The ‘meta’ reflex, that little knowledge ‘extra’ that makes a difference


My head is still boggling about the relation that some people can have with time. Particularly about what they do with time, this fascinating uber-theme of humanity alongside with love, death and the meaning of life.

The meta reflex - Anticipation before the next 'groundhog day' wave (Credits: T Sea / FlickR)

The meta reflex – Anticipation before the next ‘groundhog day’ wave (Credits: T Sea / FlickR)

I’ll be blogging a couple of posts about time. Starting today with this: the little extra time that smart workers and seasoned KMers take to invest in ‘meta’ reflexes and the world that offers.

What is this ‘meta’ world? The world that is visible with one step back, or aside, or with a helicopter view, or with your third eye. Essentially the vision you get when you step out of your ‘here and now’ and realise there is something important you can do about it for the future – to avoid a Groundhog Day scenario. And here is how it plays out:

Imagine you’re trying to fix a problem, dealing with a crisis, or even just replying to someone, responding to a query, thinking about a possible solution. Most people deal with the issue at hand. That’s great already!

But if your KM meta reflex kicks in, all of a sudden you see another arc:

Hold on a minute! Is this a one-off? Or something likely to happen again? What can I do here and now that will not only help in the moment, but save time for me, and possibly others, in the future?

THAT is the meta reflex that gives you an edge. And it’s personal knowledge mastery at work. It is to knowledge management what meditation is to life. It’s the open secret that helps you avoid the hole in the road. Repeatedly.

Through a practice that I set up a while back with some ideas gleaned here and there (“Steal with pride”, rightfully encourages Chris Collison), I reflect everyday on what worked or didn’t, and every week I also reflect on what I did in the week that helps me get more productive and successful in the future. That weekly look back is my moment of dedication to the meta reflex. At least that. Hardly any week I haven’t e.g. set up a list about xyz, developed a template for abc, cooked up a blog post that I can point back at when people ask me about ___, thought of standard questions for a given context etc.

Sometimes it takes just 30 sec, sometimes 5 minutes, sometimes a whole hour. But the payoff is huge. It means I’m better prepared. I’m mentally sharper. And I avoid some crisis scenarios in the future and having to deal again with the same issue.

A related thought: At the moment, I’m also working on the culture of feedback in the organisation I’m part of (and realise how useful ‘fun, focus and feedback‘ is, as a motto). Just like the more you practice giving and receiving feedback, the better you get at it, so too with practicing your meta reflex. It’s a muscle. Go to the gym, and better still: use every single opportunity to use it in your life!

It’s a real time saver – a life hack factory.

And it’s scalable at the level of a team. It’s the essence of after action review and learning on the spot… so let’s go meta!

What are your thoughts, tricks, heuristics to develop meta reflexes in your life and (collective) work?

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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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Learning cycle basics and more: Taking stock


It seems that, home page aside, the most popular post on this modest blog has been the one I wrote about ‘cycles, circles and ripples of learning’.

Finding light through a different reflection? Deep learning loops (Photo credits: Philippe Leroyer)

Finding light through a different reflection? Deep learning loops (photo credits: Philippe Leroyer)

Search engine queries confirm that a lot of people out there are looking for more on these dizzying learning cycles and loops.

That learning cycles were so popular was a discovery for me. I like the idea of learning cycles but never used the model much in KM training or discussions. The recent poll I organised to elect the topic of this stock-taking post confirmed the general curiosity for learning cycles. Following your wishes, here is a stock-taking post on learning cycles, but to keep it interesting and different I’m foraying into adjacent areas such as…

Kolb learning styles (source: www.businessballs.com)

Might as well begin with the beginning as David Kolb has theorised learning styles and experiential learning (1) which are at the cornerstone of learning loops and cycles. There are other authors upon which Kolb inspired his work but this is only a short visit to academic park.

The theory here distinguishes four distinct learning styles:

  • Concrete experience (related to feeling);
  • Reflective observation (watching);
  • Abstract conceptualisation (thinking);
  • Active experimentation (doing).

These learning styles are connected, in Kolb’s theory, through the following cyclical sequence:

Kolb's experiential learning cycle (graph credits: Businessballs)

Kolb contends that every person uses the four learning styles in different ways depending on their progression on a maturity path that spans acquisition (of basic abilities and cognitive structures), specialisation (towards a specific learning style) and ultimately integration (where other learning styles are also expressed / used in work and personal life). But he also contends that we cannot use two styles simultaneously so we opt for either doing or watching and then either for thinking or feeling.

At the intersection of these two dialectical sets of choices, Kolb places his theory of preferred learning styles, as shown in the table below:

Doing (Active Experimentation – AE) Watching (Reflective Observation – RO)
Feeling (Concrete Experience – CE) Accommodating (CE/AE), i.e. hands-on, intuitive, relying on others’ information, group-work focused… Diverging (CE/RO), i.e. making links between different approaches, interested in brainstorming. Emotional, group work-focused…
Thinking (Abstract Conceptualization – AC) Converging (AC/AE), i.e. with a practical focus, interested in technical problems/solutions, specialist/technological applications… Assimilating (AC/RO), i.e. logical, concise, interested in readings, lectures, analytical models…

This model has been elaborated on by Peter Honey and Alan Mumford. They relabelled the four preferred learning styles to use some labels that are more familiar to us:

  1. ‘Having an Experience’ (stage 1), and Activists (style 1): ‘here and now’, gregarious, seek challenge and immediate experience, open-minded, bored with implementation.
  2. ‘Reviewing the Experience’ (stage 2) and Reflectors (style 2): ‘stand back’, gather data, ponder and analyse, delay reaching conclusions, listen before speaking, thoughtful.
  3. ‘Concluding from the Experience’ (stage 3) and Theorists (style 3): think things through in logical steps, assimilate disparate facts into coherent theories, rationally objective, reject subjectivity and flippancy.
  4. ‘Planning the next steps’ (stage 4) and Pragmatists (style 4): seek and try out new ideas, practical, down-to-earth, enjoy problem solving and decision-making quickly, bored with long discussions.

I think this model has a lot to be argued with – any model that claims too quickly to show the truth is disputable, however useful that claim is to stimulate critical reviews and further researching limitations, gaps, edges of this theory.

More information can be found on the learning and teaching website, about learning styles: http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/experience.htm with some additional adaptations as briefly mentioned above. This resource also contain some links to critiques made on the Kolb model – in stock-taking posts I refrain from giving an opinion.

Chris Argyris / Donald Schön: theories of action, double-loop learning and organisational learning (source: Mark K. Smith – INFED)

The other heavyweights in learning cycles and styles are obviously Chris Argyris and Donald Schön, and in this extensive explanation by Mark K. Smith, we are touching the inner cords of learning loops and cycles. This is hard to summarise here but the starting point is the difference between theory and action and the fact that everyone has two theories of action: theories in use (governing our actual behaviour) and espoused theories (what we say we do). In popular terms this also relates to the saying: “do as I say (not as I do)”. Argyris argues that effectiveness comes from aligning these two theories of action.

Then comes learning (seen here as detection and correction of errors):

  • Single-loop learning comes from the fact that human beings, faced with adversity, just try to set the same governing variables in a different way – as a quest for efficiency.
  • Double loop learning is when we look at the governing variables (norms, policies, objectives) that guide our activities and our responses to events occurring. This is where effectiveness (as opposed to just efficiency) comes in.
  • In another article, another author explains that on the topic of organisational learning, Argyris is also referring to deutero learning as the awareness that (single and double-loop) learning must happen. This means identifying the learning styles and facilitating factors to understand the gap between targeted outcome and actual performance (not a very complexity-friendly theory really though).

Double-loop learning according to Argyris (graph credits: Deborah Kendell)

Argyris and Schön considered how to expand the capacity of organisations to engage in double-loop learning – as they saw this as crucial to adapt to fast-changing environments – but it is also inherently difficult because the reasoning process of individuals “inhibits exchange of relevant information”. In his study, Argyris compares two models of human behaviours and contends that almost everyone follows model 1, a model that promotes superficiality, not losing face, defensive relationships etc. as opposed to a more win-win focused model 2.

Of course a lot of this theory should also be taken with a pinch of salt and some distance with respect to its linearity and dual approach. But the bottom ideas stick around.

The author of this article also points to the fact that Argyris and Schön’s theory has been central to unearthing the role of facilitators (of learning), reflecting on and questioning the difference between the two theories of action, as opposed to individual / private learning.

All in all, this web page is probably one of the best introductions to Argyris’s work without digging out the books.

More on single, double and triple loop learning

On the topic of learning loops, the ‘Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development’ offers a short and to-the-point definition on this one-pager (PDF document):

  • Single-loop learning is understood here as following the rules – like a thermostat that only corrects temperature when it goes too low or too high.
  • Double-loop learning is described as changing the rules – where the focus is not on applying the rules but on using creativity and critical thinking to find out if the rules that you are applying are indeed most appropriate.
  • Triple-loop learning is simply referred to as learning how to learn, implying that not only should we think about applying the rules or changing them but we should think about the rules themselves. The authors also depict triple-loop learning as double-loop learning applied to double loop learning itself.

This reference has the merit of being short but thereby offers little value to apply the analogy to other contexts (if the examples provided do not make enough sense).

In the context of learning alliances (one of my hobby horses as I work with learning alliances and IRC wrote about it (2) and works a lot with this type of multi-stakeholder approach),

Double loop learning in learning alliances (graph credits: CIAT)

CIAT one of the CG centres who has pioneered learning alliances refers in the ILAC sourcebook (part 2 – tools and approaches, chapter 14 on learning alliances) to the importance of a double loop learning cycle to implement strategic actions, as depicted in the image (right here).

Then there is this interesting article ‘Transformational change in organisations’ by Mary R. Bast which focuses mainly on individuals (contrary to the organisational double-loop learning practice described in the figure above) and particularly emphasises triple-loop learning as the condition for transformational change, as opposed to incremental learning through single-loop learning and reframing through double-loop learning. This article borrows from Robert Hargrove’s Masterful coaching and explains that the essential contribution of triple-loop learning is that it paves the way for transformational change (3) – a process that essentially requires that we reassess our point of view about ourselves. Another interesting point made here is that transformational change can be hindered by single and double loop learning. This article covers, with explicit (and built-on) examples, the three types of learning loops and gives perhaps the best illustration about learning loops that I could find, even if it could have been written in a more simple manner.

Learning cycles, according to Wikipedia

Of course I shouldn’t afford not to mention what Wikipedia has to say about learning cycles… in this case not very much (nor to the point) as it goes on about a research-supported method for education looking successively at engaging, exploring, explaining, extending and evaluating… ah, when the wisdom of the crowd becomes the wastedump of the proud…

Learning and KM in the development sector, a KM4DEV discussion

And finally, although this wiki entry could be a bit more structured, it offers a number of very valuable insights into the topic of learning and touches upon the learning loops (particularly by Irene Guijt).

I hope that these references provide a bit more information about this topic of learning cycles. As usual, feel free to point to more relevant resources…

In the meantime, I’ll be working on my next stock-taking post, either about complexity theories or about facilitation tools and approaches. What say you?

Notes:

One of the key references that is not mentioned here but was talked about in the previous post on learning cycles is the article (PDF) that Marleen Maarleveld and Constant Dangbégnon wrote, where they refer extensively to triple-loop learning.

In-text notes:

(1) Experiential Learning: Experience As The Source Of Learning And Development was published in 1984

(2) The book that IRC authors wrote about learning alliances in the water sector is available here.

(3) Transformational change is described as: “…empowering people to transform who they are and reinvent themselves by helping them to see how their frames of reference, thinking, and behavior produce unintended consequences… to surface and question the way they have framed their points of view about themselves, others, or their circumstances with the idea of creating a fundamental shift”

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