I was first turned on to Chris Agyris’ work when I read Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline several years ago. I really enjoy reading his thinking and was pleased to run across this article for HBS Working Knowledge (a great newsletter, by the way). In the article, Agyris spends a lot of time discussing “double loop learning” and identifies two sides to organizations: above ground and below ground. Above-ground is all the superficial stuff. Below-ground is what we don’t want to talk about or even acknowledge. When he speaks of “double loop learning,” what he’s talking about is a meta-level look at how things work. He’s talking about, as an organization, or as a manager, recognizing when the business culture is implicitly or explicitly encouraging what he calls “defensive reasoning.” Does your department’s customer service suck? If the answer is yes, the first thing most managers think of is “who is at fault?” when they ought to be taking a step back and asking, “why aren’t we making customers happy?”. There are lots of programs for fixing bad customer service, but there’s another, deeper, issue that has to do with what’s happening organizationally to cause such a culture. It’s not a blame game–at least, it shouldn’t be.
Though I really like this kind of abstract thinking, it occurs to me that this isn’t very useful language for the average manager. Most of us just want to know what to do next. We can understand the theory, but it’s the next action that is so difficult. Agyris doesn’t really come out and give great examples of what to do next–maybe that’s why we ought to buy the book. I have a pretty good idea, though, that most managers would find ample opportunity for leverage if they took a few minutes at the end of staff meetings to do a quick “meta-meeting.” Imagine what would happen to us if we created a five minute space at the tail end of our meetings to discuss how our meeting went. Imagine creating a blame-free environment, similar to the “no wrong answers” brainstorming environment we’re already used to, where we can examine what just happened. It would not be easy and it would not be pretty. Some folks would offer nothing more than eye-rolling and that would get awfully discouraging. I’m not sure if I’m brave enough for it, but I think I’ll try. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.