Our Single Loop World (and what to do about it)


I had a thought after reading more bad news about the economy, the environment and the state of civil society: “What if humanity is evolving too slowly to address our most pressing problems because people are moving too fast?”  

The drug Dilbert invented that switches off the brain’s ability to make rational decisions might as well be called Velocity.

Here on our planet people always seem to be rushing about. “Gotta get to work; gotta meet the deadline; gotta seal the deal; gotta close the quarter; gotta pick up the kids; gotta buy the groceries, gotta make dinner; gotta start it all over again tomorrow morning.”  Yikes!

In the 1960’s “futurists” assured us that we would have a leisure society. We would work less and enjoy life more. Those rascally futurists. They seem to have gotten it backwards.  

Today we work longer hours than our parents did. Many executives are at their desks by 7am and complete their last phone call at midnight. Thanks, global marketplace!  

Sixteen-hour days demand we race from one thing to the next. A client of mine worked for a company where he had a meeting every 15 minutes! He confided that the pace left him feeling gob-smacked by noon. It’s called a “churn and burn” culture. My client left to pursue better work-life balance.

Constant speed leaves less and less time to pause and reflect. Is it any wonder that quality of decision-making about many important issues seems so ill considered, expedient, and short-term?


Single Loop Learning

Such velocity leads to an addiction to intensity.  Imagine what might happen if you drove your car at the same speed all the time? “Snow? Peddle to the metal! Fog? Goose it! Heavy traffic? Pass it on the shoulder lane! Now we’re making progress! Whoo-hoo!”

That’s why cars come equipped with a brake pedal, to control vehicle speed for safe navigation. You wouldn’t drive your car without one. Maybe we need to have brakes installed in our thought processes too?

While there may be some decisions that can be made on the fly – and most of those are tactical at best – long-term strategic thinking requires reflection. The economy, the environment and the state of society are three topics that require just such strategic thought processes. We can’t do that thinking intermittently and on the fly.

Back in the late 1970’s MIT professor Chris Argyris introduced the notion of single and double loop learning. These models are useful in helping us monitor our own thinking processes in these frenetic times.

Argyris suggested that most organizational learning is single loop.  If a strategy for action produces an unexpected result we review the strategy and make tactical adjustments. Single loop learning often leads to superficial solutions and expedient action – the “quick fix” approach.

Argyris suggested that complex issues and problems require double loop learning. Tinkering with a strategy that is not producing the desired effect may be insufficient to reach a better outcome.

Double loop learning requires an additional step in problem solving: the ability to look deeper at the root causes of a problem, to look at the broader systems and interconnections. This allows us to challenge any faulty assumptions that might be governing the goals, values and beliefs that give rise to our strategies.

Double loop learning is a model that requires reflection and compensates for our natural tendency to react quickly and move to solution without understanding a situation or problem fully.

Adapted from interpretations of Argyris’s writings: http://www.infed.org/thinkers/argyris.htm and http:/bsix12.com/double-loop-learning/



The world-threatening problems we face are addressed far to often with single loop solutions.  Wise leaders, on the other hand, always search for answers to “why we do what we do.” 

They recognize that such discernment is required if we are to create breakthroughs in how we see and respond to our challenges and opportunities.

Having the vision and courage to put on the breaks, or slow the velocity of action, and reflect on underlying variables, action strategies and impacts is an act of leadership. Reflection provides the following benefits:

  • Application of past experience
  • Opportunity to examine something from multiple viewpoints
  • Exploration of the factors that contribute to the problem or condition
  • Mapping of the relational issues that must be addressed or resolved
  • Identification of the critical issues that give rise to the condition
  • Generation of multiple creative solutions

Albert Einstein cautioned: “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Ultimately, our world might be a far better place if we could slow down and reflect on causes and consequences before we act. Running at this speed we run the risk of having our single loop solutions undo us.

Posted on November 13, 2013 .