How can organisations learn from failure?

Ever heard of Chris Argyris? He spent most of his professional life contemplating how organisations could learn from failure.

An American business theorist, Chris Argyris (1923-2013) made a significant contribution to thinking about organisational learning and how people relate to organisations. The theories of single-loop and double-loop learning that he developed with Donald Schön back in the 1970s remain relevant – particularly as organisations globally are increasingly challenged by fast-paced and complex market forces.

Argyris recognised that the idea of ‘learning’ shouldn’t be confined only to ‘problem-solving’. While identifying and fixing errors in the external environment is important, he argued, true learning involves managers and employers reflecting on their own behaviours and how they may be contributing to the organisation’s problems, then making appropriate changes.

What is single-loop learning?

Single-loop learning refers to error detection and correction to improve individual performance, without changing the organisational standards or underlying system. This infers that personnel correct the issue without reflecting on the procedures and systems used for the activity.

What is double-loop learning?

Double-loop learning is when people challenge the procedures and policies in use and develop new ways of working. “In particular,” wrote Argyris in his 1991 article Teaching Smart People How to Learn, “they must learn how the very way they go about defining and solving problems can be a source of problems in its own right.”

learning from mistakes

To explain the distinction, he used the analogy of a thermostat automatically switching on heat when the temperature in a room drops below a certain point (an example of single-loop learning). Alternatively, the thermostat could determine whether there was another temperature that could accomplish the oal of heating the room more economically (double-loop learning).

Why is double-loop learning difficult?

Argyris makes this point in Teaching Smart People How to Learn:

“Highly skilled professionals are frequently very good at single-loop learning. After all, they have spent much of their lives acquiring academic credentials, mastering one or a number of intellectual disciplines, and applying those disciplines to solve real-world problems. But ironically, this very fact helps explain why professionals are often so bad at double-loop learning.

“Put simply, because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. So, whenever their single-loop learning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism, and put the ‘blame’ on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it the most.”

Does this sound familiar? Could double-loop learning offer a way of moving beyond this organisational dynamic?

A real-life example where double-loop learning worked

Consider the example of a large company whose employees are getting injured on the job despite extensive safety procedures.

Whenever something goes wrong, the incident is investigated, and new equipment and procedures are put in place in an effort to stop it happening again. The company’s safety procedures and documentation are becoming more detailed – but accidents continue to happen.

A consultant hired to investigate discovers the following:

  • Most of the workforce aren’t reading safety documentation because it has become too long-winded. They share answers in order to pass competency tests.
  • Employees believe that safety is not actually a core value of the company, and that it is prioritising production numbers over worker safety.

At the consultant’s recommendation, the company:

  • changes its management culture and begins rewarding safety initiatives from employees
  • strips back procedural documents to a more reasonable size.

The result of this double-loop learning is that the number of safety incidents decrease by 80% over the next 12 months.