“In restless dreams I walked alone,
Narrow streets of cobblestone.”
Simon and Garfunkel, “The Sounds of Silence”
Nothing new ever works, but doing the same thing over and over again without variation or detecting and correcting mistakes is insanity (or at least bureaucracy). So many startup overnight success stories that stress the importance of passion and persistence leave that part out. In the early going especially you are always wrestling with whether to:
- Retry without variation: persevere using the same methods to achieve the same near term goals.
- This is the absence of learning.
- Retry without variation (not wasting any time trying to learn) is an anti-pattern beyond third or fourth iteration. Unless you are playing a slot machine or are in a similar situation where you can either make one move or not play
- Retry with variation: adjust your methods but keep aiming for the same near term results.
- This is single loop learning. Also called Plan-Do-Check-Act or Build-Measure-Learn or “being in flow.”
- Here the challenge is more complex: how to recognize the limits of a particular approach and try a different one. It’s easy to switch between strategies or techniques that you are comfortable with, but it cam be intensely uncomfortable to learn a new approach and incorporate it into your repertoire. Starting over as a novice can be daunting.
- the goal is not achievable or there are better near term goals given your current resources and knowledge.
- Play a different game: challenge your assumptions, change your goals, give up or defer one or more current objectives and abandoning some or much of your current approach.
- This is double loop learning. Also called “lateral thinking” by Edward DeBono or associating in Innovator’s DNA.
- Here the challenge is to determine if another technique or strategy–one that you may be unfamiliar with or have little expertise with–will allow you to reach your goal, or if you need to adjust your goals to something that’s feasible.
Chris Argyris developed the concept of single loop and double loop learning. In his “Teaching Smart People How to Learn” he outlines a set of attitudes that work well to foster single loop learning but create a “doom loop” when a change in goals (double loop learning) is required.
There seems to be a universal human tendency to design one’s actions consistently according to four basic values:
- To remain in unilateral control;
- To maximize ‘‘winning’’ and minimize ‘‘losing’’;
- To suppress negative feelings; and
- To be as ‘‘rational’’as possible—by which people mean defining clear objectives and evaluating their behavior in terms of whether or not they have achieved them.
The purpose of all these values is to avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable or incompetent.
If these four rules are your working default it is very difficult to engage in double loop learning.
- unilateral control: works against getting a broader perspective from others, asking for help and advice.
- minimize losing: you have to admit to yourself that your current approach is not working if you are going to question your assumptions and change goals and/or methods.
- suppress negative feelings: sometimes it’s necessary to feel bad to develop the willingness to change and improve.
- clear objectives and pass/fail thinking: innovation requires a willingness to tolerate ambiguity, allow for evolving objectives that are fuzzy, and say better or worse not pass or fail.
I don’t think it’s a matter of “getting comfortable with failure” as much as “getting comfortable at getting better” instead of holding yourself to a standard of perfection. I think it’s less about “failing fast‘ and more about “failing well” or “failing safely.” Single loop learning is being in flow, double loop often requires a period of discomfort, uncertainty, and restless dreams.
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