Single Loop Thinking: Non-Reflective Military Cycles of ENDS and MEANSby : Ben Zweibelson
Original post can be found here: https://benzweibelson.medium.com/single-loop-thinking-non-reflective-military-cycles-of-ends-and-means-c7643fe51290
This is a section out of a recent writing project that will appear in Medium in three parts. This first part explains ‘single-loop thinking’ which is non-reflective, and largely indicative of what most modern military decision-making has operators do. We are taught a process to follow, we then attempt to follow it in all security applications… we are evaluated and trained on how compliant we are at holding to the process and executing activities explicitly through said process; and when our organization is surprised (failure, defeat, frustration, uncertainty, confusion in war)- we double down on retaining and repeating the process without serious inquiry. Part 2 will post here and address ‘double-loop’ thinking, and then Part 3 will cover ‘Reflective Practice’ or ‘triple loop thinking’ that is entirely outside of contemporary military planning, strategy making, doctrine and education.
Organizational theory, complexity theory, systems theory, management theory as well as postmodern and several other theories include constructs on how and why humans think about their thinking. This reflection upon thought is not monolithic, in that not everyone reflects upon what, how and why they are doing as they are in action, nor does everyone exercise the same sort of conceptualization within complex reality that moves beyond descriptive analysis toward synthesis (explanatory and comprehensive). A useful construct for delineating various forms of reflective practice is termed ‘triple loop learning’ and will be summarized for consideration of what militaries may institutionalize in knowledge curation. This model offers a single, double and triple loop for how humans learn about their environments and think to devise actions within that context.
The ‘single loop’ is defined as means-end thinking, where a future state of reality is envisioned and clarified so that a desired ‘end’ or goal is realized. “Ends are set and then a search begins for the best means of meeting those ends.” The single future state becomes fixed or static, so that a single ‘end’ can be reverse-engineered in a linear-causal manner that employs systematic logic. Single loop thinking is non-reflective, meaning that operators employing such conceptualization focus on the process and performance by self-evaluation through measured adherence (and validation) of the process. In other words, non-reflective operators become stuck in WHAT-HOW by following an established sequence, and are unwittingly and/or unwillingly committed to following the process at all costs. Once cannot escape the single loop process dependence as a single-loop operator cannot question beyond the limits of following said process.
Systematic logic seeks to break things down (reductionism) into inputs linked to outputs, or where ‘A plus B leads to C’ in a reliable, uniform, repeatable and verifiable manner. An institution curates such systematic constructs formulaically so that users in the future can refer to an increasing stockpile of solutions paired with historical problems; we become armed with solutions searching along our paths in reality for possible matches to emerging problems in our way. “Single loop learners are task oriented, oriented exclusively to identifying the best means to meet their defined ends…[s]ingle loop learners are isolationist in this way.” This elevation of ‘goal-rational orientation’ suggests a fixation on goals/ENDS where everything is reduced to a means-end calculation. Rutgers criticizes this logic as it “disguises how and by whom the goals in question are to be established and which values underlie them.” Single-loop thinking prevents any operator inquiry into those values as they violate the closed, single-loop cycle. An illustration of how modern militaries engage in ‘single loop learning’ can be seen below from the 2020 edition of Joint Planning publication 5–0.
At first glance, the military doctrinal graphic above may not appear to be a ‘single loop’ of non-reflective thinking. Modern militaries generally follow the lead of American Joint Doctrine where, as the graphic above demonstrates, the design of a military operation begins with the positioning of the organization with respect to present state (NOW) and where does it seek to move toward (FUTURE DESIRED ENDS). The organization then formulaically moves toward identifying problems paired with solutions in systematic reasoning through ENDS-WAYS-MEANS logic. In military doctrine, the institution expects organizations to connect “resources and tactical actions to strategic ends” in a manner that the commander “must be able to explain how proposed actions will result in desired effects, as well as the potential risks of such actions” before any actions even occur in what is a complex, dynamic system. This illustrates what Mintzberg terms “machine bureaucracy”- where a few people at the top of the organization are allowed to think, establish the rules of how to make decisions, and subordinates subsequently act in accordance to the institutionalized rules and implement plans in a formulaic manner directed by top leadership.
In the above graphic, the “where we are” is positioned in equal yet distinct tension with the competing inquiry of “where do we want to go?” These two constructs inform the operational design through identifying the ‘problem’ that appears to be inhibiting the organization from moving from NOW to FUTURE DESIRED ENDS unimpeded. Ultimately, the methods used to construct the military narrative illustrated above relies upon implicit institutional beliefs at an epistemological level on ‘how we know about thinking and acting in warfare’. These concepts lurk behind images such as above, but can be illuminated by considering the ‘single loop thinking’ of modern military and rendering this graphic as depicted below.
In the above figure, the deep blue loop is the single-loop of non-reflective practice. Operators stuck in this systematic logic will begin with ‘WHERE is the organization NOW’ and then plot a deliberate, linear-causal journey that employs an ENDS-WAYS-MEANS process to formulaically engineer inputs to outputs and attempt to analytically optimize predicted results (ENDs) through direction of institutionalized methods (WAYS) for warfare. These methods attempt to repeat historical and evaluated/validated processes the organization has collected and curated as ‘best practices’ that become further institutionalized with repeated success over time. Mintzberg rejects this as planning and instead terms it ‘strategic programming’- “the articulate and elaboration of strategies, or visions that already exist… planning has always been about analysis– about breaking down a goal or set of intentions into steps, formalizing these steps so that they can be implemented almost automatically, and articulating the anticipated consequences or results of each step.” Military units take the predetermined goal/ENDs of leadership and programmatically follow a set, uninterrupted path set in doctrine to generate a plan that validates whatever pre-existing belief leadership had before the plan was produced.
This creates an organization dependent upon policy guided by formulaic structures so that “planning removes the need for decision making”. The organization simply follows the set methodology and is insulated from criticism of performance by attempting to fully adhere to the rationalized actions built into the formulas. Worst still, the institution will then begin to symbolize some of these practices with the shared belief system so that particularly prominent methods and activities become ritualized, and further insulated from any critical reflection beyond the single loop assessment of ‘are we executing our strategy/plan correctly?’ This core inquiry becomes foundational to retaining a single loop non-reflective practice and is central to the above graphic.
The single loop process by nature of its form and function creates a potential environment for institutionalized anti-intellectualism in that the purpose of organizational activities cannot involve questions about the process itself. Instead, operators unwittingly become locked into following the cycle above, using indoctrinated methods such as those seen in JP 5–0 (the previous graphic) and all evaluation of performance is either oriented toward the validation of ritualized, systematic processes for accomplishing predetermined goals, or toward assessing the optimization of operators so that they can increasingly follow and further validate that same process. Failure exists for operators that do not perform according to the process, while the process itself rarely goes under critical evaluation in that this requires at least ‘second loop thinking.’ Yet this classical systematic approach bases upon an assumption that “a planning project can be organized into distinct phases… [Yet] for wicked problems [complex systems], however, this type of scheme does not work.” Rittel and Webber, using their terms of ‘first generation’ for what is essentially single and double-loop thinking, and ‘second generation’ for what is triple-loop, explain:
One cannot understand the problem without knowing about its context; one cannot meaningfully search for information without the orientation of a solution concept; one cannot first understand, then solve. The systems-approach “of the first generation” is inadequate for dealing with wicked-problems. Approaches of the “second generation” should be based on a model of planning as an argumentative process in the course of which an image of the problem and of the solution emerges gradually among the participants, as a product of incessant judgment, subjected to critical argument.
When repeated failures occur for military organizations trapped in single-loop, non-reflective thinking, there is introspection and a search for change. However, this inquiry often remains wedded to this same single-loop thinking due to the dominance of institutionalized beliefs on not just what warfare is and how to link thought to action within it, but why we know what our warfighting processes must be (and indirectly, what must remain outside of our framing). This again returns to the epistemological stances of the modern military, particularly with how we view ‘problem’ as a subset of our overarching ‘ENDS-WAYS-MEANS’ form of systematic logic. Complexity theorist Russell Ackoff explained, humans attempt to navigate a complex reality by treating the surprises we encounter as we attempt to do things and manipulate reality toward our own goals by framing any interruptions of our ‘thought to action’ continuum as a ‘problem.’ A problem only becomes something recognizable and significant if indeed we are prevented from experiencing the future reality flowing just as we anticipated before we formulated some purposeful activity. Yet complexity theorists disrupt this by reframing surprise as something entirely based on human perspective, where the violation of original expectations is inside the human minds and not actually part of the system being described!
Humans conceptualize problems in four primary modes according to Ackoff. These consist of problem absolution, problem solution, problem resolution, and problem dissolution.  Problem absolution consists of ignoring a problem with the expectation that over time, it will fade away or otherwise not require any activity to address it. This non-action is itself an action in any complex system, and paradoxically many organizations utilize ‘problem absolution’ wittingly as well as unwittingly in that they apply their decision-making methodologies (such as the Joint Planning Process) to particular identified security issues but not to others. They also may unwittingly misidentify or fail to identify rather complex challenges, or employ reductionist methods to focus on an isolated portion of a broader challenge so that a desired ‘problem’ is paired with an institutionalized solution in the same single-loop process while the vast remainder of the broader problem is ignored or unrealized through problem absolution.
How Militaries Frame ‘Problems’ and Why This Contributes to Conceptual Failings:
Significant for those decision-makers trapped in single-loop processes, militaries gravitate toward the second type of problematization that Ackoff offers; that of problem solution. This is the only mode of problem framing that all military methodologies, doctrine and training utilize. Problem solution is “to select a course of action that is believed to yield the best possible outcome, one that optimizes.” Ackoff pairs this with a ‘research approach’ in that the problem-solution framework best matches a scientific methodology and suits the terminology, tools, and techniques of the modern military enterprise that seeks to emulate natural science communities of practice. Ackoff differentiates ‘problem solution’ with that of ‘problem resolution.’
Problem resolution is: “to resolve a problem is to select a course of action that yields an outcome that is good enough, one that satisfices.” Ackoff calls this the clinical approach because it relies extensively upon past experiences and a clinical construct of experimental trial and errors that build into a long-term, cohesive knowledge base where clinicians might return to for working resolutions when encountering seemingly similar problem sets. While militaries are bound to systematic logic and ‘problem solution matched with identification of related and historically consistent problem’- in practice most operators on the ground end up blending the clinical, mechanistic ‘solution’ approach with intuition, tacit knowledge and contextualization of unique circumstances so that ‘resolution’ is often the realized technique rendered. Of course, militaries routinely employ problem absolution where Ackoff defines a lack of action or intentional denial of the problem as the decided approach. This becomes ‘ignore it and hope it resolves itself’ of which there are profound examples in commerce, politics, culture and war.
Ackoff’s fourth form for dealing with problems is the one absent from modern military decision-making methods, and is called problem dissolution. “Dissolution involves idealization rather than satisficing or optimization (or ignoring), because its objective is to so change the system or its environment as to bring the system closer to an ultimately desirable state, one in which the problem cannot or does not arise.” This is what Ackoff terms the design approach. Problem dissolution cannot be accomplished within single-loop thinking, nor can operators consider beyond any process that locks them into non-reflectively performing the same sort of problematization over and over. Dissolution means that one designs a way to transform the system so that in the emergent, new system what was previously seen as a problem is dissolved and no longer a major concern. Yet the new system formation itself will generate new problems as well. Ackoff explains this distinction between a dissolution of a problem and linear solution of a problem:
The designer makes use of the methods, techniques, and tools of both the clinician and the researcher, but he uses them synthetically rather than analytically. He tries to change the way the system as a whole functions within the larger system that contains it rather than the way its parts function within it. Dissolutions are found in the containing whole; solutions are found in the contained parts.
On single-loop thinking and knowledge curation as it exists in modern military decision-making, military organizations continue to be stuck in cycles of doing the same ‘thought-to-action’ continuum over and over without the ability to reflectively practice variation outside of that single loop. Or to paraphrase Ackoff, they default into: “doing the wrong things right… [which therefore] only make us more right at being wrong.”  Single loop thinking prevents the operator from considering beyond ‘are we executing our strategy/plan correctly’ as depicted in the last illustration. Further, the organization if confronted with repeated failures using this single-loop logic can only shift to yet another single-loop line of non-reflective inquiry where the question ‘are we doing the right things’ is raised to revert any critical thinking back toward process refinement. By moving from the discussion from HOW to that of WHAT, the organization retains the same single-loop fixation on ENDS-WAYS-MEANS by creating new ends and means to consider ‘what else can we do so that the process is unquestioned yet we still can accomplish our desired goals?’
In the next figure, the conceptualized form of self-referential inquiry occurs within an organization stuck in single-loop thinking due to this institutionalization that essentially produces anti-intellectualism as a by-product of eliminating any reflective practice or introspection beyond process adherence. The first ‘single loop’ below is the same blue coded loop from the previous illustration. The organization questions HOW it should think and act so that the ENDS-WAYS-MEANS epistemology for warfighting remains foundational to the decision-making process. If this creates repeated failures, the organization moves to the next single-loop where a new question of ‘WHAT should the organization do if the process is failing’ is applied. HOW to follow the process shifts to WHAT else could be done within that process to accomplish goals. As Minzberg offers: “Those with a calculating style fix on a destination and calculate what the group must do to get there… the world is supposed to hold still while a plan is being developed and then stay on the predicted course while the plan is being implemented.” Despite new ends and means being defined, the same original military decision-making processes (Joint Planning methodology) is maintained and if failure still occurs, a third self-referential loop is brought into practice. Each of these loops function independently, with the organization executing single-loop learning as it cycles through any of the below non-reflective practices.
Drawing from Flood and Romm’s original illustration on three types of recursive single-loop practices, a military organization encountering repeated process failures will shift from HOW to WHAT and finally to WHY… yet remain entirely stuck in single-loop non-reflective practice. The organization questions WHY to follow the institutionalized practices where once more, new ENDS and MEANS are generated within the established limits of the process. This third layer of inquiry ponders “are doing things right what causes us to institutionalize best practices, or does our institutionalization itself generate processes we value as the right ones?” Readers should remember that in single-loop practice, the organization jumps from one loop depicted to the next in a sequenced, linear-causal and systematic mode that retains a non-reflective form of introspection. In each loop shown above, the organization is entirely self-referential in that it questions the operators performing the process, how to reinforce the process through accepted variation, and confirmation of the broader belief system that the process can be improved as long as all developments reinforce the epistemological stances of the overarching war frame.
In the red loop illustrated above, an organization might realize that while particular favored practices with historic precedent as ‘right to use as solutions’ may no longer be relevant, the individual constructs themselves become another problem for the overarching process to address. The intentional shift of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps in 2006 to a new counterinsurgency manual (FM 3–24/MCWP 3–33.5) in 2006 after significant setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan is a powerful example of the military institution changing a particular method (that of how to address an insurgency) without changing the overarching process (how militaries approach all warfare through theory, models, methods, doctrine, terminology informed by the belief system and values).
Counterinsurgency techniques and even the overarching strategy might be changed with a fresh doctrinal publication issued to all forces, but the deeper epistemological frameworks of ‘conduct counterinsurgency according to these core processes that underpin all other warfighter activities outside of counterinsurgency’ remain unquestioned. New ENDS and MEANS might be generated, and even the decision-making doctrine itself (the process rules) might get revisions or alterations, but the overarching form and function of modern military decision making retains a permanent epistemological fixation on ENDS-WAYS-MEANS for all security challenges. “Far too often, strategy is an exercise in means-based planning; it is inherently uncreative, noncritical, and limits new and adaptive thinking.” We simply cannot break out of single-loop conceptualization in war…
Next we will introduce ‘double-loop thinking’ which moves past the single-loop and does appear in military education, doctrine and training- but that is still not yet outside of non-reflective practice and continues to frustrate and limit military innovation, flexibility, adaptation and critical thinking in complex security challenges worldwide.
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as I will post updates and when the next two parts of this treatment will become available online.
 Robert Flood and Norma Romm, “Contours of Diversity Management and Triple Loop Learning,” Kybernetes 25, no. 7/8 (1996): 154–63.
 Flood and Romm, 157.
 Meiser, “Ends + Ways + Means = (Bad) Strategy,” 81–85; Henry Mintzberg, Duru Raisinghani, and Andre Theoret, “The Structure of ‘Unstructured’ Decision Processes,” Readings in Decision Support Systems, 1976, 134.
 Flood and Romm, “Contours of Diversity Management and Triple Loop Learning,” 158.
 Mark Rutgers, “Be Rational! But What Does It Mean? A History of the Idea of Rationality and Its Relation to Management Thought,” Journal of Management History 5, no. 1 (1999): 25.
 Joint Publication 5–0: Joint Planning (Washington, DC: US Department of Defense, 2020), 5–0, https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/pubs/jp5_0.pdf.
 Joint Chiefs of Staff, US Department of Defense, “Developing Today’s Joint Officers for Tomorrow’s Ways of War: The Joint Chiefs of Staff Vision and Guidance for Professional Military Education and Talent Management” (U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, May 1, 2020), IV–4, https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/education/jcs_pme_tm_vision.pdf?ver=2020-05-15-102429-817.
 Henry Mintzberg, “The Design School: Reconsidering the Basic Premises of Strategic Management,” Strategic Management Journal 11 (1990): 185.
 Henry Mintzberg, “The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning,” Harvard Business Review, February 1994, 108.
 Alex Ryan et al., “Full Spectrum Fallacies and Hybrid Hallucinations: How Basic Errors in Thinking Muddle Military Concepts” (Land Warfare Conference 2010, Brisbane, Australia: Australian Land Warfare Centre, 2010), 244.
 Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4 (1973): 162.
 Rittel and Webber wrote their highly influential article in 1973 and were pioneers in developing a new movement in decision-making, organizational and management theory that departs from the classical ‘ends-ways-means’ approaches formalized in the early twentieth century. In the following decades, theorists would expand upon their concepts and extend their arguments into ‘reflective practice’, ‘sensemaking’, as well as ‘triple loop learning.’
 Rittel and Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” 162.
 Haridimos Tsoukas and Mary Jo Hatch, “Complex Thinking, Complex Practice: The Case for a Narrative Approach to Organizational Complexity,” Human Relations 54, no. 8 (August 2001): 989.
 Russell Ackoff, “On the Use of Models in Corporate Planning,” Strategic Management Journal 2, no. 4 (December 1981): 353–59.
 Russell Ackoff, Redesigning the Future (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1974), 8.
 Flood and Romm, “Contours of Diversity Management and Triple Loop Learning,” 158.
 Mintzberg, “The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning,” 109–10.
 Flood and Romm, “Contours of Diversity Management and Triple Loop Learning,” 158.
 Department of the Army and Department of the Navy, HQ United States Marine Corps, Field Manual 3–24/MCWP 3–33.5, Counterinsurgency (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, Department of the Navy, 2006), https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=468442.
 Meiser, “Ends + Ways + Means = (Bad) Strategy,” 81.