Structuring Project Management for Single-Loop Learning and Double-Loop Learning

Date: 11/05/2019

Prepared by: Majed Abdeen

Some organisations' methodology for solving problems, is to ask "what" the problem is, and to give an instruction for solving it. However, what if this problem repeats itself regularly? Solving the problem in the first place might not be enough to find the root cause issue and learn how to prevent the problem from being repeated, this is what is called Single-Loop Learning (SLL).

In my experience in the software industry, I found this problem with junior-developers or junior-analysts, where they solve the system's issues only by looking at short-term solutions rather than solving the root causes by focusing on the main reasons for a problem. To do so, we should focus on Double-Loop Learning (DLL), in which the focus is on asking "Why" questions rather than only "What".

Introduction and Definitions

Organisations must structure their project management practice to ensure that both single-loop learning (SLL) and double-loop learning (DLL) take place during and following the project.

SLL focuses on challenge-solving using predefined methods without questioning either methods or system (PMI, 2017b, p. 154; Zedtwitz, 2002, p. 257). The values, goals, plans and rules are operationalised thus not questioned; problems are fixed within the limits of the governing variables (Srinivasan, 2014).

Figure 1: Single Loop & Double-loop Learning model

Project Management Structuring for SLL

Project-Managers/PMOs must structure management systems to ensure SLL, which improves the existing system, solving problems and increasing procedural efficiency (Srinivasan, 2014). Thus to ensure SLL, Project-Managers must ensure routine, repetition, understanding of context, and problem-solving skills are all present in their Project Management (Zedtwitz, 2002, p. 258). While reflection is present, it focuses on ensuring strategic-efficiency (Srinivasan, 2014). Thanks to the nature of SLL, recommended Project-Closure procedures including updating of records, archiving information, manage knowledge-sharing, and identifying lessons-learned through project reviews (PMI, 2017a, p. 123) all enable SLL, thus, Project-Managers following routine project-closure procedures will ensure SLL takes place.

Typical examples of SLL use in Project Management include projects in which daily or weekly team meetings focusing on project progress take place. On projects suffering delays, typical questions the Project-Manager and team may ask (Talisayon, 2008):

· What are the delays, and where do they take place?

· How can work procedures/processes be improved to enable faster completion?

· Can we use technology to reduce delays?

These questions all pertain to SLL, as it focuses on deciding to “turn-on or turn-off" (Srinivasan, 2014). In projects, it is common to see actions being taken, and corrective-actions taken subsequently, based on the results; this is SSL in action (Srinivasan, 2014).

Project Management Structuring for DLL

When structuring for DLL, Project-Managers and PMOs must be more proactive. DLL requires key skills: Self-awareness (recognising habits/automatic actions), honesty/insight (admitting mistakes/discussing with colleagues), and courage/taking responsibility (acting appropriately on learning) (Talisayon, 2008). Thus it is critical that the Project-Manager/Upper-Management construct an environment conducive to these, preventing embarrassment or defensive reactions, where staff can question and share on a deeper level, without which DLL will not take place (Srinivasan, 2014). DLL application begins in Planning, when learning from previous projects to change current plans to improve outcomes (Quigley & Quigley, 2016). In project closing Project-Managers must focus on DLL during project-reviews, considering cause-effect-relationships, proposing improvements (Zedtwitz, 2002, p. 257), questioning the assumptions and systems (Srinivasan, 2014), engaging in reflection and critical thinking (Mullaly, 2018).

Some Project Management Methodologies/Approaches assist Project-Managers in providing a DLL conducive-environment. Both Scrum and Agile support and invoke DLL in their approaches (Srinivasan, 2014). On projects I have been involved in, using Scrum and Agile, it was noticeable that Lessons-Learned produced were more in-depth, introspective and valuable (due to DLL) than lessons-learned using standard closing procedures (SLL) without additional Project-Manager focus on DLL. Likewise, tools such as Ishikawa diagrams assisted by Lessons-Learned-data provide DLL (Quigley & Quigley, 2016).


While SLL takes place naturally, Project-Managers must ensure DLL takes place by designing for DLL from Project Initiation through Planning, to Closing. They should strive for improvement of both project processes and the organisation (DLL) (Quigley & Quigley, 2016). In future, Triple-Loop Learning (TLL), learning about how to learn, reflecting on learning, should also be utilised, as it will deliver enhanced benefits, though it requires strong relationships, and a supportive, open environment.


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