Downstream, Upstream Thinking and Understanding Their Loops

Updated: Oct 5

"I don’t want to fight old battles. I want to fight new ones." - Satya Nadella



Downstream and upstream thinking; often due to circumstances we gravitate to resolving issues downstream as they are obvious and potentially have actions easily justified.


In the video above Gayle Petersen from Said Business School at Oxford University chats to Michael Quinn Patton about “loops”. Michael shares an example of eye injuries from the Iraq war, detailing how Single, Double and Triple Loop learning was applied to reduce these occurrences.


Single Loop

Surgeons developed new field techniques to triage and treat those with eye injuries that were more frequent than expected. Eye transplant procedures evolved quickly, and patients had better outcomes than what was thought possible several months earlier. These things occurred downstream after the event and are Single Loop learning.


Double Loop

The surgeon and journalist Atul Gawande and others asked why are these injuries occurring as the soldiers have goggles? They found out that the goggles were uncomfortable, unsightly and the soldiers were not wearing them. A high-tech firm was then engaged, and they designed stronger, better-looking goggles which the soldiers wore, and eye injuries plummeted. This is “Double Loop” learning.


Triple Loop

Triple Loops are sometimes overlooked when incorporating loop thinking. Triple Loop is learning how to learn about loops and moving upstream to ask what is going on and trying things out to see what is happening. Learning through doing is the integration of Single, Double and Triple Loop thinking.


The CIO / Tech Executive at an organisation has an important role to play with the digital potential of a business. They are a contributor to the learning through their technical expertise; however, they are not the sole source of the answer. They are in many ways like the surgeons who were treating injuries in the field.


There is interconnectedness of an action to an outcome, such as the soldiers choosing not to wear goggles, reducing surgeon availability downstream, which requires questioning for change. Changes occur through the interdependence of people upstream who can influence an outcome, connecting various parties to question things and think broadly. They ultimately identified the need for new goggles.


Loop thinking is a valuable technique to evolve a business’s digital approach and that is why it features strongly within the book Digital is Everyone’s Business!