Forms of Learning: Part 2 – Triple Loop

Single-loop learning is the acquisition of skills and competencies leading to a person becoming an expert in a specialised area. Much of this sort of learning can be automated to a point where a computer can perform better than a human, for example in playing a game of chess. Double-loop learning, in addition, involves reflection, where the person doing the learning is not only learning, but also thinking about learning. This can lead to a critical assessment of not only the goals of the exercise but also of the often spoken assumptions that might influence one’s conclusions.

There is, however, a third form of learning seen typically, but not exclusively, when human beings come together in groups. Consider a group of employees at work sitting around a table in a meeting. One would expect some people in the group to be more vocal and assertive than others. These people are, of course, more likely to influence, in favour of their positions, the decisions made by the group. Some might pitch in occasionally, deliberately holding their counsel till the right moment to get their points across most effectively. Some may remain silent to signal agreement or because they have nothing material to add. But there are also likely to be some individuals who remain silent even though they have important contributions to make, because they lack confidence, or perhaps because they have an opinion that is very different from that of the majority. This last group of individuals may attempt to participate but face the risk of being ignored, chastened or even ejected from the group. The chair of the meeting is either unaware of their silence or perhaps doesn’t consider it worth addressing. In this scenario, the group has failed to take advantage of the potential contributions of the silent individuals. They have not engaged in what Flood and Rohm called triple-loop learning, a form of learning in which a group benefits from diversity of thinking and also ensures that everyone has their share of voice to participate. In what way might this group have missed out by not taking on board the contributions of these individuals?

From the normative perspective, which provides guidance for ethical conduct, all participants in the meeting should have the opportunity to voice their opinion. Otherwise they should not have been invited! This is in line with the view that like shareholders and customers, employees are also key stakeholders and therefore must have a certain level of influence over outcomes that could well affect them. The disregard for certain groups based on gender or ethnic origin is an enduring problem. For example, the Glass Ceiling Index revealed recently that fewer women run major US companies than males called John.

From an instrumental, or practical, perspective there are at least two reasons for seeking participation from all employees. First, when exploring the situation or issue, if the group consists of people who think in a certain way (a characteristic much prized in some organisations!) the similarity in their perspective could skew their assessment of the situation and hence restrict the breadth of choices seen as available to them. This in turn would limit their ability to successfully deal with the challenges of a changing environment. As Ashby suggested half a century ago with his law of requisite variety, if the repertoire of responses of a system is narrower than the range of possible scenarios in the environment, it is unlikely to survive. In other words, if you have played only noughts and crosses and are up against someone who has been playing chess or go, your chances of winning aren’t very good

The second reason has to do reducing the risk that the change initiative runs into resistance. Once the group has made certain decisions, these decisions have got to be implemented. It is much more likely that the implementation will be successful if all stakeholders have a sense of ownership about the decisions than if some individuals feel the decisions have been imposed on them. A common approach for creating this sense of ownership is to do a certain level of preparation and then present the stakeholders with a set of options from which to choose. While this might have the desired effect, it requires a high level of trust for stakeholders to be comfortable the options are not biased in favour of those who did the preparation.

To be able to respond effectively and in an ethically appropriate way to any situation, we need to be able to use all of these forms of learning as required. It may actually be difficult to separate the learning modes because they interact with each other. For example, as we learn to nurture and leverage diversity, the resulting differences of opinion can reveal our own unarticulated assumptions and biases, i.e. triple-loop learning can force us into double-loop learning.

To tie this back to alignment, it should now be clear that in a situation in which we don’t know all we need to know about the organisation, and in which we can’t be sure exactly what will happen when do something to improve alignment, being in a continuous learning mode is probably the only way to make sure we choose the right path to change and implement it sustainably.

If you are interested in learning more about organisational alignment, how misalignment can arise and what you can do about it join the community. Along the way, I’ll share some tools and frameworks that might help you improve alignment in your organisation.