Graphic by Mark Smith, Informal Education
I'll get to Chris Argyris and "double-loop learning" in a moment, but first, what do I mean by "meta-work"? Putting it simply, meta-work is the work we have to do in order to work more effectively. Meta-work occurs anytime we step back from our regular activities to ask larger questions, like "Why do we do this task this way?" or even "Why do we do this task at all?" Meta-work is ultimately about challenging assumptions and not taking things for granted.
I started thinking about meta-work per se after reading Merlin Mann on various ways to improve personal productivity, but I've always been fascinated by the systems and tools we use to do our work--sometimes because I'm legitimately looking to solve a problem, and sometimes because research is a respectable form of procrastination.
Merlin's Inbox Zero series encouraged me to do some serious meta-work and rethink how I manage my email. But my experience as a teaching assistant for High Performance Leadership and my ongoing interest in improving interpersonal skills has encouraged me to look at meta-work in a much larger context--and that thinking led me to Chris Argyris, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School and a major influence on such thinkers as Peter Senge.
One of Argyris's key concepts is "double-loop learning," described very effectively by Mark Smith at Informal Education:
Single-loop learning seems to be present when goals, values, frameworks and, to a significant extent, strategies are taken for granted. The emphasis is on 'techniques and making techniques more efficient' (Usher and Bryant: 1989: 87). Any reflection is directed toward making the strategy more effective. Double-loop learning, in contrast, 'involves questioning the role of the framing and learning systems which underlie actual goals and strategies' (op. cit.)... The former involves following routines and some sort of preset plan – and is both less risky for the individual and the organization, and affords greater control. The latter is more creative and reflexive, and involves consideration [of] notions of the good. Reflection here is more fundamental: the basic assumptions behind ideas or policies are confronted... hypotheses are publicly tested...(Argyris 1982: 103-4).
Double-loop learning, then, involves a substantial amount of meta-work and requires raising a number of potentially challenging questions: Not only "Why do we do this task this way?" and "Why do we do this task at all?" but also "What assumptions are embedded in our methods and our goals?"
As Smith notes, asking these questions can be risky--the phrase "opening a can of worms" comes to mind--but the potential reward is the possibility of being much more effective (and, I'd argue, much more fulfilled) because such questions not only create opportunities to do things in more innovative ways, but also because they challenge us to think about finding entirely new things to do.
It's easy to come up with all sorts of reasons not to do our meta-work, starting with: We're too busy! But that begs the question: Busy doing what? If all your learning is single-loop, at best you're making marginal improvements in existing routines. More on double-loop learning and personal development tomorrow.
UPDATE: More on Double-Loop Learning and Executive Coaching