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The Unexamined Organization

by Dr. Jay Gary, Jun 9, 2004

From board rooms to back rooms, from main streets to side streets, today’s organizations are faced with constant change. Leaders are confronted with dilemmas that demand the Wisdom of Solomon. How can jobs be outsourced to meet budgets, when community resistance to globalization is increasing? How can employee benefits be maintained when health costs keep escalating? How can congregations remain viable when increasing numbers of Americans are drawing strength from unorganized spirituality? How can Christian ministries be positive forces for good cross-cultural settings that are pluralistic or hostile?

Double-Loop Learning

double_loop_lAccording to Harvard University professor Chris Argyris (1991), the key to leadership in turbulent times is “double-loop learning.” Argyris claims there are two kinds of learning, double-loop and single-loop. He compares single loop learning to a simple household thermostat. When the temperature outside drops and the rooms inside dip below 68 degrees, the thermostat kicks in and turns on the heat. Double-loop learning in that context would ask why the thermostat is set to 68 degrees. Is that the optimum setting? Are the storm-windows installed? Is the house insulation rating sufficient? Single-loop learning solves immediate problems, while double-loop examines roots causes.

Over the past decade a great emphasis has been placed on overcoming organizational defensiveness through organizational learning. MIT’s Peter Senge (1990) expanded on this idea of organizational learning in his book,The Fifth Discipline. He claims if we are not self-reflective on our organizational mental models, then we are on the fast track to extinction.

According to Mark Smith (2001), in 1974 Argyris and Schön identified three elements that define how leaders interact with their organizations: governing variables, action strategies and consequences. The “governing variables” are those objectives, policies and norms that leaders strive to keep within acceptable limits. The “action strategies” are plans to achieve those objectives and “consequences” are the results of actions, either intended or unintended.

Single-loop learning occurs when organizations take for granted the given nature of strategies. The emphasis is on technique, effectiveness, or maximizing resources to achieve results. When something goes wrong, the organization intensifies its search for a more appropriate strategy. Double-loop learning, in contrast, involves questioning the larger meaning and systems from which the strategy emerges. Much of Argyris work since the 1970s involved how to increase organizational reflection, or the capacity for double-loop learning.

Christianity Rediscovered

Double-loop learning is especially needed among today’s Christian leaders as they attempt to communicate across cultures. Almost fifty years ago Vincent Donovan (1978) set out from America as a missionary to the big game lands of East Africa. He joined a Catholic mission of Loliondo that had been serving the Masai people for twenty years. After a year in East Africa, Donovan wrote his bishop. He noted that the mission’s work revolved around running schools and hospitals. While the priests often visited Masai “kraals” or communities during important events such as circumcision, very rarely was religion discussed. Furthermore, no Catholic children upon leaving high school continued to practice their faith.

“The relationship with the Masai, in my opinion, is dismal, time consuming, wearying, expensive, and materialistic. There is no probability that one can speak with the Masai, even with those who are our friends about God.” Donovan then made a bold request. “I suddenly feel the urgent need to cast aside all theories and discussions, all efforts at strategy-and simply go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa.”

To his surprise his bishop granted him leave of teaching in the government school. Father Donovan began to visit the Masai kraals on daily safaris. Unencumbered with the burden of recruiting their children for the school system or carrying for infirm, Donovan began to talk these pagan warriors about Jesus Christ. To the surprise of his superiors, Donovan found the Masai elders eager to talk about God. Within two years of receiving weekly instructions, six kraals decided to join the “brotherhood of Jesus.” But these Masai warriors were not joining our grandfather’s church. Donovan found he had to peel away centuries of Western, American and Europe accretions to get to the kernel of the gospel.

While most of Donovan’s colleagues thought it would take hundred of years of indirect work to Christianize the Masai, Donovan questioned the conventional wisdom. Rather than maximizing existing school or hospital based approaches, he reconsidered the governing variables. Donovan was a “double-loop” learner.

From Goal to Learning-Oriented

In reflecting on my experience, practicing “double-loop” learning has been the key ingredient keeping me from duplicating “successes” that were actually failures. From 1986 to 1989 I worked with the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. During that time I led the initiative to set goals to reach the world for Christ by “AD 2000 & Beyond.”

Through magazine features, consultations and leadership meetings, I helped Dr. Thomas Wang launched what became the “AD 2000 & Beyond” coalition, that eventually spread to Africa, Asia and Latin America. Our intentions were to rally the church, as Donovan had once done, to start mission work among peoples that never had viable indigenous churches, and to do this in such a comprehensive way, that by the beginning of the 21st century the Great Commission would have passed from a frontier missions to domestic evangelism phase. We knew it was an ambitious decadal goal, one that previous generations had failed to achieve. (Johnson, 1988).

While Wang’s work was more public, I back stopped him with research, communications and regional strategy. But after 18 months I came to the conclusion that our probabilities for “closing the gap” in world evangelization were narrowing, rather than widening, precisely due to what Argyris calls the lack of “double-loop learning.” While early in our campaign we questioned our governing variables continually, later our coalition lost its capacity to even monitor its results through statistics, much less question its assumptions. In short the “second-half” of the campaign relinquished its coaching role and could only raise its voice as cheerleaders. The AD 2000 movement, as I feared, rose, peaked and then collapsed, due to lack of reflection-in-action.

Fortunately by 1992, I stepped back from the race to question the conventional wisdom that AD 2000 was a predestined deadline for missionary work. I went on to write a book that recast the entire meaning of Anno Domini2000 as Christ’s 2,000th anniversary (Gary, 1994). This not only added to the possibilities for Christian millennial witness, but enlarged the church’s capacity to prepare for the twenty-first century. This kind of reflection-in-action has now led to the creation of the field of Christian futures (Gary, 2003).

None of our organizations, however exalted or sacred, are guaranteed a future. The failure to practice “double-loop” learning can sink even the best Christian ministries.

The Unexamined Organization

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” In the year 399 BC, Socrates spoke these familiar words to the Athens jury that found him guilty of corrupting minors. Socrates’ crime was teaching the youth of his day “dialectics,” or how to argue logically based on questioning the status quo (Plato, 1961).

Taking a cue from Socrates today we might say, “The unexamined organization is not worth leading.” Although when faced with a challenge our natural reflex is to rush out on the field to tackle the second half, mere action without reflection does not create champions.

The most pressing issue facing leadership today is learning how to cultivate their organization’s capacity for reflection. Engaging in “double-loop learning” can create a flexible and forward looking vision our organizations need to keep tackling future challenges.


Argyris, C. (1991). Teaching Smart People to Learn. Harvard Business Review, May-June, 99-109.
Donovan, V. (1978) Christianity Rediscovered, Orbis, 14-27.
Johnson, T. (1988). Countdown to 1900: World evangelization at the end of the nineteenth century. New Hope.
Gary, J. (1994) The Star of 2000: Our journey toward hope. Bimillennial.
Gary, J. (2003). “The Future of Faith FAQ,” retrieved January 17, 2004 from the Christian Futures Network Web site,

Plato, The Last Days of Socrates. Translated and with an introduction by Hugh Tredennick. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1961, 71-2.
Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization, Doubleday.
Smith, M . (2001,  10), “Chris Argyris: Theories of Action, Double-loop Learning and Organizational Learning,” retrieved October 21, 2003 from The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education Web site,

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