Putting learning loops and cycles in practice


On this blog, among the (by far) most successful posts are two posts about a) learning loops and cycles and b) a stock-taking post on learning cycles. This success might not even be founded as much on the quality of the posts as on the relative interest of many people for single-, double- and triple-learning loops.
Take action, reflect and reflect and reflect (Credits: Echo9er / FlickR)

Take action, reflect and reflect and reflect (Credits: Echo9er / FlickR)

So going beyond the theory, here is an attempt at making learning loops a practical reality.
What can we do to put these loops in practice?

First off, here’s an over-simplified refresher on the learning loops:

  • Single loop learning: the quest for efficiency. Doing the same but doing it better, cutting down useless practices and speeding up;
  • Double loop learning: the quest for effectiveness. Doing different things, whatever else that gives a better result because the original thinking (theory) is not conducive to success.
  • Triple loop learning: the quest for dynamically relevant effectiveness. Doing whatever to always being able to assess whether we can identify what we need to do differently – applying double loop learning to double loop learning itself.

Various activities apply to all three loops:

  • Putting an action plan in writing – laying down the steps hoped for is the first step towards quality improvement. Documentation of intentions helps generate a vision of the result (or change) expected.
  • Documenting the process: based on the theory of action (or change), documenting what happens in the action and how the environment (people, organisations, physical environment) reacts provides the feedback that helps to improve learning loops – and decide what level of loops needs to be considered. In development work, this publication might help: Documenting change – an introduction to process documentation.
  • After action review: related to process documentation, it helps to regularly assess what was supposed to happen, what actually happened, why there was a difference and what can be done differently next time. This is effectively one’s own way of introducing feedback loops and stimulate critical thinking.
  • Seeking feedback – this is the more regular way to effectively introduce feedback loops. It’s no easy task and it is all the more effective as it follows certain ‘rules’ (I just found out there’s even a book ‘giving constructive feedback – for dummies’).
  • When seeking feedback, keeping open to the feedback and new insights, humble as to one’s own knowledge (the more we think we know the more we shut ourselves down to learning) and keeping curious to other options and solutions.
  • Identifying in which kind of context we are evolving for the action at hand – following the Cynefin framework here can be quite helpful as it places emphasis on single- (simple domain), double- (complicated and complex domains) or triple-loop learning (complex and chaotic domains). There is no direct relation between the domains and the appropriate learning loops in the framework but what I suggest here goes somewhere along its lines.

Then again, there are also some other activities that might be more specific to each learning loop.

Single loop learning in practice:

  • Having an action or process map – which explains step by step what is supposed to happen. This allows to map all the different elements that might need to go under the efficiency magnifier.
  • Look at other case studies, stories and examples for carrying out the same task – it might reveal hidden aspects that prevent further efficiency.

Double loop learning in practice:

  • Identifying the ‘theory of change that informs our actions: what is the vision that we have, what are our assumptions about the chain of elements that supposedly lead to the results we hope to achieve? What are the principles that guide us? In practice, all these aspects are very difficult to single out. A theory of change is a sort of complex process map in constant questioning.
  • Identifying all other theories put together by others to inform similar activities. Perhaps they have found cracks in their own theory of change and perhaps also very solid evidence about other ways to go about. Perhaps even carry out your own research on the most effective approaches. e.g. to inform policy, should you build an individual rapport with a policy-maker and have informal talks? Should you lobby their office? Should you provide evidence at conferences? Throw an advocacy campaign?
  • Mapping out all other possible ways to do the same task and perhaps using preps to think differently about it. This can be triggered by… lateral thinking – there are many exercises that stimulate lateral thinking. Paul Sloane has made a great job at profiling himself as a very active lateral thinking and innovation specialist. Using cards with pictures is another option: you get a picture and try to relate it to the topic. Each picture is very different and gives hints at other aspects that might have been overlooked.
  • Using metaphors, which is a more virtual way of using cards, basically.
  • Bringing different people around the table or using exercises such as DeBono’s six-thinking hat. The range of perspectives by itself brings about different suggestions for solutions. This is perhaps why so many complex interventions are nowadays addressed via multi-stakeholder processes.

Triple loop learning in practice:

  • Identifying one’s default learning mode (or style) and what triggers that learning style to kick in. There is much debate about the validity of learning styles and I share some of them – as I think we constantly co-evolve with and adapt to our direct environment – but we all tend to fall back to some preferred pathways for action. Being aware of this and challenging our comfort zones is a good way to engage in triple-loop learning;
  • Thinking about the evidence base that informs our decisions. Valerie Brown came up with a very helpful presentation about multiple knowledges explaining the evidence base of different types of identities. It was also used in the paper we wrote for IKM-Emergent on monitoring and evaluating development as a knowledge ecology: ideas for new collective practices.
  • Going through enlightening experiences such as deep meditation, sabbaticals etc. could arguably also be a way of revisiting one’s profound beliefs about truth, purpose and the learning logic that follows.

I have yet to go on such a path… In the meantime your sparks of  reflection are also more than welcome!
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