Mark Needham

Thoughts on Software Development

ThoughtWorks University: A double loop learning example

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One of the most interesting things that I’ve been reading about recently is the idea of single and double loop learning which were defined by Chris Argyris and Donald Schon in their book ‘Organizational Learning: A theory of action perspective‘ in 1978.

Single double loop

I quite like the definitions that Mark Smith gives for these types of learning in his article about Chris Argyris:

Single Loop Learning

Single-loop learning seems to be present when goals, values, frameworks and, to a significant extent, strategies are taken for granted. The emphasis is on ‘techniques and making techniques more efficient’ (Usher and Bryant: 1989: 87)

Any reflection is directed toward making the strategy more effective.

Double Loop Learning

Double-loop learning, in contrast, ‘involves questioning the role of the framing and learning systems which underlie actual goals and strategies

I’ve found in a lot of ‘agile’ teams that I’ve worked on we do single loop learning pretty well but often struggle when it comes to double loop learning.

For example while working in Pune I would often hear people justify the use of an “agile practice” with the phrase “we do it because it’s agile” without necessarily reflecting on the benefit the practice was supposed to be providing.

I was therefore quite pleased to see my colleague Claire employing some double loop learning while questioning the value of the wrap up that we do at the end of each day of ThoughtWorks University.

The wrap up is a 15 minute stand up where people share what they’re learned during the day that might be useful for other people to know as well.

Claire raised the point that it doesn’t necessarily work well as a learning device because it’s quite difficult to switch so quickly from working on the project to having to reflect on what you’ve learned.

When we discussed the usefulness of the session as a group a couple of people pointed out that it works quite nicely as an end of day activity and helped create some closure on what they’d been working on.

Jim also encouraged the group to stick with it for a bit longer as his experience from the previous university was that the wrap up sessions tended to get better as people got more used to the format.

We decided to stick with it for the moment and it’s been interesting to notice that the quality of the discussion does seem to have improved as the days have gone by.

Despite that I thought it was really good that the group took the chance to reflect on whether something which had been pushed on them was actually useful rather than just going with it for 6 weeks and not getting much out of it.

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Written by Mark Needham

March 30th, 2011 at 7:17 pm