Double-loop Learning: How Learning Leads to Culture Change

Every transformation – just like every change – must pass through the valley of tears. An introduction of Scrum is no exception. After all, the Scrum management framework alone will not make a team or company agile if the introduction is not accompanied by a cultural change, which can usually be difficult to painful.

When you implement Scrum, you will not automatically produce faster. Rather, the Scrum framework will help you improve the way you work by identifying two types of errors: 1) errors that occur in the creation of the product, e. g. bugs or wrong assumptions about what the user needs, 2) errors in the workflow, i. e. those that favor the first type of error. Chris Argyris in his book “Organizational Learning” describes organizational learning as learning about error identification. According to him, when an organization focuses on both types of errors, it learns in two complementary ways. In other words: double-loop learning.

Single vs. double 

Single-loop learning focuses on what can be observed: work processes and procedures. Double-loop learning starts one level lower: with the rules and beliefs. The system itself is questioned here. If you are working out how to set up a cross-functional team, this is single-loop learning. Whereas in double-loop learning, you question (and elaborate) why your teams should be cross-functional. When a Scrum team explores different techniques for estimating the backlog, that’s single-loop learning. But when it questions whether estimation is even necessary and looks for alternative ways to satisfy the need for predictability, that’s double-loop learning. Another example: how we measure velocity (single), why we measure velocity (double).

In single-loop learning, we improve what is possible in the existing system. In double-loop learning, we question and change the existing system. It enables fundamental behavioral change that goes beyond situational change (i. e., culture change). In the process, we challenge beliefs, values, and assumptions. Therefore, double-loop learning is more profound and often more protracted.

Why is this important?

  1. Dealing with complexity: Both types of learning are important for continuous improvement. But in complex work for which we can’t draw on past experience, Argyris says double-loop learning plays the more central role – that is, in an environment where teams are constantly asking themselves not only how to do their work, but why. Why do we plan work and why do we create reports? If a team or organization wants to sustainably eliminate root causes of failure, the double loop is essential. In this process, processes and procedures are taken apart and a deeper analysis is possible.
  2. Transformation through cultural change: That is why the introduction of Scrum, if it is not limited to the methods but goes deeper, brings with it a change in culture. It is not uncommon to see highly skilled professionals shift into a defensive posture as practices and competencies that previously made them successful are questioned. Deeply held and trained beliefs about risk, control, and leadership culture are broken down with double-loop learning and the high effort that comes with it. When those involved understand that the new methods and frameworks serve the same goal, defensive attitudes usually fade away as well.

How can you use double-loop learning for transformation?

Learning unleashes forces that make teams more agile. In doing so, they overcome resistance and thus drive their transformation and that of the organization. Scrum gives teams the framework to apply both types of learning. Retrospectives, in particular, provide space for double-loop learning. For some changes, single-loop learning is sufficient and even more useful, e. g. when discovering new techniques or approaches to work. But more profound changes are preceded by double-loop learning, questioning the rules and meaning of the work.

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Steffen Bernd Steffen Bernd Whether it concerns processes, organizations or his own person – enhancements are Steffen Bernd’s passion. Especially when constructive feedback and motivation go hand in hand with it. In his toolbox he finds coaching and effective communication skills next to agile methods. As an experienced and certified business coach with an affinity for languages, he is skilled in both analysis and creative collaboration. He focuses on Lean Six Sigma, facilitation and effective communication. He likes to spend his free time with his son, at Crossfit or as a voluntary lifecoach for aid organizations.

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