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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Double-Loop Government

The basketball player’s early career illustrates a learning strategy that produces conflict -- and innovation.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dunking the basketball
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, playing for UCLA in 1966.
In 1967, when I finally learned to dunk a basketball, they made it illegal. It remained so until 1976, when my days as a competitive player were about over. The rule, of course, wasn’t about me. It was about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His name back then was Lew Alcindor, and the NCAA rule banning the dunk, adopted after his sophomore year at the University of California at Los Angeles, was called the Alcindor Rule. Traditionalists felt that the dunk was ruining the game.

The dunk was an innovation resulting from what the late organizational theorist Chris Argyris called “double-loop learning,” a concept that people interested in dramatically improving the way government works ought to become familiar with. Single-loop learning, Argyris wrote, is when an individual or organization attempts to align outcomes with expectations without questioning “underlying causal mechanisms.” In basketball, for example, the team simply practices and improves its execution of plays and its field goal percentages. Double-loop learning, on the other hand, “encourages the questioning of assumptions and the confronting of traditions.” What UCLA did was feed the ball to a highly athletic 7-foot-2 player who could score with far greater efficiency by simply dunking the ball. The result was a 30-0 season, an NCAA championship and a lot of very upset people heavily invested in the status quo.

A fear of conflict is another critical aspect of double-loop learning. In the 1994 book Can Governments Learn?, Frans L. Leeuw and Richard C. Sonnichsen wrote that the questioning of organizational policy “can create difficult and complex group dynamics that many persons will actively try to avoid.” Double-loop learning creates conflict. If there’s no conflict, then there’s probably no innovation.

That’s a real problem for organizations attempting to achieve breakthrough performance, but most governments have an unrecognized ally: the auditor’s office. The image of auditors, of course, is the antithesis of innovative. But things are changing. There is a growing body of work called performance auditing that is evidence-based and conducted by people well versed in policy analysis, program evaluation and the use of data. As auditors, they are independent of the people designing and managing programs and so are able to step outside of their organizations’ norms and traditions. For them, a successful audit is one that results in a positive impact on outcomes.

Government audit units tend to be small and have less clout than top management, so the innovations they suggest may be buried. Public officials wanting to make their governments more innovative ought to seek out the auditors, take a look at their reports and talk with them about opportunities to dramatically improve outcomes. The result might be a slam dunk that taxpayers would cheer about.

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