Friday, November 17, 2017
I started my career as an outdoor educator, which is to say that I took people into wilderness settings and taught them how to camp, climb, paddle, and safely enjoy being outside. Of course, my goal was not purely to provide recreational experiences, but to develop the leadership skills in my participants through outdoor recreation that they could then use in other aspects of their lives. At the core of my work was the idea of experiential learning; specifically the three-stage model developed by John Dewey in 1938. An over simplification of this model is a continuous cycle of Plan-Do-Review: formulate a plan based on past experience and present information, act out the plan, and then review the results to gather new information that can be used in formulating future plans. It is a simple cycle that we all go through whether we realize it or not.
Later in my career, when I traded the backcountry for boardrooms, I continued to use this basic experiential learning model to work with leaders and managers. I learned that rather than calling it experiential learning, academics tended to refer to the cycle of taking action, reviewing results, and applying the lessons learned to future actions as single loop learning. Ultimately, whether you call it experiential learning or single loop learning, this process is about answering the question “Am I doing things right?” Because of asking this question, the ultimate goal of single loop learning is behavior change – If your actions are not getting you the desired results, you need to change your actions.
This model has served me well as both a manager and as someone who works daily with other managers to help them improve. However, recently I have been struggling to help clients for whom behavior change alone is not enough. Thankfully, researchers, academics, and theorists have already explored this problem and discovered the idea of double loop learning. Double loop learning goes beyond simply reflecting on our actions and their results and looks at the underlying assumptions that lead to our actions. By digging deeper into our decision making the question changes from “Am I doing things right?” to “Am I doing the right things?” This question goes beyond changing our behavior and challenges us to change our thinking. (There is even triple loop learning, but we will save that for another blog post.)
I have often talked about the challenges of being a working manager - being held responsible for deliverables like an individual contributor while also being charged with guiding and developing others as a manager. By definition, working managers have more on their plates, but without the luxury of more time in each day. Therefore, the idea of spending even more time trying to change our own thinking, let alone that of our teams, is often entertained with skepticism or summarily dismissed. Yet my experience has shown that in order to effect lasting change we have to not only look at our behavior, but the underlying assumptions that lead to our behavior, regardless of the time and effort involved.