single-loop-learning

What Is Single-loop Learning? The Single-loop Learning In A Nutshell

Single-loop learning was developed by Dr. Chris Argyris, a well-respected author and Harvard Business School professor in the area of metacognitive thinking. He defined single-loop learning as “learning that changes strategies of action (i.e. the how) in ways that leave the values of a theory of action unchanged (i.e. the why).”  Single-loop learning is a learning process where people, groups, or organizations modify their actions based on the difference between expected and actual outcomes.

Understanding single-loop learning

Whether we care to admit it, every person thinks in a certain way based on their current beliefs and assumptions about the world. This thinking guides their actions (what they do) and also influences their performance (what they get). 

As the individual experiences life, they continually assess outcomes to determine whether they occurred as expected or whether there were things that could have been done differently. This form of self-inquiry may be subconscious and unstructured, or more deliberate and formal.

Argyris defined this near-constant inquiry process as the detection of error. In single-loop learning, the error results when an individual isn’t where they want to be. Put simply, a difference exists between the expected outcome and the actual outcome.

Once an error has been detected, the individual must revisit their actions (and the strategies guiding them) to assess and develop new action strategies. Importantly, this must be done without altering an individual’s core beliefs or assumptions. 

This process of developing new actions borne from the same thinking is the basis of single-loop learning. In an organizational context, single-loop learning encourages employees to consider alternative strategies that respect governing factors such as goals, values, plans, and rules.

The four steps of the single-loop learning cycle

There are four simple steps to a single-loop learning cycle:

  1. Observe current outcomes – what happened, and how long has it been occurring? 
  2. Assess possible corrections – where did the individual, group, or organization deviate from the norm?
  3. Develop action strategies based on the insights uncovered.
  4. Implement the new action strategies and then observe current outcomes to repeat the process once more.

Limitations of single-loop learning 

There are a couple of major limitations of single-loop learning.

For one, the approach only addresses the symptoms of a problem. By ignoring the problem’s root cause, it is likely to reoccur in the future. This issue is exacerbated because the approach does not consider that core beliefs and assumptions may be contributing to the problem in the first place. Many consider single-loop learning to be a band-aid solution at best, capable of producing nothing more than minor or short-term fixes.

Single-loop learning also assumes problems and their associated solutions to be close to each other in time and space. That is, the method does not consider any intangible factors that might be impacting events and processes. This means single-loop learning will rarely encourage creative or innovative solutions, instead defaulting to ideas that address deviations from more tangible actions, processes, procedures, systems, and strategies.

Key takeaways:

  • Single-loop learning is a learning process where people, groups, or organizations modify their actions based on the difference between expected and actual outcomes. It was developed by the teacher and author Dr. Chris Argyris.
  • Single-loop learning can be described in simple terms via four steps. The individual observes the outcome, evaluates possible corrections, develops action strategies based on viable corrections, and then implements them. After implementation, the loop, or cycle, starts again as the impact of the new strategy is observed.
  • Single-loop learning has two major drawbacks. For one, it addresses the symptoms of a problem without paying any attention to the root cause. It also assumes problems and their associated solutions to be close to each other in and time and space. 

Connected Business Frameworks

Failure Mode And Effects Analysis

failure-mode-and-effects-analysis
A failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) is a structured approach to identifying design failures in a product or process. Developed in the 1950s, the failure mode and effects analysis is one the earliest methodologies of its kind. It enables organizations to anticipate a range of potential failures during the design stage.

Agile Business Analysis

agile-business-analysis
Agile Business Analysis (AgileBA) is certification in the form of guidance and training for business analysts seeking to work in agile environments. To support this shift, AgileBA also helps the business analyst relate Agile projects to a wider organizational mission or strategy. To ensure that analysts have the necessary skills and expertise, AgileBA certification was developed.

Business Valuation

valuation
Business valuations involve a formal analysis of the key operational aspects of a business. A business valuation is an analysis used to determine the economic value of a business or company unit. It’s important to note that valuations are one part science and one part art. Analysts use professional judgment to consider the financial performance of a business with respect to local, national, or global economic conditions. They will also consider the total value of assets and liabilities, in addition to patented or proprietary technology.

Paired Comparison Analysis

paired-comparison-analysis
A paired comparison analysis is used to rate or rank options where evaluation criteria are subjective by nature. The analysis is particularly useful when there is a lack of clear priorities or objective data to base decisions on. A paired comparison analysis evaluates a range of options by comparing them against each other.

Monte Carlo Analysis

monte-carlo-analysis
The Monte Carlo analysis is a quantitative risk management technique. The Monte Carlo analysis was developed by nuclear scientist Stanislaw Ulam in 1940 as work progressed on the atom bomb. The analysis first considers the impact of certain risks on project management such as time or budgetary constraints. Then, a computerized mathematical output gives businesses a range of possible outcomes and their probability of occurrence.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

cost-benefit-analysis
A cost-benefit analysis is a process a business can use to analyze decisions according to the costs associated with making that decision. For a cost analysis to be effective it’s important to articulate the project in the simplest terms possible, identify the costs, determine the benefits of project implementation, assess the alternatives.

Financial Modeling

financial-modeling
Financial modeling involves the analysis of accounting, finance, and business data to predict future financial performance. Financial modeling is often used in valuation, which consists of estimating the value in dollar terms of a company based on several parameters. Some of the most common financial models comprise discounted cash flows, the M&A model, and the CCA model.

CATWOE Analysis

catwoe-analysis
The CATWOE analysis is a problem-solving strategy that asks businesses to look at an issue from six different perspectives. The CATWOE analysis is an in-depth and holistic approach to problem-solving because it enables businesses to consider all perspectives. This often forces management out of habitual ways of thinking that would otherwise hinder growth and profitability. Most importantly, the CATWOE analysis allows businesses to combine multiple perspectives into a single, unifying solution.

VTDF Framework

competitor-analysis
It’s possible to identify the key players that overlap with a company’s business model with a competitor analysis. This overlapping can be analyzed in terms of key customers, technologies, distribution, and financial models. When all those elements are analyzed, it is possible to map all the facets of competition for a tech business model to understand better where a business stands in the marketplace and its possible future developments.

Pareto Analysis

pareto-principle-pareto-analysis
The Pareto Analysis is a statistical analysis used in business decision making that identifies a certain number of input factors that have the greatest impact on income. It is based on the similarly named Pareto Principle, which states that 80% of the effect of something can be attributed to just 20% of the drivers.

Comparable Analysis

comparable-company-analysis
A comparable company analysis is a process that enables the identification of similar organizations to be used as a comparison to understand the business and financial performance of the target company. To find comparables you can look at two key profiles: the business and financial profile. From the comparable company analysis it is possible to understand the competitive landscape of the target organization.

SWOT Analysis

swot-analysis
A SWOT Analysis is a framework used for evaluating the business’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It can aid in identifying the problematic areas of your business so that you can maximize your opportunities. It will also alert you to the challenges your organization might face in the future.

PESTEL Analysis

pestel-analysis
The PESTEL analysis is a framework that can help marketers assess whether macro-economic factors are affecting an organization. This is a critical step that helps organizations identify potential threats and weaknesses that can be used in other frameworks such as SWOT or to gain a broader and better understanding of the overall marketing environment.

Business Analysis

business-analysis
Business analysis is a research discipline that helps driving change within an organization by identifying the key elements and processes that drive value. Business analysis can also be used in Identifying new business opportunities or how to take advantage of existing business opportunities to grow your business in the marketplace.

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Published by

Gennaro Cuofano

Gennaro is the creator of FourWeekMBA which reached over a million business students, executives, and aspiring entrepreneurs in 2020 alone | He is also Head of Business Development for a high-tech startup, which he helped grow at double-digit rate | Gennaro earned an International MBA with emphasis on Corporate Finance and Business Strategy | Visit The FourWeekMBA BizSchool | Or Get The FourWeekMBA Flagship Book "100+ Business Models"