and deepening our comprehension of why we chose to do things we do.
Back to Steve. Triple-loop learning occurs when, after having engaged in discussion with Steve, both of you discuss the dynamics of your conversation, including how it was conducted, what learning was produced from the conversation and how that learning was produced.
Here’s a nice visual provided by the Kollner Group to help you see the ways the different learning loops work.