Vertical Development

The Intention of Triple-Loop Awareness

I mentioned yesterday that the book Indirect Work by Carol Sanford appears to be about going beyond knowledge. Even more so, it seems to relate to triple-loop learning.

I remembered I had found a triple-loop learning paper before that articulated what the experience of triple-loop learning felt like and I found it again this morning. It’s called Timely and Transforming Leadership Inquiry and Action: Toward Triple-Loop Awareness (PDF), written by Anne Starr and Bill Torbert (who is a major contributor to the vertical development field).

One of the first quotes that jumped out at me from this paper was the following one.

Translating, he explains that triple-loop awareness re-presents a change in consciousness. It is the simultaneous awareness of all 4 territories of experience – of the outside world, one’s own behavior, one’s own feelings and thoughts, and at the same time, a kind of witnessing of all this. It can be called presencing (Senge et aI, 2004). Triple loop awareness occurs in any moment when there’s an attention distinct from the mental thinking, from the physical sensing, and from the objects of perception, infusing them all with an immediacy that is at once passionate, dispassionate, and compassionate. You’re more likely to have these experiences when you put yourself in a position where you’re on the edge of your known reality – on the not-necessarily-comfortable threshold between the known and the unknown.

Anne Starr & Bill Torbert
Timely and Transforming Leadership Inquiry and Action: Toward Triple-loop Awareness

Why this jumped out is because Carol Sanford also has a quote that relates to cultivating an “inner witness” in her book Indirect Work.

The deeper purpose of the intermezzos is to develop your capability to manage, filter, process, and discover ideas as they arrive in your mental space. This requires intentional self-observing, the creation of a conscious awareness, separate from ongoing mental activity, that allows one to objectively observe this activity. It is a common spiritual or consciousness-development practice, and in some traditions, it is referred to as cultivating an “inner witness.”

Once this witness is present, it becomes possible to really notice how we take in influences from others, whether we are reading their words, listening to them speak, or absorbing what they are modeling through their behavior. Learning is at least as much about how one engages with new information and experience as it is about the information itself.

Carol Sanford, Indirect Work

Returning to the paper, an example is given of a person describing their triple-loop awareness.

Quite apart from the profound personal experience that this was for me, it was also an unprecedented experience of a new kind of power. Being a constitutional worrywart, I was accustomed to thinking with limitation – seeing the barriers (in the “real” world) associated with attaining my desires (in “here”) as overwhelming. The emotional shock of this situation gave me a power and clarity I had not experienced before. Instead of seeing limitation, I saw only my intention and knew there were any number of ways it would be met. My desires and the real world were interacting in real time (the present). I never forced a connection or answer, but instead knew that things would fall into place. This felt physically like operating from above myself with infinite flexibility to play/enact in the world “below”. I should also say that I have not summoned this kind of power since then – unfortunately, not even to write this paper (Anonymous, 2004, with permission) .

Timely and Transforming Leadership Inquiry and Action: Toward Triple-loop Awareness

This description is common in the more evolved stages of vertical development whereby one describes their experiences as being like on a “balcony” overlooking themselves and their life, seeing all of the interactions clearly going on below, thus no longer feeling trapped by them.

Carol Sanford describes this by being able to see “our projections on others” and taking them back.

Here at the level of living systems (which includes most Indigenous and some Asian worldviews), we start from the assumption that all living beings have their own agency and purpose. There is no need to impose our will or our ideas of what they should be; instead, our work is to cultivate the humility and receptivity that allows us to understand what they are striving to become. From this understanding, we begin to discover appropriate roles for ourselves within their processes of becoming. Our work shifts to evolving the infrastructures and instruments that will enable them to develop for themselves the capabilities they will need to make their own contributions to some other entity’s becoming. Those of us who aspire to play this role must engage in our own development, taking back our projections onto others and turning what had been outer work into inner work.

Carol Sanford, Indirect Work

If I’m understanding this all properly, every interaction with anything in our lives always has an intention to it. Only by stepping back from ourselves and intentionally perceiving and seeing our own intentions in action, can we truly transform ourselves by changing those intentions. That’s what triple-loop learning gets to the heart of, our deeper intentions.

Carol provides an example of this in her book by describing how Phil Jackson’s unique coaching with the Chicago Bulls created a liberating space for them, letting them step outside of the typical intentions of the game and create their own.

This shift of levels from two to three forces is quite evident in the Bulls’ story. As Jackson directed his players’ attention away from winning and losing and onto the larger cultural meanings of basketball, he also helped them move their attention off the ball and onto the whole system of the game. This freed players and opened up a uniquely creative space within which they could invent new plays in present time and in response to all of the interacting dynamics of court and arena. Players learned to maintain consciousness of the whole of the situation, with its many layers and complexities, and this allowed them to escape the mechanics of the game and experience themselves as agents within a living phenomenon.

Carol Sanford, Indirect Work

Why I find this remarkable is that a lot of games I’ve played in the past, I automatically try to step back and see these undercurrents of the game going on as well. For example, in World of Tank Blitz, a tank simulation game, I noticed three primary types of players which I described as Tactical, Strategic, and Adaptive (primary in relation to situation awareness).

Basically these three tiers of players perfectly aligned with single-loop, double-loop, and triple-loop learning. Tactical players were focused on the question of “Am I utilizing my tank and attacking my target in the right way?” Strategic players were focused on asking “Am I attacking the right target?” And Adaptive players evolved to question “Is it even right to be attacking now?”

The hilarity of reflecting on this now and the poignancy of the question of “Is it even right to be attacking now?” is not lost on me. Our world is fractured and fragmented right now because of the way we perceive it and because of our projected intentions on others. Because of this, most people are spending most of their time “attacking” other people in one way or another.

By Nollind Whachell

Questing to translate Joseph Campbell's Hero’s Journey into The Player’s Handbook for The Adventure of Your Life, thus making vertical (leadership) development an accessible, epic framework for everyone.

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