The end of 2019 approaches, and people and organizations are thinking about their aspirations and ambitions for their new year. Building on what we have achieved and learned this year, how can we be better, faster, cleverer, richer, healthier, kinder and (ideally) happier next year?

As we embark on this annual process of aiming for improvement the way we think about ourselves, and what we already do, can be critical to achieving genuinely different and better outcomes in the future.  

Chris Argyris (1923-2013) with Edgar Schön (1930-1997) carried out ground-breaking thinking and study of this in the 1970s and published several highly regarded books about individual and organizational learning, and the extent to which human reasoning influences behavior and action.

They described “single loop” and “double loop” learning. The single loop relies on established decision-making rules, while the second-loop challenges those rules, and potentially modifies them in the light of experience.  

Double loop learning recognizes that the way a problem is defined and solved can itself be a source of the problem. Double loop thinking will drive creativity and innovation, going beyond just adapting to change, but rather anticipating or being ahead of that change. The single loop identifies the goal, and then the double loop questions that goal.

Single loop learning asks “This is what we do. How can we do it better?” while the double loop asks “Why do we do this? Should we do something else?”.

Single loop thinking is based on established, accepted, safe- and sometimes entrenched or defensive - ways of thinking or acting. “We’ve always done it like this…” The second loop challenges that accepted thinking.

Individuals and organizations consciously or subconsciously resist double loop thinking and learning, as it exposes ideas, doubts, questions, thoughts and feelings about established practices that make us uncomfortable, and vulnerable to the reaction of others.

As you work on your personal or business ambitions for 2020, ask yourself– do you dare to think and learn in the second loop?



Chris Argyris; Donald A Schön(1978). “Organizational learning: a theory of action perspective”.

Chris Argyris (September1976). "Single-loop and double-loop models in research on decision making"