Can Agile overcome Organisational Defences to achieve Double Loop Learning?

Agile approaches are sometimes focussed on helping organisations experience transformational change. Many Agile adoptions have failed to achieve long-term change, especially outside core teams, where the problems are non-routine and potentially embarrassing or threatening. Chris Argyris has developed a theory that provides a possible explanation of why Agile adoption has failed to bring about these hoped-for organisational changes.

Argyris & Schön’s Theory of Action

Chris Argyris, a retired Harvard Professor, has spent his career developing ideas around Theory of Action (co-developed with Donald Schön) [1, 2]. The Theory of Action approach is based on the idea that we store programs in our heads which we use to determine action strategies (behaviours) that will achieve the consequences we desire in a way that is consistent with our governing values (preferred states we try to ‘satisfice’ when acting). Effective action is any action which produces an intended outcome that persists over time and achieves this without harming the current level of organisational performance.

Argyris and Schön believe there are two types of theories, those that we say we use (espoused theories), and those that we actually use (our ‘theories-in-use’). Espoused theories represent our ideals about effective action, whereas theories-in-use are used to produce real, concrete actions. We are often able to identify the gaps between what someone says and how they act, as the saying “watch what people do, not what they say” illustrates. However, we are often blind to the fact our own actions aren’t consistent with our espoused view of the world. If we are made aware of this gap, our usual reaction is to blame someone else or “the system”

Model I and Skilled Incompetence

Argyris and Schön have found that while there are differences between people’s espoused theories, there is very little difference in theories-in-use across cultures, age groups and gender (even after over 10,000 case studies). Argyris and Schön label this common theory-in-use “Model I” (other authors have describe it as “closed to learning” or the “unilateral control model”). The governing variables of Model I are:

  1. Maintain control the situation (unilaterally). Get what you want, achieve your objectives/goals
  2. “win, do not lose”
  3. suppress negative feelings, such as embarrassment, in yourself and others
  4. act “rationally” (suppress or deny emotions).

Based on these governing variables we choose action strategies such as advocating our own position, making evaluations of others’ performance and their intentions in ways that ensure we remain in control, maximise our chance of winning whilst ensuring that we act diplomatically and ensure that no-one expresses negative feelings. We do this in ways that encourage neither inquiry into our views nor the robust testing of claims that we make, often relying on self-sealing logic such as “Trust me; I know what I am doing” [3].

When we are producing these actions, especially in non-routine situations which might be embarrassing or threatening, we are often blind to our own Model I behaviour. Worse, we actively try and by-pass the embarrassment or threat and then cover-up the bypass, leading to situations where we are unable to “discuss the undiscussable”. Using Model I means that we are likely to produce consequences we don’t intend. Model I behaviour is learnt over a lifetime and is produced skilfully, which makes it even harder to spot when we are producing it, leading to what Argyris labels “Skilled Incompetence”.

One way of detecting the gap between your own espoused theory and your theory-in-use is to use the “Left Hand Right Hand Case Study” tool.  Describe an actual or an imagined conversation with another person on a difficult topic.   On the right hand side, write the script of what was said. Ideally this would be a transcript of an audio recording, but a description of the conversation will also work. On the left hand side, write what you thought but did not say.  Having done this, reflect on whether there was a gap between what you said and what you thought, but did not say.  Argyris describes this gap as an ethical gap since it involves deliberately hiding information that may be useful to test, or share with others, without admitting that this is what is actually happening (it is covered-up and the cover-up is also covered-up).  Argyris advocates striving to reduce the gap between what is on the left hand side and right hand side in a way that minimises the likelihood of all of those involved becoming defensive.

Individuals operating in a Model I fashion are likely to produce organisations full of defensive routines. Defensive routines are ways of acting that prevent us and others from threat or embarrassment, but also from learning. Common examples of defensive routines are mixed messages, such as “I didn’t mean to interrupt you …” (clearly you did, and just have) or “I don’t want to upset you, but …” or to say “that’s an interesting idea” when there is no intent to act on it. Defensive routines make it harder for organisations to surface the information needed in order to learn.

Double-Loop Learning

Argyris defines learning as “the detection and correction of error” where an error is a mismatch between what was intended and what was produced. Single-loop learning is where the changes only involve changing the action strategies (at its simplest ‘try harder!’). Double-loop learning goes one step further and requires changing the values that govern theory-in use, often by questioning the status quo. The most common analogy is a thermostat [4, p.10]:

A thermostat is a single-loop learner. It is programmed to increase or decrease the heat in order to keep the temperature constant. A thermostat could be a double-loop learner if it inquired into why it should measure heat and why it is set so that the temperature is constant

Single-loop learning can be compared with becoming more efficient at what you’re already doing, whereas double-loop learning is about questioning the effectiveness of the goals. Or in other words that single-loop learning is doing things right, while double-loop learning is doing the right things.

Double-loop learning can happen around technical problems, while at the same time not occurring around human problems. My view is that XP practices, such as Test Driven Development (TDD), have led to double-loop learning at the technical level because there has been a change in mind-set. Prior to TDD I remember people trying single loop solutions that only involved changes in action strategies, such as “just write better quality software, and leave testing to the testers” whereas now people talk more about TDD as a design tool. I do not believe that Agile approaches have led to double-loop learning in terms of human problems.

Model II: Overcoming organisational defensive routines

Changing the defensive routines requires double-loop learning because it involves people giving up their Model I theories-in-use. Argyris describes Model II as one possible theory-in-use that can produce double-loop learning. The three governing variables of Model II are:

  1. Produce valid information
  2. Informed Choice
  3. Internal (rather than external commitment)

These are used together with vigilant monitoring of the effectiveness of the implemented actions.

It’s important to note that Model II is more than just the opposite of Model I; in the same way that listening is more than just the suppression of the urge to talk. The governing variables of the opposite of Model I would be [4]:

  1. Everyone is in control
  2. Everyone wins
  3. [all] feelings are expressed
  4. rationality is downplayed

Model II is not a replacement for Model I; Model I behaviour is appropriate when problems are routine or in emergency situations. The action strategies of Model II include clearly articulating a position, the difference from Model I is that there is an emphasis on enquiry and testing, similar to Bob Sutton’s concept of “strong opinions, weakly held”.  Often when people realise the gaps between their espoused- and theory-in-use they want to quickly overcome this gap.  A common experience is that after a few days of trying to learn quickly, most people relax and slow down, realising that learning to produce actions consistent with Model II will take some time. Argyris argues that “most people require as much practice to overcome skilled incompetence [by learning Model II] as to play a not-so-decent game of tennis” [5].

Examples from Agile / XP

In general, Agile methodologies and frameworks have taken unsophisticated approaches to organisational change, most of which fit within a Model I view of the world.

Scrum talks about “shock therapy” where “teams are trained on exactly how to implement Scrum with no deviations for several sprints” [6]. It uses an openly coercive approach described as “forceful and mandatory way of implementing Scrum” [7] in the hope that managers will receive a “wake-up call” and change their view of the world and their behaviours once they see the “hyperproductive” results. The approach does not focus on organisational defensive routines, or even double loop learning at the management level. It does not ask questions like “What was stopping us from acting this way before? Can we be sure that the thinking behind the previous approaches has really changed?” Predictably, from an Argyris point of view, the authors report that management failed to change their view of the world: “…management tends to disrupt hyper-productive teams … in all but one case, management ‘killed the golden goose.’”.

XP and Agile often speak of the importance of underlying values, such as “courage”. The problem with values is that they are not usually described in an actionable way. Further, the interpretation of a value depends on whether a person has a Model I or Model II mindset, or view of the world. When courage is illustrated, it is often of examples that represent a coercive approach consistent with Model I, as mentioned in an interview on “What’s Missing from the Agile Manifesto?” [8]:

[Courage is] … the courage to do what is best for the team, the project, even the business, despite the pressure to do otherwise. … An example [credited to Ken Schwaber] is of a scrum master who disassembled the team’s cubicles, so that they could have the team space that they wanted. When confronted by the ‘furniture police’ she made it clear that she would quit if the cubicles were restored.

This advice seems to contain several potential errors. How is a “courageous person” meant to validate or test that what they believe is “best for the team” is actually the best for the team? Is it OK for them to decide simply by “asking themselves?” Do they need to make this known to others? How would this advice deal with the potential that the courageous person did not understand the wider context of their change? In the example given, the scrum master acted in a unilaterally controlling way, and when confronted blackmailed the organisation in order to get their way, entirely consistent with Model I.

Moving Forward: Detection and then correction of errors

If Agile approaches are to have an effective impact on organisations at more than just a local team level, across longer than just the short-term, then it would be useful to spend time focussing on personal and organisational defensive mechanisms. This starts with developing an awareness of the gaps between what we espouse and how we act, so that we can at least detect errors. A useful step is to acknowledge threatening or embarrassing issues that are likely to lead to defensive Model I behaviour at the individual and group level. The next step is to work on being able to demonstrate that we have learnt by being able to produce effective behaviour, even around threatening or embarrassing issues. The challenge for the Agile community is whether we want to deal with the feelings that come from acknowledging our own blindness to our current skilled incompetence and start practicing more effective ways of acting.


1 – Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1978) Organisational learning: A theory of action perspective. Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.

2 – Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1996) Organisational learning II: Theory, Method, and Practice. Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.

3 – Argyris, C. (2000) Flawed Advice and the Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They’re Getting Good Advice and When They’re Not. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

4 – Argyris, C. (2004), Reasons and Rationalizations. The Limits to Organizational Knowledge, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

5 – Argyris, C (1986) Skilled incompetence. Harvard Business Review, 64(5), 74-79.

6 – Sutherland, J., Downey, S. & Granvick, B. (2009) Shock Therapy: A Bootstrap for Hyper-Productive Scrum.

7 – Sutherland, J. (2008) Shock Therapy: Bootstrapping Hyperproductive Scrum.

8 – Brian Marick: What’s Missing From the Agile Manifesto







4 responses to “Can Agile overcome Organisational Defences to achieve Double Loop Learning?”

  1. Bob Marshall Avatar

    Excellent exposition of the core of Argyris (& Schön), (typos notwithstanding :}).

    I welcome and support your promotion of “Theory of Action” as a valuable option in the toolkits of those involved in transforming the mindsets of folks working in organisations. For surely it is the transformation of mindset that brings the results (improvements in organisational effectiveness) that we seek?

    One observation: the final paragraph seems to fall foul of your own (and Argyris’) admonitions:

    How is someone meant to validate or test that it is indeed “useful to spend time focussing on personal and organisational defensive mechanisms”? Is it OK for someone to decide simply by ‘asking themselves’? How would this advice deal with the potential that the person did not understand the wider context of the change, or the relative suitability of other possible tools / approaches in effecting such change?

    – Bob

  2. benjaminmitchell Avatar

    I think the challenge for those involved in transforming the mindsets of other folks is to validate for themselves whether they are producing Model II behaviours themselves. Argyris would argue that whilst many people believe they are acting consistently with the governing variables of Model II, most are blind to their own “skilfully incompetent” gaps. His work with Organisational Development professionals illustrates that it is groups who believe they are already producing Model II behaviour who find his ideas most threatening. I would expect similar results for Agile Coaches.

    In terms of mindset shifts, I’d agree and say that once someone has decided to investigate a different mindset (e.g. Model II) it requires a great deal of practice to learn the skills necessary to be able to act effectively (e.g. learning to balance advocacy and enquiry, sharing responsibility for the direction and content of a conversation)

    I’m not sure I understand why you think that the final paragraph falls foul. Are you saying that the advice is incomplete or un-actionable?

    In general, I’d advocate testing or validating whether it is useful to spend time addressing personal and organisational defensive mechanisms through reflecting (e.g. use the LH/RH Column tool) to detect if their current behaviours are getting them the outcomes they expected. If they detect an ‘error’ then strive to correct this in a way that is consistent with the governing variables of Model II (valid data, informed choice, internal commitment) for themselves and any others involved.

    I’m curious – do you have some other approach that would achieve your desired outcome of allowing people to understanding the wider context or relative suitability of other possible tools / approaches?

  3. Bob Marshall Avatar

    I agree that at least one challenge for folks involved in others’ transformation of their mindsets is validating their own “Model II-ness” (and exhibiting some proficiency in Model II-ness, to boot).

    I also concur with both the reported Argyris experience with OD professionals, and to a lesser extent with your expectations re: Agile coaches (who seem to me a rather more informed/sensitive/self-aware bunch than some OD professionals of my previous acquaintance).

    I’m not so sure that “it requires a great deal of practice to learn the skills necessary to be able to act effectively…”. Some folks seem well-disposed in this regard “naturally” – and some seem incapable of it regardless of their amount of practice. ;}

    My reservations re: the final paragraph stem from e.g. “…then it would be useful to spend time focussing on personal and organisational defensive mechanisms”. This strikes me as rather too assertive and reads to me as denying, by implication at least, that other means (than Argyris) may exist to attain the same – or at least, equivalent – outcomes.

    Before responding to your final question (re: other approaches, aka means), I would be useful for me to understand with a little more clarity, the outcomes your post implies as desirable / attainable through e.g. “spending time focussing on personal and organisational defensive mechanisms”. Note: It was not my intent to imply that I was desirous of an outcome where “people understand the wider context or relative suitability of other possible tools / approaches” so much as an outcome where “people are in a position to choose the most effective way forward – or at least AN effective way forward – for them, in their given situation”.

    Please accept my apologies if this latter matter appears to be splitting rather too many hares(sic).

    – Bob

  4. Plamen Balkanski Avatar
    Plamen Balkanski

    Thanks Ben – I enjoyed reading the article. I agree with the fact that most of the existing advice for implementing Agile/Scrum is consistent with Model 1 – excellent example with shock therapies and courage advice. I think that there are also many articles and books giving advice about the Scrum Master role which describe nothing but a win and not loose and ‘be in control’ behaviour.
    I think some Agile practices and some advice do present opportunities to build behaviours around model 2 values. For example – achieving internal commitment is recognized in many agile/scrum books and advice is given on how to overcome external only commitment. Producing of valid information is supported by several practices – e.g. make everything visible, explore other options. Informed Choice I’d say is also encouraged although it is rarely advised to question the practices or the agile process.
    I believe agile practices and advice “as is” are likely to fail in most transformational attempts unless they are coupled with effort to produce model 2 behaviour or alternative. I am not however at a point where I know or understand well what that additional effort consists of.


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