Tag Archives: double-loop learning

Part 2: Immunize your virtual organization from institutional guilt

Image from Flickr. Used under CC license. Photo by USACE http://www.flickr.com/photos/europedistrict/

The 5 ways that double-loop governance can save your organization from itself

Institutional guilt (see Part 1 below) is routinized violation of your organization’s values, vision, rules, or policies. It is symptomatic of dysfunctional communication strategies inside an organization. It leads to distrust of staff and disengagement from the organization’s vision. Staff and volunteer disengagement/disenchantment is a prime reason non-profit organizations fail (Duckles, et al 2005).

Institutional guilt is something that will ruin your virtual organization. It poisons the culture and it drives away volunteers while it demoralizes your staff. Implementing double-loop governance is a good way to build in protection against institutional guilt. You also need to be sure that your employees and volunteer committees do not fall into the trap of violating your own values and policies for some immediate purpose. Double-loop governance opens up learning capabilities and communication channels to help limit and repair occasions where volunteers or staff do stray from your organization’s vision and values.

1. Double-loop governance makes every member a caretaker of the vision and values for the virtual organization. 

Your values are not just a bulleted list on your website nor a poster on the wall. They are the deep logic of why your organization exists. When you create the knowledge loop that includes questioning and reaffirming your values into every decision, then your staff and volunteers can celebrate these values. Membership includes embracing the values, and entering into the ongoing conversation about them that keeps them current and vital.

2. Double-loop governance makes a virtue out of transparent decision making.  

Transparent here means available to all members (not necessarily public). Practically, transparency includes time and place availability. Members are told when and where a decision is being made. For a virtual organization, this might be a set period of time to edit a certain wiki, or a set period in which to vote online. The management of critical-path decisions may (and usually should) devolve to active subgroups charged with delivering the outcomes. These subgroups need to maintain their own transparent decision process. A great example here is Wikipedia, where each entry contains the edited text, a history of edits, and a discussion page about the text and its edits.

3. Double-loop governance brings conflict to the surface. 

Conflict avoidance is a major source of “unusual routines” (Rice and Cooper 2010) in general, including those that create institutional guilt. Conflict can arise in many forms. Personal issues surrounding time commitments, responsibility and authority, and expectation management cannot be avoided through double-loop governance alone, but they can be openly addressed and resolved in a manner that promotes reflective learning among those involved. Evaluation conflict avoidance happens when tests of deliverables are either postponed, curtailed, or done in private. Double-loop governance supports open and thorough testing, and the disclosure of competing interpretations. Conflict is rapidly promoted to the surface of discussions, where voices of dissent become available to all members. Resolution is commonly achieved through a working consensus, not 100% agreement, but something more robust than a simple majority. Conflicts over the underlying assumptions of the organization can result in new values and a new vision: the organization is free to pivot toward a novel direction at any time.

4. Double-loop governance accelerates failure to ensure success.

Remember that double-loop governance supports double-loop learning. Single-loop learning focuses on avoiding failure.  Double-loop learning focuses on using failure to recalibrate the underlying assumptions of the activity, this promotes the act of failing as a learning device, and a logic of rapid iterations of activities with open testing.  In software development efforts, double-loop governance actively supports agile development decisions. In all endeavors, the ability to fail quickly and recover takes the fear out of trying new strategies.  This almost guarantees a better final result.

5. Double-loop governance supports do-ocracy and emergent leadership. 

While not all double-loop governed organizations are strict meritocracies, the best find ways to recognize and reward achievements and contributions. One of the benefits of the network effect is an ability to reach out beyond the founding team and find people who have similar interests and valuable skills. As the network expands, the chances of encountering tomorrow’s leadership improves. When these people become engaged in activities and outcomes, they need to have a clear path to leading subgroups and then larger groups, and ultimately the organization.

Final Thoughts: Double-loop your organization and forget the guilt

Remember that decisions that don’t get made by the people who are supposed to make them get made anyhow by the people who need them. Even the decision not to decide today is made by someone. When decisions are guided by the values and vision of the organization, when the process is transparent, when the conflicts appear on the surface, when failure is just another chance at success, and when leadership opens up in front of those who have proven their worth: that is when institutional guilt has no purchase on the logic of your organization.


Duckles, Beth M., Mark A. Hager, and Joseph Galaskiewicz (2005) “How Nonprofits Close: Using Narratives to Study Organizational Processes.” Pp. 169-203 in Qualitative Organizational Research: Best Papers from the Davis Conference on Qualitative Research, ed. Kimberly D. Elsbach. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Rice, R. E. & Cooper, S. (2010).  Organizations and unusual routines: A systems analysis of dysfunctional feedback processes.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Building Double-Loop Organizations for Member Engagement and Innovation

I’m going to explore the idea of “double-loop” governance, with some ideas and some suggestions as to why you might want to consider this form of governance as the heart of the physical or virtual organization (or network, or corporation) you plan to start or hope to change.

Below, you will discover how a double-loop governance scheme brings the values, the vision, and the underlying assumptions of an organization into an open and transparent decision cycle.  This decision process is characterized by distributed (shared) participation and control, free and informed choices, public testing of evaluations, and an ability to manage conflict on the surface of discussion threads.

Members in an organization with double-loop governance have the ability to redirect, refocus, and recommit to the values and the vision of their organization. Double-loop governance creates peers for a peer-to-peer network. Because of this, membership is well-defined, and provided with responsibilities and rewards.

Double-loop organizations tend towards meritocracies and value contributions over clout (or Klout). Because decision-making—to the level of deciding underlying assumptions—is distributed rather than top-down, double-loop organizations depend on double-loop learning (and Model II theories-in-use). Contributions to decisions and work toward goals (software code contributions, etc.) can be used to measure the value of members, and to reward their service.  The vectors for acquiring merit are ideally well-described and collectively fashioned. A great example of this is StackExchange (http://stackexchange.com). Clay Shirky, in a recent talk (available at http://archive.org/details/drupalconchi_day2_keynote_clay_shirky), describes how StackExchange uses double-loop governance to engage its members. Double-loop organizations are better able to discover and reward emergent leadership and harvest the long-tail of community participation.

Much of the added value of a double-loop governed organization comes from the quality of interpersonal interactions, the extra amount of available trust, and the additional flexibility that distributed decision making provides. This value does not arrive without additional costs (which are described below). For ventures that are designed to solve a single problem and then end, these costs may not be appropriate. But for enterprises that hope to grow and flourish in today’s changing IT landscape, these costs are essential to sustaining any organization.

While notions of double-loop governance apply to various organizations, here I want to focus on virtual organizations/internet communities. These have some common features. They are created to solve a problem or problems, often problems of some real consequence. They rely on the voluntary contributions of experts. And they bridge between groups that may have diverse or divergent interests. Examples of these organizations/communities of which I am somewhat familiar (either personally or through other sources) include the W3C, Ubuntu Linux, Stack Exchange, the Open Geospatial Consortium, the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners, the National Science Digital Library, and the Digital Library for Earth System Education.

Some of these organizations are/were more successful in their governance efforts than others. Some of these examples no longer exist, in part because of their governance choices. Other authors have pointed to Apple Computer, the Valve Corporation (entertainment software makers), and Zappos (online shoe store) as good examples of culture-led corporations that use double-loop learning to pivot to new opportunities; and these provide some lessons on how double-loop management/governance can become an integral feature of a for-profit organization. The Valve Corporation Handbook for New Employees, First Edition (2012) welcomes new employees with this statement: “The company is yours to steer—toward opportunities and away from risks. You have the power to green light projects. You have the power to ship products” (p. 4). In full double-loop mode, the Handbook is also editable by employees, new and old: “This book is on the intranet, so you can edit it. Once you’ve read it, help us make it better for other new people. Suggest new sections, or change the existing ones” (p. viii).

The various examples show how spending the time and effort to become a double-loop governed organization is important for innovation, for volunteer engagement, and for sustainability (i.e., the why of double-loop governance). What follows are some thoughts on where the value of double-loop governance is found, and how to boot-strap and support double-loop governance for a new virtual organization.

It could be argued that single loop organizations and management were well suited for a time when the pace of innovation was much slower than today. The single goal of becoming more efficient in, and creating sustaining technologies for, the manufacturing of, say, automobiles or washing machines could carry a corporation for several decades. The pace of innovation within information technology now means that organizations need a new ability. They need to pivot to respond to external (disruptive) innovations, and they need to rethink their underlying assumptions to stay creative and innovative internally. These capabilities belong to the second loop of a double-loop organization.


Double-Loop Learning as an outcome of Double-Loop Governance

The concepts of double-loop governance and double-loop learning (Argyris and Shön, 1978) share a common ground in the communicative acts required to support these. Double-loop governance puts into practice what Argyris calls a Model II style of theories-in-use. A Model I “theory-in-use” for Argyris (1982, 8) represents the set of assumptions that a person puts into everyday practice without reflection. A Model I theory-in-use greatly resembles what Pierre Bourdieu calls a individual habitus (1990, 56). What a Model II style adds is a critical reflective moment. A Model II style is characterized by valid information, free and informed choice, and internal commitment (Smith 2001). Model II supports double-loop learning: an ability to question an “organization’s underlying norms, policies and objectives.” (Argyris and Shön, 1978, 2-3; quoted in Smith 2001). This ability—which all nimble online organizations require to keep up with changing codes and capabilities—needs to be established as a cultural goal of the organization. And for this, it needs to be a visible part of the organization’s governance scheme.

This is what separates a double-loop governance effort from a single-loop governance structure linked to a management plan (or tied to a charismatic founder). “Governance is almost entirely based around values,” notes Jono Bacon (Bacon 2009), community manager for the Ubuntu distribution of Linux. “You need to not only understand your values, but celebrate them,” he concludes. In terms of double-loop governance, I would add that an organization needs to reflexively control (c.f., Giddens 1994: 122-123) its values, interrogate them regularly, and celebrate how robust they are. They are robust because there is an active process to reform and renew them as needed.

Single Loop Management

Organizational management provides at least a single loop of internal communication and learning. Goals, strategies and techniques are attempted and their outcomes evaluated. On the basis of this evaluation, new goals, strategies, and techniques are attempted. The desired outcome of the single loop is an improvement in efficiency. This is essential Twentieth Century business management guidance. How business was done.

This is also, in part, why so many Twentieth Century corporations are no longer here. Disruptive innovation and other rapid market changes cannot be addressed through efficiency alone. John Kao (2002) describes it this way, “We all want benchmarks to get the job done more efficiently. But this does not lead to disruptive, game-changing innovation, the stuff of which organizational renewal and competitiveness under conditions of uncertainty are all about.” (Kindle Locations 2686-2689).

Government agencies are also good examples of single-loop governed, problem-focused, service-delivery organizations. They work under externally mandated goals and priorities. Even their single-loop quest for greater efficiency is sometimes constrained by legislative demands and regulatory road-blocks. These constraints provide a motivation for for agencies to partner with double-loop virtual organizations where disruptive innovation capabilities can be built into the working culture and governance framework.

Clayton Christensen (2002) describes how the capability for innovation, and particularly for disruptive innovation, “…lies in the resources-processes-values (RPV) framework…” of an organization. (Kindle Locations 1962-1966). What Christensen found was that single-loop organizations (organizations that cannot reflectively question their underlying assumptions, values, and vision) create incremental, sustaining innovation that increasingly values high-margin results and high-budget customers. These organizations do not have the capability to pivot to take advantage of a disruptive innovation.

Double-loop organizations will have processes that resemble those of the single-loop organization (trial and error, experiment and review, etc.). Efficiency and linear, sustaining innovation for progress to a desired goal: these are not abandoned. But they are embedded in the larger discussion of their relative return on an investment in their outcomes based on a larger vision that includes disruptive innovation opportunities. All of the thousands of PPTs with arrows connecting the end of a process to its evaluation and then back to the start of the process can still be used: with some necessary modification. These must include another loop out to “review assumptions and rethink and reapply values”.