Getting clear about what we mean by ‘change’


Let’s just spend a moment reflecting on what we mean by the terms, change, adaptation and transformation. Terms that are bandied about and used interchangeably in the popular media, however they are different facets of change.

Change is a term that can apply very generally, however when I use it, I mean it in the sense of single loop learning. Learning and change are not the same but they are connected. When we genuinely learn something, it changes or alters what we do. There is action attached to real learning. If you say you know something, but you don’t act upon it – then I’m sorry, you don’t really know it.

Learning is the precursor to change.

You may recall the definitions of single and double loop learning made popular by Chris Argyris and Donald Schön as they explored what Argyris sometimes to referred to as human beings’ skilful non-learning. As they explored this phenomena of non-learning, which you must agree, still seems prevalent in today’s contemporary organisations, they developed the notion of single loop learning.

Single and double loop learning

Single loop learning occurs when there is a discrepancy between the desired result and actual result, prompting a person to take different action, but without challenging the underlying values or beliefs that influence that action. The person changes the action taken but nothing else. This may the predominant form of change within organisations and our society at present. It is the easiest because it doesn’t challenge personal and often unconscious values and beliefs that determine what we do. This type of change encompasses efficiency gains and incremental process improvements. We have milked this type of change for a long time and it has served us well – but although it is a necessary type of change it is no longer sufficient to meet the needs of today let alone those of the decades yet to come.

An often overlooked feature of single loop learning that Argryris highlighted in years of research and working within organisations, is the single loop learning is essentially defensive in nature. He attributed it to the source of why organisational change initiatives are so difficult and ineffective. Heifetz discusses technical challenges – one where we think we already know the answers and he talks about the greatest leadership failure being a failure of diagnosis – thinking we know instead of admitting that we don’t know. Single loop learning, says Argryris, is also associated with a lack of self awareness.

Double loop learning occurs when the discrepancy between desired and actual result, prompts those involved to stop and question the underlying values and beliefs that influence how the problem itself is perceived. This process can trigger adaptive change described by Heifetz. This type of change is difficult and messy because human emotions associated with values and beliefs are now involved. As a leader, becoming competent at leading this type of transformational change is now a necessity. I see some managers who tell me that leading transformational change is not in their job description, but it really must be for organisations to survive and thrive into the future.

Double loop learning and adaptive change, may also be seen as a process of learning about learning. It’s a process that develops self awareness and awareness of others (or emotional intelligence) and the system in which they are operating. My experience is that it also develops a systems awareness or intelligence.

To use a common metaphor, (single loop) change occurs as people shift the deck chairs as the Titanic as it sinks. Transformational change (double loop) occurs when the pilot of the Titanic challenges the belief that the Titanic will never sink and alters course in time not to hit the iceberg.

Triple loop learning and transformation

Triple loop learning occurs when a paradigm shift is involved in the learning – where not one set of values and beliefs are challenged, but an entire framework of them.

A paradigm shift opens the possibility of an entirely new way of perceiving and taking action because it completely reframes the challenge, you and your organisation. Triple loop learning and transformation in a business context is associated with the emergence of an entirely new organisational identify: a transformed purpose, vision and values.

Adaptation is a term comes that from the study of the paradigm of complexity or living systems. However, adaptation can be viewed as reactive in nature – reacting to changes within the environment around you. We humans have a consciousness or awareness that can be folded back on to itself. We have the capacity to not merely react (which does in its turn influence the system around us) but to proactively shape and redesign the larger system itself.

One of my favourite systems thinkers Donella Meadows, wrote the following and when we act at the level of paradigms, we are acting at one of teh highest leverage points within a system in order to influence or transform it:

Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned. We can’t surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit from them. We can’t impose our will upon a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.”

Donella Meadows, Thinking Systems Primer, pp169-170

As an example, Interface Carpets, a carpet manufacturing business disrupted its own business model to shift from manufacturing more and more carpet, to manufacturing, renting and recycling its own carpets. It is now more of a service company, renting the use of carpet rather than manufacturing and selling carpet in the traditional sense. That’s a paradigm shift or a triple loop transformational change!

Adaptive change and transformation is stepping into the unknown

Single and double loop learning require stepping into the unknown. Maybe that is one reason why people prefer not to travel this path; because we are evolutionarily designed to stick to what we know. Evidence from neuroscience supports this view. And so in leadership development programs where we seek to learn how to ‘ change others’, it is also about adapting and transforming you in some sense.

I don’t know you personally, so I don’t know the story of your own leadership path or journey (I dislike the implications of the J word but struggle to find another metaphor that will resonate with you), however, it is likely that your capacity for sitting in and with ambiguity will need developing. Before I started this work, I thought I was quite comfortable in ambiguous circumstances – however influencing people for transformational change – especially at the triple loop level, is another level of ambiguity completely!

However, don’t let that possibility of discomfort turn you away or put you off – because included in the package deal with the ambiguity are surprises – good ones – that you don’t even dream about at present.

If you would like to develop your personal, team or organisational capacity to engage with genuine transformational change, please contact me. I’ll shout the coffee!