I would like to expand on my last post which explained why Experts get stuck in single-loop learning (perfecting what they already know) and why they struggle to engage in double-loop learning – questioning their own model of the world. In this post I am going to talk more about double-loop learning and how it can help you to progress your cognitive development and make you more effective as a manager or consultant.
The first caveat when talking about double-loop learning is that whilst you can do it in your head, you can’t do it without doing. Perhaps the best way to describe double-loop learning is as:
Questioning Your Assumptions when – Reflecting on – Observing Yourself – While Doing
Take a closer look at the diagram – double loop learning is NOT drawn as closed loop around the Assumptions box. Hence it is not about reflecting on your model of the world whilst navel gazing, it can only work in relation to a specific interaction (or pattern of related interactions) with the external reality.
The second caveat is that in the world of Action Learning the nature of double-loop learning is often glossed over. You are simply told to think about how you reason. That is not helpful to those seeking to use its power.
Psychologists have a better grasp on this and call the same process metacognition (sense making of my sense making). They realise that all inputs are valid and valuable in metacognition:
- Visual & Auditory (how do I look/sound and how do others look/sound in response)
- Somatic – what sensations to I notice in my body and how do I use them or shield myself from them
- Emotional – how do I feel in the moment and how are others feeling in response to me / the context
- Cognitive – what assumptions am I making and what am I ignoring as a result
For metacognition or double-loop learning to become effective you will have to develop the capacity to recognise and process these inputs. In addition, you will have to slowly build a conscious model of your unconscious model of the world. Both of these are rather slow and painful. We commonly brush over the excruciating detail with unhelpful suggestions that you need to develop ‘self-awareness’ and become more ‘flexible’. Yes, that’s part of the outcome, but it gives you zero indication how hard it is.
I would venture that our ability to engage in double-loop learning is NOT something that has evolved for this specific purpose. It is more likely the side-effect of another brain function that evolved for a different purpose. I can’t prove that and I am no expert on evolutionary neurobiology, but it seems this way given how mentally taxing it is to engage in ongoing double-loop learning and how low the return on investment is in reality. Especially since you can’t pass this on to the next generation and you can’t teach your metacognitive ‘discoveries’ to anyone.
That doesn’t mean it’s useless, on the contrary, but I very much doubt that anyone would engage in it who is primarily concerned with survival. It’s a luxury, it requires time and sustained investment to get good at it, but it is a very powerful one.
So what’s the benefit of double-loop learning? What do you actually gain from questioning your own assumptions and beliefs (other than internal turmoil)? The first thing you gain is perspective – your model of the world is neither the best nor the only valid model. The second thing you gain is being able to think outside the box – questioning norms, collective assumptions, established processes etc.
The third, and most significant, gain is resilience. Without being able to understand why you reason the way you do you cannot adapt well to different situations that don’t fit your established model of the world. You have seen this play out when Experts fail (or get sacked) they often fall apart. The ability to engage in metacognition makes you much more resilient.
Why will this make you a better manager? Because you will for the first time be able to see the people you manage clearly – why they may be doing things differently to you, how you can help them without imposing your own way of doing things, how you can help them understand each other and become effective as a team.
You will also be able to question some of the more stupid decisions and targets that impact your work and engage in conversations that transcend established patterns (norms, assumptions, beliefs). This will open up the possibility of working more strategically and and deal with greater complexity.
The effectiveness of double-loop learning is impacted by a number of key factors
- Your awareness of patterns which you can know only implicitly, yet act out when triggered (e.g. historical patterns of relating to others, when to feel safe/anxious, entering self-protection mode, aggression triggers etc.)
- Your level of self-awareness and the size of your blind spots compared to your degree of self-knowledge
- The assumptions you make about self-efficacy (what am I able to change/learn, what is within my control and what isn’t)
- Your level of sensory acuity – ability to recognise and label emotions in self and others, ability to notice changes in self and others
It is, in short, a journey of self-discovery and you can fully expect it to take decades, not just years.
So where and how do you start? That will of course depend on where you are at now and how ready you are for such a journey. If you reject most of what I have talked about in this post and the previous one, it’s too early to embark on this journey. So let’s assume you are ready for a dose of double-loop learning and need a starting point.
My recommendation would be to start with interactions with people (colleagues, clients) who you reject. Observe the person in question and try to home in onto the behaviours or (body) language that causes you to reject them. Examine your feelings/sensations in the moment when you are with them. Collect a pattern of such observations and try to figure out what assumptions you are making to judge and react that way. Which beliefs are you holding that are relevant to how these interactions play out? How do these beliefs and assumptions apply to other people or situations?
Here is a recent example. The MD of a small business was uncomfortable with his dealings with two of his board members, who also have active roles within the organisation. He was stuck in a pattern where he allowed them to put him down and question his worth without offering any solutions, whilst simultaneously blocking the agreed changes he wanted to make in the business through their own behaviour. This had been going on for 4 years and he was getting very upset and ready to leave. Yet he had never looked at what assumptions he was making to 1) accept the unwarranted criticism and 2) not challenge their blocking behaviour.
As it turned out, he had simply assumed that them being experts in their roles would also make them experts at being a board member and being able to judge his behaviour as the MD. He completely failed to see that their expertise was extremely narrow and that their defensive behaviour was simply designed to protect their own identity as Experts. Once that realisation dawned he was quickly able to test different responses and his relationship with the board has changed completely in just a few short months.