Introducing double loop learning: how can it help your startup?

The Challenger disaster. A part of the shuttle known as the O-ring was faulty. NASA employees knew about the fault before the disaster, but they either ignored the problem or were disregarded when they tried to alert higher-ups about the issue. Single loop learning had failed NASA and it ended in disaster.

When organisations focus on what they’re doing without reflecting on how or why they’re doing it, it could lead to serious issues or even disaster. This is where double loop learning can help an organisation. Double loop learning can cultivate creativity and innovation not just for individuals but also for organisations.

Single loop learning

When we aim for a goal, make a decision, or follow a rule, we are engaging in single loop learning. It is here that people get stuck and repeat the same mistakes. We shift into double loop learning when we question our approaches and honestly self-assess ourselves. 

Single loop learning is when planning leads to action which leads to assessing those actions and then back to planning to repeat the loop. In single loop learning people or organisations change their actions according to whether the final outcome was different from the expected result. 

For example, a software development team runs through a rigorous bug testing process but the localisation test returns an error, so they change the code and run the tests again.

We observe our current situation in single loop learning and face any problems, issues, or errors. We then change our behaviour and actions to improve the situation as best we can. Because reflection is key, the mistake could be made that single loop learning is effective for any organisation. However, there is no room for critical questioning as to why actions are taken, leading to problems surfacing.

Business theorist Chris Argyris uses the example of a thermostat to illustrate single loop learning. A thermostat operates in a never-changing loop. It always seeks to adjust the room temperature to the temperature the thermostat is set to. The thermostat keeps the temperature steady.

Double loop learning

Double loop learning is similar to the second stage developed by former US Air Force Colonel John Boyd’s OODA loop: Orient. This stage involves us assessing our biases, questioning our mental models, and looking for areas of improvement. We collect data and feedback and grade our performance. We shift into double loop learning when we question our approaches and honestly self-assess ourselves. It’s the reflection that allows us to learn from the experience.

In double loop learning, we think about our actions in the framework of our operating assumptions. It’s important that we assess and analyse our own processes. We need to ask ourselves questions like “what is happening here?” and “what patterns can we observe?”. This information is needed in order to understand the pattern.

By using double loop learning we can better understand our assumptions and decision-making in everyday operations. Double loop learning also leads to organisational learning, which is an incredibly important factor nowadays. Without organisational learning, serious problems arise.

Let’s return to Chris Argyris’ example of a thermostat to illustrate double loop learning. With double loop learning the thermostat would become more efficient over time. This is because the thermostat would ask “is this the optimum room temperature?”, “what is today’s humidity and would a lower temperature be better?”. The thermostat would then test each idea and repeat the process. 

The main difference between single loop and double loop learning in this example is that while one thermostat keeps repeating the same process, the other reflects on the process and its variables and tests for better actions.

How double loop learning can help your startup

One might think that double loop learning is about focusing primarily on people’s feelings and not a great strategy that will enable workforce optimisation. It’s not. Double loop learning is about adding an extra layer of critical analysis.

Double loop learning in an organisation is about reflection and questioning why an organisation does what it does. In double loop learning, people are encouraged to reflect on why they do what they do instead of just repeatedly moving from planning to action to reflection and back again.

This helps the organisation take a step back and reconsider what’s best for all stakeholders instead of being stuck just acting and reacting. It also gives employees the time, space, and systems to ask tough questions and have them addressed in meaningful ways.

Now, let’s return to the beginning and the Challenger disaster. If NASA had used double loop learning, employees would have paid more attention to the issue and their concerns would have been heard. This would have had enough influence to change the process and for a solution to have been found.

A further example: a call centre service is facing call centre shrinkage, so they take a step back and analyse how they deal with customers and if this is the best way to meet customer expectations. They decide to change their inbound calling strategy and test to see if it works.

Double loop learning provides an extra layer of critical thought that allows an organisation to stop and make necessary changes when they’re most needed.

Once again returning to Argyris’ thermostat metaphor, instead of the thermostat just reacting; turning on and off again to maintain a certain temperature, double loop learning allows the thermostat to question why it’s doing what it’s doing and how it might improve.

Thrive and succeed

Single-loop learning is like a train with no breaks. Double loop learning allows an organisation and its employees to take a step back and question why they do what they do. This extra layer of critical analysis allows an organisation to make important changes when they are needed, instead of waiting for the wheels to come off because they were doing fine the last time they checked.

Double loop learning gives an organisation the skills of learning and reflection which are so important to organisational and personal growth. It’s for this reason that double loop learning is critical if you want your organisation to thrive and employees to succeed as they deserve.