Big Loop Learning: the Folklore of Failure

Every night i sing my son to sleep with a song: it’s been the unanticipated pleasure of the Pandemic that i have been home to do this, and now, aged two, he is able to ask for the song that he wants. Every night is the same: he wants the Boatman.

The Boatman is a modern folk song by The Levellers: a simple tune about the life you lead. At the heart of it is a yearning for the simplicity of the life of the boatman, alone on the canals and rivers, which remains out of reach because others control our destiny. It’s a reminder that, at the end of life, you should be able to look back and see that you remained true to yourself, and the values you hold dear.

Folk music is the music of the people: songs of unity and dissent, oppression, love and revenge. Life in all it’s gory glory, dressed up with a fiddle and guitar. It’s the cautionary tales of generations, and the aspiration of those who may have little but dreams.

But folklore does not just reside in bedtime stories and songs: it exists within our own Organisations, and may trap us into patterns of legacy and fear.

In my recent work on the Learning Organisation, i have been toying with the notion of ‘Big Loop Learning’, and a contrast of ‘Diminishing Spiral’ Organisations.

Both types of Organisation learn, both experiment, and both fail, but there is a difference in their folklore and landscape of curiosity. Big Loop Learning Organisations create artefacts of failure, through collective and collaborative action, which are co-owned rather than imposed, and which analyse the cause, reason, and opportunity. They do so through open and accountable processes.

Diminishing Loop Organisations do the same thing, but do so in spirals of folklore instead. Stories that are stacked upon each other, and distributed through fearful channels. They hold stories as shields and rationalise failure as an act of violence instead of learning.

It is far easier to exist in Diminishing Spirals than Big Loops, because the Spirals are a tribal structure, whilst the Loops are formal or meta-tribal ones. Which is another way of saying that Spirals are safe, trusted, and hidden, whilst Loops are ambiguous, unknown, and both visible and permanent.

If we wish for the benefits of ‘Big Loops’ – benefits that include a dynamic flow of knowledge, an agility of action, and a dynamic economy of risk taking and experimentation – we will have to earn it and learn it.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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4 Responses to Big Loop Learning: the Folklore of Failure

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