December 13, 2019

Book notes from teaching smart people how to learn by Chris Argyris

I picked up this gem of a book from a recent book sale and while it’s a short read (about 70 pages), it features quite a few interesting lessons, examples, case studies and actionable takeaways that I thought I’d share in this short Sunday post.

The challenge for highly successful professionals is the idea behind single loop and double loop learning. The author illustrates the difference between the two by way of a thermostat. A thermostat that automatically turns on when the temperature reaches 10 degrees celsius is analogous to single loop learning (i.e., the professional that sees that they have made a mistake and then goes to correct it). A thermostat that thinks about why it is turning on at 10 degrees celsius and whether there is a more economical or efficient way of heating up the room is analogous to double loop learning (i.e., the professional that sees they have made a mistake and tries to understand their thought process and the steps they took which led to the mistake).

Highly successful professionals are very good at single loop learning. They have good grades in school and often do not experience any or rarely experience failures. When they do encounter a failure, they attribute it to outside causes or blame others around them. The challenge then is to create teams and organizations where double loop learning is done.

Throughout the book, there are a variety of examples and case studies that illustrate how to encourage more productive feedback and resolution of issues:

Develop a rough case study of the problem you are trying to solve

Rather than holding meetings or trying to discuss this with the team, first, break down the situation that you are trying to resolve into a case study. Examine the case study, looking at pros and cons or strengths and opportunities for improvement in yourself and in others. Next, engage the team with your case study, asking them to look at it and look for the same things – strengths and opportunities for improvement.

I think this does a few things: one, it delineates your feelings from the problem at hand. Often times, when a problem or failure has occurred, we look to place the blame on someone other than ourselves. But this also means that you are not able to truly get at the root of the problem. It’s human nature to avoid blame and failure for fear of getting fired or relegated to a lower role. Two, it gives you time to think through the problem and gives you a forum for criticizing yourself. A person’s biggest critic is themselves and being aware of these is much better than having your team attack you in an open forum. Finally, the double loop learning has to come down from senior management. If senior management is looking at how they can improve, you cannot help but ask the same question of yourself.

Ask questions

Everybody asks questions when they are trying to get to the solution of a problem. However, there is a certain art for how questions should be asked and how deep you should go.

First, within a problem or issue, there can be many ‘symptoms’. But a doctor who treats only symptoms isn’t getting at the root cause or the illness. When you ask questions, you want to get at the root cause as much as possible.

Second, questions should be open-ended in nature to encourage discussion and open conversation. And rather than suggesting specific actions (as a manager to your team) for your team to do or try, asking questions and leaving it in the air may be a better approach.

Remain undefensive

As a manager, you team may have criticisms for you. If you want to promote others in being undefensive (that is, not to put up excuses or blame others), you have to do the same when criticisms are brought forth. Again, you want to try to get at the root cause as much as possible and putting up excuses, blaming others or trying to pass off the fault is counterproductive to your goal.


What do you think about this idea of single loop and double loop learning? Do you see it at your organization? How do you, as a team member or manager, encourage more double loop learning?


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