Escaping Single-Loop Thinking… to Get Stuck in the ‘Double-Loop’ of Non-Reflection in Military Strategy and Operational Planning Effortsby : Ben Zweibelson
This is a section out of a recent writing project that will appear in Medium in three parts. The already published first part explains ‘single-loop thinking’ which is non-reflective, and largely indicative of what most modern military decision-making has operators do. These treatments are working drafts from an upcoming design and planning monograph to be published by a military university press in early 2023 (the final product will be likely different from these rough cuts). Readers interested in this second section on ‘double-loop learning’ really need to read the first one or this will be difficult to make sense of. You can find that first section here: https://benzweibelson.medium.com/single-loop-thinking-non-reflective-military-cycles-of-ends-and-means-c7643fe51290
Double loop thinking, as defined by Flood and Romm presents a middle ground between organizations stuck in perpetual process reinforcement and that of an organization capable of a slightly more useful yet limited form of critical examination. This is termed ‘second loop thinking’ and is not to be confused with reflective practice. Instead, Flood and Romm explain that “[r]ather than looping between two centres of learning, consciousness gets stuck in the middle looking out… There is double vision and blurriness.” An organization using second-loop thinking will rotate between inquiring “are we doing things right” and “are we doing the right things”- thus attempting to get closer to Ackoff’s warning that “doing the wrong things right just make you better at being more wrong.” This still creates an element of anti-intellectualism in that institutional blindness retains a fixation on preserving epistemological frameworks for how the military must understand what war is, and how warfare is exercised within that socially constructed paradigm.
In the above graphic, ‘second loop thinking’ oscillates between two of the aforementioned ‘single-loop cycles’ where the organization looks outward upon the external environment as well as inward toward the products and effects of institutionalized processes. This include things such as military theories, models and methodologies that are consolidated into published formal doctrine, as well as policy positions, formal and informal activities to curate military knowledge, and areas involving the execution of institutionalized processes for training, education or warfare activities. Paparone, in applying reflective practice toward how militaries create, maintain and enforce doctrine expands on this with:
US military doctrine as generic sensemaking continues to double down on the logic of systematicity, intent on removing equivocality, increasing robot-like predictive reliability, assuring compliance with hierarchical legal authority structures, and promising postbellum accountability… It seems no matter how the US military rearranges, relabels, and republishes its doctrine, the underlying logic of action remains culturally imbedded. Experiencing collapses of sensemaking in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq seems not to result in wholesale changes to the logic of systematicity; rather, there is again a doubling down on the insularity of treating military actions as complicated servomechanisms [emphasis added]
Yet in either mode of reflection, the activity is single-directional, in that the organization focuses either externally or internally in a systematic (isolate things down, seek inputs and outputs) rather than systemic manner. In the above illustration, operators stuck in a double loop learning cycle will follow the infinity loop, moving from an external inquiry such as performance of the process against competitors to an internal inquiry where the operators themselves are evaluated on process compliance. Dividing reality mechanistically into ‘exterior environment’ to permit an allegedly objective observer conduct analysis forms the basis of modern military decision-making and doctrinal processes. This helps codify double-loop thinking into binary shifts from internal to external mechanistically and systematically (input to output, formulaic).
Double-loop thinking expands upon single-loop thinking in one significant way. Single-loop learning organizations are stuck in a process loop that depends entirely on the sustainment of the process itself, as well as the hidden institutional framing that reflects deeply held beliefs, values and identity. In commercial enterprises, many will fail in changing environments because they simply cannot reimagine themselves as anything but what they have done in the past. Most all of the major horse carriage companies went extinct with the rise of the automobile, with only a handful able to make the transformation. In the rise of the Information Age and streaming social media platforms, many ‘big box’ stores went out of business, while in a military example, most current Combatant Commands in the United States’ Department of Defense are geographically oriented upon terrestrial features and established Westphalian boundaries. These military organizations, as well as the Westphalian nation states that wield them today are often criticized as becoming obsolete, or at least increasingly fragile.  Yet nearly all military strategic, operational and organizational decisions still correspond to the traditional geographic combatant command form/function.
A single-loop organization cannot break out of adhering to the established process, where the pre-established ENDs is conceptualized with WAYS and MEANS so that the organization can focus refinement and process improvement on whether operators effectively move from A to B and achieve output C as planned. A double-loop organization moves past this simplistic cycle of single-frame process improvement to one that oscillates between internal and external considerations of that single frame in a moderate level of abstraction. Here, the organization can reformulate new ENDS as well as generate multiple WAYS and MEANS that ought to offer leadership a suite of options if the first efforts appear to fail. However, the double-loop learning does not question beyond the institutionalized frame that defines the very selection of theories, methods, models, as well as the language and metaphoric devices underpinning said terminology. There is variety generated within a double-loop conceptualization of WHY, yet the organization does not move out of systematic logic toward a systemic perspective.
An example of how double-loop thinking fails an organization in complex security contexts can be found in what the United States Air Force did in Afghanistan. During the American-Afghanistan Conflict from 2001–2021, the Department of Defense decided early on that the Afghan Air Force would be trained and equipped with smaller cargo aircraft (C-27A planes) that were retrofitted and enhanced to mirror how the U.S. Air Force performs air movements and supply missions. In the first phase which ended in 2014 with catastrophic failure, all of the short-runway take-off C-27A planes were sold as scrap metal after being grounded for over two years. This half billion dollar fiasco featured a single-loop cycle of the U.S. Air Force advisors in the NATO-Training Mission, Afghanistan (NTM-A) organization attempting to improve the Afghan pilot and maintenance capabilities while foreign contracted supporters ended up taking over the majority of the maintenance duties to achieve mission goals. Despite maintenance being accomplished, the Afghan Air Force remained largely untrained and entirely dependent upon foreign assistance.
The double-loop cycle that also existed within this same Afghan aviation endeavor was where the U.S. Air Force sought to find ways to restart the training of pilots and ground maintainers so that they might become independent when the Obama Administration in 2012 accelerated all transition of security missions and permanent Afghan security infrastructure over from Coalition to Afghan Security Forces. In multiple strategic planning sessions within NTM-A, the U.S. Air Force leadership within NTM-A stipulated to the design and planning teams that, under no circumstances would a future Afghan Security Force restructuring proposal include any departure from the current Afghan Air Force implementation plan of the C-27A airframes through 2020 when those planes would reach the end of their service life. Anything else for the Afghan Security Forces might be modified, but for the Afghan Air Force, only the operators on either side of the ‘advisor-advised’ relationship and certain processes within the overarching strategy could be targeted.
As the Afghan Air Force would collapse well before the expected 2020 life cycle termination of the original C-27A fleet, the American and Coalition advisors were trapped in a double-loop learning cycle where mission performance was entirely oriented upon the original frame preservation. Western military aviation organizes within a highly centralized and technologically sophisticated form of tasking aviation effects with a decentralized support model; essentially ground forces will have some aviation available at all times, but they cannot specifically control or task direct support due to the entire organizational form/function of how western air forces exercise their abilities.
Many air forces through World War II and even into the 1950s employed an alternative model termed ‘penny packets’ where ground forces directly controlled and employed aviation. This paired well with lower technology, simpler airframes. Why didn’t NTM-A consider implementing a ‘penny packets’ construct with low-tech, simpler airframes for the Afghan forces in 2010 when things were going so poorly? Those questions would not be considered and the strategic guidance issued from the start prevented any such inquiry from migrating away from the original goal to have the Afghan Air Force largely function as a mirror reflection of how the U.S. Air Force advisors themselves functioned. This is where ‘triple loop learning’ was absent, and likely a fundamental reason for understanding the sudden and complete collapse of the Afghan Security Forces in 2021.
Coming soon- explaining ‘triple loop thinking’ and reflective practice. How systemic design is the necessary ‘multi-disciplinary, multi-paradigm mode for complex security challenges’- and how it works differently than single and double loop thinking for military organizations.
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as I will post updates and when the last part of this treatment will become available online.
 Flood and Romm, “Contours of Diversity Management and Triple Loop Learning,” 159.
 ‘Paradigm’ is applied here from a sociological sense, not the original ‘natural science’ context that Henry Kuhn first developed. Sociologists, complexity theorists and organizational theorists often substitute ‘frame’ with paradigm.
 Christopher Paparone, “How We Fight: A Critical Exploration of US Military Doctrine,” Organization 24, no. 4 (2017): 521–23, https://doi.org/o0r.g1/107.171/1773/5103505804814716769933853; Antoine Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity (London: HURST Publishers Ltd., 2009).
 Tsoukas, Complex Knowledge, 220.
 Clare Lockhart and Michael Miklaucic, “Leviathan Redux: Toward a Community of Effective States,” in Beyond Convergence: World Without Order, ed. Hilary Matfess and Michael Miklaucic (Washington, D.C.: Center for Complex Operations; Institute for National Security Studies, 2016), 299. Sebastian Gorka, “Adapting to Today’s Battlefield: The Islamic State and Irregular War as the ‘New Normal,’” in Beyond Convergence: World Without Order, ed. Hilary Matfess and Michael Miklaucic (Washington, D.C.: Center for Complex Operations; Institute for National Security Studies, 2016), 353–68. Sean McFate, The New Rules of War, First Edition (New York: William Morrow, 2019).
 Defense Industry Daily Staff, “From Solution to Scrapheap: The Afghan AF’s C-27A Transports,” Defense Industry Daily, October 12, 2014, http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/c-27as-for-the-afghan-air-force-05094/.
 The author was a lead planner and designer for many of these activities and had a first-hand account of how the U.S. Air Force leadership imposed rigid controls on what could and could not be considered. See: Ben Zweibelson, “Does Design Help or Hurt Military Planning: How NTM-A Designed a Plausible Afghan Security Force in an Uncertain Future, Part I,” Small Wars Journal, July 9, 2012, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/does-design-help-or-hurt-military-planning-how-ntm-a-designed-a-plausible-afghan-security-f; Ben Zweibelson, “Does Design Help or Hurt Military Planning: How NTM-A Designed a Plausible Afghan Security Force in an Uncertain Future, Part II”,” Small Wars Journal, July 16, 2012, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/does-design-help-or-hurt-military-planning-how-ntm-a-designed-a-plausible-afghan-security-0; Ben Zweibelson, “Military Design in Practice: A Case from NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan in 2012,” Small Wars Journal, June 4, 2012, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/military-design-in-practice-a-case-from-nato-training-mission-afghanistan-in-2012.
 Most all western, technologically advanced air forces use a centralized form of air power distribution, yet the alternative ‘penny packets’ approach was used in World War II as well as by the French in the 1950s. See: Ben Zweibelson, “Penny Packets Revisited: How the USAF Should Adapt to 21st Century Irregular Warfare,” Small Wars Journal, September 29, 2010, 1–11.