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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Apr 6, 2019


We’ve all heard the mantra - work smarter, not harder. But sometimes our idea of ‘smarter’ still isn’t the smartest way to work. We need to reflect on an entirely different level.



Welcome to episode 32 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we are looking at the importance of taking time to reflect and challenge the work we’re conducting.

We’ve all heard the mantra - work smarter, not harder. But sometimes our idea of ‘smarter’ still isn’t the smartest way to work. It’s quite possible to very efficiently completely miss the point, overlooking an opportunity to see things from an entirely new perspective. This is particularly a risk in high-paced, busy environments.

Chris Argyris wrote a classic Harvard Business Review article in 1977 called “Double Loop Learning in Organizations”. In the article, Chris provided the example of an organisation that had a dud product, which was eventually discontinued. But those closest to production knew years in advance of the problems. However not all the information about the product’s issues were passed upwards (neither was this information sought out from those in decision making positions). The bad news was watered down. The delay in cancelling the product cost the organisation greatly. Chris highlighted this as a classic example of an organisation failing to learn. People ended up not questioning the work that was being done, but merely trying to streamline it. He saw them using single loop instead of double loop learning.

Let’s use an example to describe what Chris meant by single and double loop learning. Let’s say I’m working on a project, and I notice that we’re starting to fall behind schedule - the project is slipping. One option is to work harder - just put in more hours to try to bring the project back to the original schedule. In this approach, we’re looking at the challenge from an ‘action - result’ perspective. To try to change the result, the only lever we can use is to do more of the action. We haven’t actually learnt anything. Chris would call this ‘zero loop learning’. There is no feedback loop between the result that has changed the action, beyond increasing the amount of action.

A second option to address the slipping project is to work smarter. Here we notice the project is slipping, so we spend some time planning our approach. This could lead us to change our action - maybe we can streamline a process, or negotiate a change in the delivery date, or change the mix of resources on the project. This single loop from action back to planning may well help. We have learnt something and improved our approach to the project, so that’s a good thing, right? Of course it is - but is it the best course of action? Argyris described this as single loop learning - the gap to performance expectations loops back to a planning step that isn’t present in zero loop learning. This is likely to lead to some improvement, and it is where many people and organisations stop. 

Double-loop learning is a completely new way of looking at the issue with the project. Instead of just working harder or smarter, we’re asking ourselves a new question - is it the right work? The double-loop takes us another step back from the project to explore our assumptions. What is the project trying to achieve? Why is this important? If we could start all over again, what other approaches could we use to address this need? It’s getting outside the work, and reflecting on bigger questions. It’s also about taking personal responsibility. Chris Argyris wrote a great follow up article in 1991 called “Teaching Smart People How to Learn”, again in Harvard Business Review. In it he described the work he had performed in management consulting firms, and the tendency for consultants and managers to blame their clients when projects didn’t deliver the expected outcomes. Consultants were quite happy to work on helping clients to learn and improve, but tended not to step back and think about how they could improve. Their focus on improving the performance of clients didn’t extend to themselves. When you don’t step back, the tendency is to blame others. The assumption is that you are approaching the client work well, so any performance issues are related to the client’s inability to learn. It reminded me of a financial institution I once worked with, where senior leaders would often talk negatively about customers. One senior leader regularly joked “this place would run much better if we didn’t have any customers”. Is it any surprise that the failed to see changes in the market and ultimately lost customers? After all, that’s what they jokingly wanted.

When I shared the double-loop learning framework in a leadership program, one of the participants shared a story. They had been spending eight hours a week producing a series of reports, drawing data from various sources, and then distributing these reports to various people across the organisation. It’s what their predecessor had done, so was handed across to them as a task to complete. By using their knowledge of Excel, they managed to streamline the report preparation process, reducing it down to around half a day - a great example of single-loop learning. But they never received any feedback about the reports. So they sent an email out to the recipients - how do you use these reports, can I make them more helpful? No response. So they decided to stop producing the reports. Guess what happened - absolutely nothing. It turned out that no one was actually using the reports any more. So they ultimately improved their efficiency by 20% and bought themselves an extra day to focus on things that really mattered. So many people would have stopped at the single-loop step of developing a more efficient way to produce the reports, instead of stepping back and asking what the reports were for, and whether they were needed.


To make double-loop learning work we need a few things in place:

  • Permission to question the approach - testing the assumptions is actually valued and actively solicited
  • A culture that values feedback, even when it’s negative or critical, as long as the focus is on improvement
  • Time to reflect on our approach - so many of us are hyper-busy with no time to reflect - reflection is never going to make it into the ‘important and urgent’ quadrant, so we need to schedule this reflection time in
  • Take a wider view - what’s happening in other organisations, industries, professions, countries - read widely




Chris Argyris - Double Loop Learning in Organizations - Harvard Business Review 1977 -

Chris Argyris - Teaching Smart People How To Learn - Harvard Business Review 1991 -