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Need Different Results? Be Different With Triple Loop Learning

by Bob McCulloch

Employees discussing learning

“A successful company is one that can learn effectively”—Arie de Geus

The past is the domain of the learned; the future is the domain of the learner. The way that we view learning can either energize us—or settle us into our own ego. Leveraging triple loop learning can help us become more effective learners, and more effective leaders. What is it, and how can we use it to strengthen our ability to develop as leaders?

An Introduction to Triple Loop Learning

To appreciate triple loop learning, we look first at how we as individuals achieve goals.

Given our explicit or implicit goals and aspirations, and our developed way of coming across to others (our being), we enter the thought process to decide what we’re going to do (thinking), and then take action (doing), in order to produce desired results. Sometimes those results are exactly what we intended, …and sometimes not.

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It’s when those results are not what we wanted that we have an opportunity to go through one or more learning loops. These loops are progressive in complexity and require deepening levels of awareness and insight.

In this model (which is based primarily on the work of Chris Argyris and Donald Schön), single loop thinking is concerned with correcting mistakes or undesirable outcomes. We ask ourselves, “What can I do differently to achieve a different result?”

Argyris compares single loop learning to a thermostat “that learns when it is too hot or too cold and then turns the heat on or off.” In other words, it receives information and takes corrective action.

In a leadership context, it could be that a manager notices a direct report who is not doing his job to the expected level. I worked with a client in this situation, and she took corrective action based on her belief that the individual didn’t know how to do the job as well as he thought.

This is single-loop thinking: like the thermostat, the manager wants to bring forth a different result without changing the “rules.”

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Double loop learning requires us to go deeper. We ask, “What knowledge or assumptions was I basing my action on? What caused me to act the way I did, or to make the choice I did?”

Imagine now that the thermostat can question whether 21°C is an optimal office temperature. This is double loop thinking because it questions the underlying principles, policies, or procedures. It requires us to make implicit knowledge explicit – and then to inquire whether we need to make a change to the framework or rules.

Let’s go back to the manager and her direct report. Here, using double loop learning, she asked herself, “Why is this person really underperforming? How can I change my thinking so I can achieve a different outcome? What different questions do I need to be asking?” She realized that she needed to confront the norm: she had to alter her questions and approach in dealing with this employee. She did so, and it was better, …and not much better. And she had a breakthrough in her own understanding, leading to her experience of triple loop learning.

Triple loop learning addresses how we show up. Not only did our manager have to alter her questions and her approach, she had to adjust her way of being. In this case, she realized that her employee had difficulty with authority in areas in which he felt under-confident. She realized that while she had changed the questions (double loop learning), she had not changed the way she was presenting those questions, and came across as aggressively challenging the employee. By moving from being the boss to becoming more of a partner or colleague, this helped the direct report feel more comfortable and receptive to her input.

To put it simply, single loop learning asks: am I doing things right? Double loop learning asks: am I doing the right things? And triple loop learning asks: how do I decide what’s right in the particular situation, and then be it?



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