Triple-Loop Learning

Our society is information fat and wisdom thin. Leaders today must work diligently to develop a learning culture of data management, where data (undigested facts) can become information (facts organized by outside sources but not yet integrated into one’s thinking), which then can become knowledge (internalized information), which can be refined into wisdom (integrated knowledge). Developing this culture of learning happens best with an understanding of how learning occurs.

Largely based on the works of Gregory Bateson, and extended by Chris Argyris, Donald A. Schon, and Peter Senge, the concepts of single-loop, double-loop, and triple-loop learning clarify the ways one can learn:

Single-Loop Learning (Incremental Learning)

Single-loop learning refers to learning new skills and capabilities through incremental improvement, doing something better without examining or challenging underlying beliefs and assumptions. Think about how a thermostat operates in one mode. When it detects the room is too cold, it turns on the furnace. When it detects it’s too hot, it turns it off. This kind of system includes one automatic and limited type of reaction. Little or no learning occurs and little or no insight is needed. Experts assert that most organizations operate according to single-loop learning – members establish rigid strategies, policies, and procedures; and then spend their time detecting and correcting deviations from the “rules.”

Double-Loop Learning (Reframing)

Double-loop learning occurs by fundamentally reshaping the underlying patterns of our thinking and behavior, so we’re capable of doing different things. This often enfolds as single-loop or incremental learning, but goes beyond it. In double-loop learning, members of the organization are able to reflect not only on whether deviations have occurred and how to correct them, but also on whether the “rules” themselves should be changed. It involves more “thinking outside the box,” creativity, and critical thinking; and often helps people understand why a particular solution works better than others in solving a problem or achieving a goal. Experts assert that double-loop learning is critical to the success of an organization, especially during times of rapid change.

Triple-Loop Learning (Transformational Learning)

Triple-loop learning involves transforming who we are by creating a shift in our context or point of view about ourselves. It involves “learning how to learn” by reflecting on how we learn in the first place. Something we thought and felt (and had manifested in our behavior) has come into question. In this situation, participants would reflect on how they think about the “rules,” not only on whether the rules should be changed. This form of learning helps us to understand a great deal more about ourselves and others regarding beliefs and perceptions. Triple-loop learning might be explained as double-loop learning about double-loop learning.

Most executive coaching takes place at the incremental level (embody new skills and capabilities), sometimes at the level of reframing (reshape patterns of thinking), but seldom at the transformational level (a shift in context or point of view). Authentic Leadership International, as an Ontological Coaching company, takes a triple-loop learning approach.