Wednesday, January 16, 2019
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How Methodology Double Loop Learning

Double Loop

The Route To Deep Change

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The perspectives, skills and tools of CPL’s Double Loop Learning are the prime ingredients of the Business Transformation Cycle. They facilitate a thorough exploration of what currently exists in the organisational processes, individuals’ orientation, team and cultural dynamics, preparing the way for designing, and carrying out effective, sustainable change.

Consulting People Ltd. (CPL) have been running Double Loop Learning (DLL) seminars for over twenty years and find that they are the most effective method for accelerating leadership, entrepreneurship and a sense of personal responsibility for achieving results. CPL have written a series of articles on DLL which are published here, these articles are based on the work of Professor Chris Agyris who was kind enough to read and comment on them, and is part of the theory input to our seminars. We are professionally indebted to Chris for his teaching and support.

The focus of Chris Argyris work is learning. His seminal contribution to the field being Double Loop Learning, in which it becomes clear that for good reasons people can act against their own best interests. Or in corporate life, develop a sound strategic direction, which cannot be implemented due to defensive routines.

The Basis Of Our Seminar

Leadership, entrepreneurship and a sense of personal responsibility for achieving results means that most of us act to produce the outcomes we desire. For the most part we can do this within the familiar and comfortable fields of expertise and relationships of our everyday world.

Theories of Action

Action Science - Theories of Action

Biologically it does not seem to be efficient to have sets of design rules that apply to every situation we meet. It would be bizarre to contemplate a world in which, ahead of time, we already had, in full detail, knowledge of all the situations we were likely to encounter. From our own research, it seems that we have a few, dominant, strategies or operating rules for how we process data (sensory in origin) together with a few dominant, strategies or operating rules for how we communicate or take action as a result of processing or reasoning. Our twenty plus years of case studies shows that we each have a personal version of these strategies, which we have termed a ?psychodynamic?. In our seminars we surface these personal psychodynamics in order to better understand in which ways do they need re-authoring to reduce type 2 errors. However, since we all operate some variation of the same themes, it is possible to consider some generics, for example, for defensive reasoning they would be:

1. Thinking - Stay rational, preferably on a topic that we are confident and comfortable to advocate upon. Treat ones own assertions and assumptions as facts. Deny the value of other contributions by ignoring or challenging in a way that signals the danger inherent in reply.

2. Feeling - Stay cool, do not under any circumstances surface feelings that might indicate uncertainty or weakness. It is permissible in control-oriented cultures to display irritation.

3. Action - Stay in control, play to win, even at the expense of the people around whose support you may rely on at some future time.

A moment's reflection reveals the paradox, if I play to win, someone has to loose. Hence avid model 1 users, discourage others using the very strategies they believe to be effective for themselves, and also avoid situations where they cannot take refuge behind the privilege of rank and thus become exposed to feeling the very feelings that their psychodynamic is designed to damp out.

Defensive Routines

Designed error and Double Loop Learning (DLL). Psychodynamic routines that inhibit the feelings of embarrassment or threat are known within the lexicon of DLL, as defensive routines. The inhibiting effect of defensive routines also inhibits learning how to work with the surfacing and meaning of difficult feelings. The essence of most control strategies is the successful deployment of defensive routines, which bring the mixed blessing of the feeling of stability and continuity at the expense of learning and growth through the productive encounter of our fellows. Although individuals carry defensive routines, they manifest in relationships, one to one, group, and inter-group and at the level of organisation culture. Defensive routines by their nature inhibit learning in exchange for stability and continuity, which means there is a predictable logic to them.

1. Communicate a clearly ambiguous/inconsistent message
2. Act as if this is not the case
3. Make the ambiguity and inconsistency un-discussable
4. Make the fact of the un-discussability of the inconsistency also un-discussable.

To elaborate on these points.

1. Communicate a clearly ambiguous/inconsistent message. For example, ?Be innovative and take risks, but be careful and make them well judged.? This message, when converted to meaning by the listener, says in effect, ?Take action, but do not overstep the mark.? Where the mark is, is rarely specified. The ambiguous/inconsistent message covers the speaker who cannot know ahead of time what is an acceptable risk. The listener on the other hand, clearly understands the corporate purpose of such a message. Moreover, s/he knows that a request for clarification, in some cultures, could be interpreted as a sign of inexperience or aggression. Further, the listener may have an investment in maintaining the ambiguity and inconsistency (to maintain their own comfort zone) and wish to avoid specificity as much as the speaker does.

2. Act as if this is not the case. The above is an example of a mixed message; they are usually given spontaneously without indication in the body language of the speaker that the message is indeed mixed. Indeed, if the speaker hesitates, this will undermine the control strategy that underlies such messages. It may be interpreted as weakness or indecisiveness.

3. Make the ambiguity and inconsistency un-discussable. The whole point of sending a mixed message is to avoid dealing with a situation straight on that may compromise a negotiating position or may invite critical comment. The speaker relies on the listener to collude with the speaker by appearing to accept what is being said at face value. The speaker does not want the ambiguity exposed. I have not met many executives who ask, ?Do you find my message ambiguous and inconsistent?? The natural and authoritive way that most mixed messages are delivered creates a dilemma for the listener. Do they seek to clarify their own understanding, and by so doing challenge the motive of the speaker or attract judgements of immaturity.

4. Make the fact of the un-discussability of the inconsistency also un-discussable. One of the best ways of delivering such a message is in a setting or through a medium that does not make open enquiry appropriate. Frequently, the setting chosen is a meeting where inequality of status is a given and well understood by the participants. In such contexts the speaker is usually the formal leader and it is rare for the speaker to reflect on their actions or discuss the organisation culture which such meetings express. (see ?Microcultures? in the section on Team Dynamics). This leads directly to the phenomenon of a corporate dead zone, in which certain topics are known to be undiscussable, and that the very un-discussabilty is un-discussable.

This social phenomenon leads directly to misunderstanding which may lead to actions that undermine the very commercial benefit that is claimed as their justification. In this way, defensive routines when enacted as a result of defensive reasoning, directly create designed errors. Turf battles, poor governance, poor performance, sub-optimal projects, cost reduction programmes that put up cost, all these are indicators of this phenomenon. All companies have some of these features and prosper, frictional difficulty caused may be tolerated. When change is needed to the prevailing culture, these phenomena become structural, and a real impediment to the change process.

So What is Going On?

Action Science - So what is going on?

Now to some thoughts about what is going on. Central to the seminar design is the proposition that we human beings are designing systems. Moreover, it is possible to elicit data through the case studies, and to create an image of each of us as a processing system that uses sensory input to produce outputs according to our personal designs. In other words we design what we intend to do.

Since it is not always possible to design and implement behaviour according to intention, from scratch (life and opportunity would pass us by), then we have rules in our heads that dispose to act in certain ways when challenged by certain situations. A conclusion from this reasoning is that we must also have rules that in our society at this time, to produce errors, specifically those listed as phenomena in the prior article and shown below:

1. Perpetuate misunderstanding and ineffectiveness, even though to ourselves we act to increase understanding and effectiveness
2. Cause us to blame others or the system for what we define as poor decisions
3. Contribute to organisational inertia in the face of a pressing need for change
4. Cover up or sanitise upward communication of difficult issues
5. Builds contingency into budgets as part of corporate games
6. Contribute to situations in which we act against our own self interest
7. Create team processes where members have yet to learn how to deal with issues that are embarrassing or threatening.

So now let us revise the list to show that actions are rule based and that each of us is causally responsible for how we contribute to the creation and maintenance of error. The above revise as follows:

1. When dealing with difficult people problems, produce consequences that are not intended, and stay unaware of the fact
2. Avoid responsibility for contributing to situations or problems by holding others or the system to blame
3. Repeat defensive reasoning and the errors that arise, so skilfully, that the very ease of repetition guarantees they will be repeated
4. Lose (go blank) and/or distort the flow of information, particularly face to face, when communicating in an hierarchy
5. Design performance controls that mask true financial costs whilst increasing the human cost
6. Have unreflected assumptions about performance improvement that makes it unlikely that performance will reach its maximum level
7. Avoid conflict by developing myths of team or performance excellence that perpetuates sub-optimal performance and encourages individual complacency.

Most Chairmen, CEO?s, directors and senior managers express disbelief that they hold such rules. Yet our seminars reveal the reasoning that underpins such errors, and offers each of us the opportunity to reflect on our own design rules and thus truly take responsibility for our own development through the way we engage with difficult people and situations.

Living With Defensive Routines

So how do people live with defensive routines? It turns out that living with defensive routines requires a defensive psychodynamic. There are five principle strategies that each of us deploys.

1. Feel helpless, powerless and fail to see the point. An aspect of this is to feel demotivated as well.
2. Become cynical
3. Blame others and the system
4. Produce the routine in others
5. Collude to avoid difficult people and situations.

Now let us examine each of these in more detail. As we do so it is worth reflecting on the self-reinforcing nature of a defensive routine. It transpires that when attempting to change a defensive routine, the first thing that happens is that is activated. Paradoxically, attempts to change a defensive routine can strengthen the limiting and anti-learning nature of such routines. As part of our seminar, we examine how to deal with this knotty problem.

1. Feeling helpless makes sense in the presence of a greater force. For most of us this means other people, particularly difficult people who are senior in the hierarchy to which we belong. Paradoxically, the more senior the executive in a classic monopoly culture (see ?Generic Cultures? and business transformation) the more difficult it becomes to constructively address and change the self-reinforcing practices that are usually embedded in the culture.

2. Become cynical. This is the tendency to sneer, diminish and generally ?dis? declarations about and behaviours that evidence good intentions. Conversations tend to be circular and focus on familiar issues, having the character of a ritual. Participants in meetings tend to contribute that which they know to be acceptable to others and in this and other ways seek the approval of others even if this produces a sub-optimal business result.

3. Blame others and the system. This can be quite insidious, placing the responsibility (or blame) onto others, to demand they change (so that we do not have to) takes people into power struggle with others. Even those whom we depend upon for deliverables that support us. This leads to a highly politicised feel to a business in which defend/attack behaviour is normal. In extremis this can lead to a cult of personality (which we call personality soup) in which the whole system gears itself to meeting the needs and gaining the approval of a few critical senior managers.

4. Produce the routine in others. Individuals talk about or deal with issues/problems in such a manner, that they are unaware of their own causal responsibility. How many managers blame another for the very difficulty that they themselves have initiated? At these critical moments the recipient can either take the behaviour, or risk further wrath by seeking to make causation discussable. At these times we learn our scripts and act them out when faced with a super-ordinate who asks us to accept responsibility for the very difficulty they have caused. We learn our place in the pecking order. Sadly these learnt behaviours can make us seem supportive (for which read, compliant and cynical) at the time of the discussion, it is only later when another understanding emerges that the support seems suspect. Most of us have experienced or commissioned the following at some point or another:

  • People who create arbitrary deadlines, without regard to existing workflows, thereby causing scheduling problems.
  • People who leap to solutions and decisions without having the relevant technical data or the least idea how they are impacting others.
  • People who infringe the responsibilities of others and attack when this is raised.
  • People who have a too difficult tray, and procrastinate (for a variety of rational but specious reasons) hoping the problems will go away.

5. Most of us are critical of defensive routines when we are on the receiving end, but fail to surface and examine our own when we deploy them. Not only are we unaware of our own but also vigorously resist any feedback that may make us aware. When we have unspoken agreements with others, collusion helps us to avoid collision. The rule to deal with situations that are potentially embarrassing or threatening is to bypass it by finding a familiar and comfortable displacement. The unspoken collusion is to make this bypass undiscussable and to make the undiscussability undiscussable.

Most people feel helpless to change defensive routines because the very attempt to engage demands huge energy and emotional commitment. In itself this inhibiting reaction feeds back into habitual low energy forms of behaviour that at defend us from the immediacy of the situation we face, whilst simultaneously guaranteeing that we layer up a number of unresolved issues into our lives. Some choice, open a can of worms with all the unpredictability of the outcome or live with the slow burn and stress of unresolved issues that are bypassed with others by unspoken collusive agreements.

So What Do We Do?

So what do we do? The short answer is to learn our way forward. This clearly needs a little more explanation. The first thing is to take a perspective of the human being as a complex set of nested systems, each of which is logically different from the others, and yet each inter-operates with the others. Given that as a species we still are unable to define awareness, life, etc then what follows must be treated as a working proposition that needs continuously testing and mediating through your own experience. The first step is to take a reductionist view of the nested systems and examine three, namely:
  1. What we say
  2. How we feel
  3. What we do

Each of these is logically different from the other because:

  1. Is neurologically based
  2. Is neurotransmitter/hormone based
  3. Is motor based through our physical body

Each of these processes is linked to the others, and each has its own particular logic. So, if we wish to change, then we must examine the reasoning or design rules we use to implement our action choices. Given that these are defended and in the main we are unaware of our own defenses, then in our seminar we use the opportunity to learn through and from each other how these processes operate in each of us.

Over the years, it has become clear that whilst we have certain characteristics in common, we each have our own distinctive variations on the characteristic themes. For the seminar, we have therefore evolved a means of tracking the data that each of us generates that combines the structure of our common characteristics and our specific differences. In this way we seek to minimise the generalisations, categorisations and labelling that can occur and instead, co-create a valid, confirmable set of data within which a participant has a free and informed choice about their own learning and development. We have found Double Loop Learning skills to be invaluable for leadership, teamwork, coaching and as a platform for change. Many of our consulting assignments would have been less successful (in our opinion) without the ability to surface reasoning, interpersonal strategies and behaviour to non-defensive discussability, where the need for change was clear. In this way change is learning and implementing, not just into the self but also as a set of value directed behaviours designed to contribute to the effectiveness and quality of work life for all involved. This reveals the primary learning objectives of our seminar as:

  1. Raising awareness of how our own defenses and defensiveness activates and contributes to the very difficulty that we blame others for (thereby contributing to organisational defenses)
  2. Becoming aware of how quickly and easily they are deployed, even below our own threshold of awareness, and how quickly we can blame others for them
  3. Changing our skill sets so that we can interact with others to:
  • Develop commitment to choices and decisions based on confirmable data
  • Combine speaking and listening to promote inquiry and public testing of issues in which defensive reactions become part of the data
  • Reduce the errors and misunderstandings caused by unsurfaced/unresolved issues
  • Continuously use feedback to raise awareness of our design rules and the behaviour that flows from them.

Creating a safe and comfortable learning environment, in which we are resources for each other to learn and grow is the tangible expression of DLL skills within the seminar. It also gives participants an experience of high performance team work found to be so useful when facing the complexity and ambiguity of modern business challenges.