One of the finest teachers in the area of metacognitive thinking was Dr. Chris Argyris, a prolific author and Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School. His work on organizational learning was unparalleled; he did a great deal to shape my own thinking on this subject. Dr. Argyris developed two terms I’d like to introduce to you here: single loop thinking and double loop thinking.

Argyris explained that single loop thinking focuses on “identifying and correcting errors in the external environment.” Single loop thinking examines outcomes (that is, lag indicators) and seeks to identify what drives them. The single loop thinker examines events and patterns.

When financial outcomes and/or customer satisfaction scores are unsatisfactory, he or she will study how to make corrections in order to produce acceptable outcomes.

Single loop thinkers talk almost exclusively about events, patterns, and results. There are four strategic steps in the single loop learning cycle:

  1. Observe current outcomes (“What happened?” “How long has this been occurring?”)
  2. Assess possible corrections (“Where did we deviate from the standard?”)
  3. Develop action strategies based on what you’ve uncovered
  4. Implement the action strategies

While single loop thinking will consider the intangibles that might be impacting events and processes, it primarily examines tangible processes and actions. It will never “step outside the box” and take a long look into all the organizational intangibles; it does not consider the interdependency of the organization’s systems. Any negative outcomes are considered to be the result of some deviation from the accepted policies, procedures, and strategies.

Single loop thinking has its place for short-term solutions, but it is, by and large, an inefficient decision-making process. It rarely addresses the underlying beliefs and assumptions that may be creating the problems in the first place. At best, single loop thinking does little more than put “Band-Aids” on symptoms; root causes within systems are not identified and eliminated.

Single loop thinkers do not think broadly and deeply enough about all of the multifaceted and sometimes very complex systemic factors that have contributed to the real problem. Until all of these interrelationships are brought to bear upon an understanding of the systemic nature of the problem, the team is engulfed in perpetual firefighting—that is, “putting out” symptoms. They never achieve actual fire prevention—that is, addressing real, systemic root causes.

For this reason, Dr. Argyris introduced the concept of double loop thinking. Double loop thinking bores down to a deeper layer—the beliefs and assumptions with regard to your organization. “Effective double loop learning is not simply a function of how people feel,” Argyris explained. “It is a reflection of how they think—that is, the cognitive rules or reasoning they use to design and implement their actions.”

Double loop thinkers focus on beliefs and assumptions about the value of the intended outcome. Like the single loop thinker, the focus is still primarily on what the organization is or isn’t doing to meet the needs of internal and/ or external customers. However, where single loop thinking focuses on the current structure and its operation, double loop thinking takes an important step forward. It no longer focuses solely on what has been happening; double loop thinking digs deeper and asks, “What are our beliefs and assumptions about the system we’re operating in? Could it be that those assumptions are part of the problem?”

When you’re dealing with any kind of strategy for process improvement, you must ask yourself a question if you hope to move toward sustainable success: Is there something more fundamental with regard to what we’re currently discussing? To put it another way, Is there another system that I haven’t yet considered that’s impacting the current outcome?

Our People First Business Strategy Map takes process improvement strategies to a new level by using the language of systems. The first question of systems thinking is “What is this a part of?” As we move through Chris Argyris’ double loop learning and question our beliefs and assumptions about the value of what we’re doing, we should recognize that those questions point us to a deeper level still: the values of the people involved in the system we’re examining. How well do their values line up with the values and philosophy of your organization?

But it doesn’t stop there: we keep digging deeper, asking “What system are those beliefs a part of?” And then we hit bedrock: “What is our understanding, as an organization, of what it means to be human? How do our employees define what it means to be human?” We’ve moved from a single loop focus on a process or event, which is a system of its own; we’ve continued to dig deeper in double loop thinking by challenging the assumptions which undergird that system. But the People First Leader is a systems thinker who continues to ask “What is this a part of?” The answers to these successive questions lead to interdependent systems of thought and ultimately to all of the systems that are affecting the current outcome.