Five common traits of a team destined to make the same old mistakes

Have you been with the team long enough to experience that eerie feeling of déjà vu? Some of the people may be different, but you are convinced that you've been in the identical conversation once or twice before.

Groundhog Day. Just like in the movie, the ending is always the same. You just keep having the same conversations and nothing seems to change.

It's like the team makes a little traction up the learning curve and then, predictably, it slips right back to old patterns that can turn the biggest optimist into a cynic.

A team learns just like a person learns.


Capable people who want to work together as a team must occasionally put their own thinking to the test. That's what learning is all about.

Any person who can't budge in their thinking will struggle through life. It's no different with a team that has trouble adapting. It always seems to end up in the same place as before.

That recurrent pattern can be really frustrating for smart people on a team who know that, when they get together and try to work on something together, the collective IQ seems to drop.

Individually, each person is really smart. But when they get together as a team, the intellect bottoms out. And it's Groundhog Day all over again.

How can that be?

Looped Learning. In his classic HBR article, Teaching Smart People how to Learn, Chris Argyris helps to explain the déjà vu experience. To do so, he draws a distinction between single-loop and double-loop learning.

Cutting headcount every time the budget gets tight is a good example of single-loop learning. With a smaller team to take on more work, the quality suffers and customers soon drop off. Inevitably the budget tightens again, which is when we line up more employees to make redundant.

You can see the single loop.

It almost always leads back to the same problem, not to mention the same solution. This scenario is often described as insanity, especially if the team truly expects a different result each time.

Double-loop learning goes deeper. In the example above, the second loop kicks in when the team changes the way it works to adjust for fewer people - like joining forces with another team to deliver even better service with lower costs to the business and customer.

They haven't just taken people out of the team; the team has also changed the way they think about the work. And this leads to new results, reflected through growth.

Double loop learning helps the team to stop chasing its own tail.

Five Common Traits

Teams with learning disabilities have five traits in common that can keep them locked in vicious single loops. How many of these traits have you seen in action?

1. The boiled frog

The parable is one of a frog that sits in a pot of water and, as you gradually increase the heat under it, the frog is lulled into a sleepy complacency. By the time the water boils, the frog is already dead.

Some teams take their success for granted, so they stop pushing themselves. With no stretch, they get lulled into a sense of complacency and settle back into their own pot of tepid water. There is little urgency, nor concern about the world around them.

When the shock of decline finally wakes them up, the best they can do is react - which amounts to yet another round of the same old solutions. Teams will lose smart people who eventually tire of scrambling in the face of another crisis that snuck up on them.

2. Find an enemy to blame

In a crisis, it's easier to rally the team against a common enemy. Fired up and frustrated, a team looks for something to attack, someone to blame, some way to explain away the reality that they got caught sleeping.

Teams with a learning disability will point outward when they're looking for the source of the problem. They are not good at looking at their own part in how the crisis unfolded. It's easier to deflect accountability rather than to own it.

Again, you can see the similarity in how a person learns and what happens on a team. When things go wrong, it's almost instinctive to externalise the blame.

Sometimes, the tougher and more intelligent place to start is with an inward scan, where you look for your own role in what just happened. A team caught in single loop learning almost always goes on a witch hunt when things go wrong.

3. Shoot first, aim second

This gun-slinging mentality is fuelled by a strong bias for action, which can often work against a team's best efforts. When the team doesn't take pause to aim, it can shoot itself in the foot - which often happens.

A team that puts borders around itself cannot see the consequences of their decisions out into the broader sphere. Under pressure, their peripheral view narrows and they become myopic in their decision making. That almost always leads to a negative ripple effect.

A team's credibility is directly tied to whether it is adding value to the bigger picture. Teams caught in a single loop usually create more problems than they solve, which then causes other teams to lose confidence in them.

This is one of the major reasons that teams do 'workarounds' - the practice of working around another team with a reputation for slowing things down.

4. Band-aid solutions

You know this scenario from your own personal experience with treating physical or psychological pain. And it's no different with teams in organisations, who often reach for a 'quick fix' solution - to make the noise go away and calm the waters - all the while knowing there's a deeper issue that has gone unaddressed.

Learning disabled teams will use the excuse of being too busy to push deeper into the more important issues that are the root cause of their day-to-day fire-fighting.

It's what Stephen Covey refers to as the 'tyranny of the urgent' - the lure of getting lost in the weeds fighting sporadic fires.

That's what it feels like for people on the team - they seem to run from one crisis to another, applying more band-aids along the way. And there's absolutely no time to discuss what really is driving the problem.

Like a hamster on a wheel, the team is caught in a single loop, going round and round and getting nowhere fast.

5. I am my position

This common trait on dysfunctional teams can be the real blocker to double-loop learning. When people on the team swear stronger allegiance to their own part of the pie, rather than linking with the whole, it can cause crazy behaviour.

This is more likely to happen on teams that don't have a strong vision about where all the hard work is actually taking them. In the absence of a common destination or path to get there, team members stay in their own lane and get defensive when others try to merge.

This is especially likely to happen during a change initiative, where the anxiety mounts and teams members feel greater comfort by attaching to something stable. The problem is, they aren't good at seeing the bigger picture.

If people on the team spend more time guarding and defending their own turf, and less time making sacrifices for the greater good, it's a sure bet that the team is in a single loop.

Can a team learn how to learn?

There's one final parallel between how a person and a team learns. Not only are strong leaders unafraid to examine their own thinking from time-to-time, but they are also disciplined about it. As amplified in the book The Fifth Discipline, teams who approach learning as a serious responsibility are more likely to lift performance.

There is a learning cycle that describes how people learn. Half the cycle is about doing. The other half is about reflecting. If you get too bogged down in the doing, at the expense of reflection, you are likely to take yourself back into single loops.

When a team creates the space to reflect on how things have been tracking, it enables them to connect the dots across disparate events.

A team should study its own patterns. That's where insight is born, which is acquired through reflection. We value insightful teams in the same way that we value insightful people.

If your team has a learning disability, your smart choice is to get more disciplined about the way that you learn. Appeal to the common desire that everyone shares - to have all their hard work count for something that really matters.

No team likes running on the hamster wheel for too long. Get looped together in a good way, as it will make all the difference in the quality of the team's work.

In this new era of sweeping change, you owe it to yourselves to be proactive. As a team, learn how to learn.