Welcome to all the new readers since my last letter. Today we’re building on the critical role reflection plays in our new way of learning as a process.
I came across a gem— a 1991 HBR article by Chris Argyris, in which he introduces the concepts of single-loop and double-loop learning.
Here's an analogy:
A thermostat set to automatically turn on the heat whenever the temperature drops below 68F is single-loop learning. A thermostat that asks "why 68F?" and then explores whether or not some other temperature might more economically achieve the goal of heating the room is double-loop learning.
In the workplace, companies that are Unbeatable Learning Machines have more people engaged in double-loop learning. As you’ll see, double-loop learning builds on the concept of metanoia I introduced in my last letter.
The problem is that most high-performing professionals have never experienced failure. They've excelled since high school in most cases.
But failure trips the wire of the thermostat, presenting an opportunity for double-loop learning (thanks to a dose of metanoia).
Instead of embracing failure, the tendency is to become defensive and play the blame game.
The problem with blaming things outside yourself is not that it's wrong (it may even be accurate), but that it's not useful. It brings learning to a grinding halt. It focuses on things you cannot control.
There is often a gap between what we say we do (Argyris calls this "espoused theory of action") and what we actually do ("theory-in-use").
If learning is to persist, managers and employees must look inward to understand this gap and resist defensive reasoning.
Despite the strength of defensive reasoning, people genuinely strive to produce what they intend. They value acting competently. Companies can use these universal tendencies to teach people how to reason in a new way.
Change must start at the top. The first step is for senior leadership to examine critically and change their own theories-in-use.
The key to any learning process designed to achieve this is to connect the program to real business problems (there is an excellent case study in the article to illustrate this).
Argyris observed five fascinating outcomes of this approach:
People begin to realize the belief that they needed to hide important feelings and ideas from others is mistaken.
When leadership embraces this, people take the new behavior of leadership as a sign that the company really acts on the values of participation and employee engagement.
People encourage each other to question their own reasoning, not as a sign of mistrust, but as a valuable opportunity for learning.
People begin to see the importance of constantly challenging yourself, expanding your horizons, and of knowing yourself.
People begin to see the moral imperative at the core of all of this: taking individual responsibility for the problems we face.
You can read the full PDF here.
Firmly rooted in reflection, we can now turn our attention to another vital element of learning as a process: learning by doing.
See you soon.