Performance Reviews

Effective Agile Performance Management With Double Loop Learning

By on September 30, 2016

Agile Performance Management (APM) is all about bringing agility into the process. Taking frequent corrective and adaptive measures in response to change. While it is very easy to ‘think of yourself as an agile organisation’ it is equally difficult to support your claims with empirical data. That is where learning models such as Double Loop Learning come in.

Do we really learn from our mistakes? Or do we just come up with innovative solutions to the same mistakes every time they occur? They say it is good to make mistakes but do not make the same mistake twice. But for not repeating the mistake, we need to first understand what was the reason for it in the first place and take measures at the earliest to avoid its repercussions.

An HBR article titled, “Double Loop Learning(DLL) in Organisations” by Chris Argyris, explains how avoiding to acknowledge mistakes at the earliest can snowball into a huge problem for the organisation. There’s a brilliant example about how the management at the bottom found problems with a product that the top management was particularly excited about. They detailed out what was wrong with the product and shared it with the middle management in a lengthy memo. The middle management however shared these details in bits and pieces with the top management as the latter had spoken against lengthy memos. The result was that, by the time the organisation came to realise that the product was a failure it was too late and they lost huge amount of money.

How organisations learn?

Many companies follow the concept of Organizational learning, which is a process of detecting and correcting error. If the process is able to remove the error and help the organisation achieve its intended objective nonetheless, it is called as Single Loop Learning(SLL) . Simply said, it follows the existing decision making rules to arrive at a solution to the error.

Now, in a stagnant world this would suffice. But not at the time when market landscapes are disrupted every other day with technological & productivity advances.

Flaws in the learning models of organisations?

The major problem with single loop learning is that people are dissuaded from challenging policies and processes that may not be efficient at fulfilling objectives. Efficient is the key word here. Your existing processes do work but do they work efficiently? That must be cross verified. It is not enough that you only solve the problems but you should get to the root of it. It is important that the same mistakes are not repeated.

For example if there is a problem in the production line, SLL tries to solve only the problem that is causing the delay. It does not address which stage causes the most delay and what is the reason behind. Ideally any learning model should engage in identifying some better technology to get rid of the delays and seek to reduce completion time.

Some of the employees may have already noticed the defects that are causing the delay. Did they hold back & were reluctant to approach manager?? Did the manager immediately act upon receiving this information or did he contemplate on getting it verified first?

If root causes are not corrected at the right moment, production will continue with the same faults and delivery will always be late.

What is Double Loop Learning?

Double-loop learning entails the modification of goals or decision-making rules in the light of experience. The first loop uses the goals or decision-making rules, the second loop enables their modification, hence “double-loop”. Double-loop learning recognises that the way a problem is defined and solved can be a source of the problem (Source: Wikipedia)

Double loop learning encourages asking the right questions at the right time to prevent any further errors.

For example, if production is not being done as per its schedule, what is the cause of the delay? Has the same problem disrupted the schedule earlier as well? What prevented the employees from reporting the source of this delay? Does it happen so many times that employees consider it to be normal even though it prolongs the delivery? Is the management not aware of the delay? Or are they choosing to ignore it?

Double loop learning encourages people to identify the root cause of the problem, report it to the concerned authorities and take responsibility to act on it accordingly.


Agile Performance Management fundamentally involves setting up goals (either MBO or OKR) at a higher cadence & ensuring that they are adopted to changing circumstances. As well as, making use of continuous feedback to build a winning team. Double Loop Learning model can certainly propel APM in the right direction by encouraging people to ask fundamental questions at the right time

How can OKRs make use of DLL?

Objectives and Key Results or OKRs is a goal-setting framework that aligns individual and team goals to organisation goals. It recommends setting up 3-4 objectives at individual, team and company levels using S.M.A.R.T principle i.e. set goals that are – Smart, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound. And each objective should have 3-4 quantifiable key results that identify how the objective is achieved.

OKRs need to be updated real time to reflect changes in market landscape, business strategy & its execution. Individual objectives need to be aligned with the team as well as company goals.

Double loop learning can be integrated with the OKR methodology for increasing chances of achieving the goals.. If at some level, objectives of certain individuals are not helping the team or the company, measures can be taken to identify what is causing the problem and their objectives can be changed accordingly.
If at the time of grading it was concluded that the efforts invested did not yield proportionate results, digging into the details to find out root cause is what Double Loop Learning will advocate. Relying on the experience challenge underlying assumptions and try improving success rates.

How can continuous feedback make use of DLL?

We saw in the previous examples how the employees noticed problems with the delays in production yet they did not report it to the management. They may have been unsure about how to report or simply there may be no standard way of approaching their managers.

If the management had encouraged continuous feedback in the organisation, they would have been able to easily get information about such issues at the right.

For instance, if the employee who spotted the cause of delays is afraid of pointing out the flaws with the process, he can anonymously give feedback about it to his manager. This way information is shared in time and managers are able to take a decision to remove the cause of the delays.

And since it is encouraged that feedback be given at any point of time, valuable time is saved that would otherwise have led to loss in productivity.
As number of tools for communication are increasing, actual communication between people is getting weaker each day. For a thriving workforce, fostering internal communication is a silver bullet.

Given that APM fundamentally aims for learning & development, Double-loop learning is a natural ally. What other learning models do you encourage at the workplace?

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