Two kinds of change

Back in the seventies, experts in cybernetics explored the ways change happened. They characterized several of the differences they observed as "first and second order change". Chris Argyris then relabeled these as "single and double loop learning".

These cyberneticians were focused on changes that did and did not last. The temporary changes appeared as oscillation to their trained eyes. The passing change went through cycles of progress and regress, getting nowhere quickly. Oscillation usually occurs when we are making change happen. Taking a mechanistic approach yields temporary advances counter-acted by resistance, sabotage and loyalty to the status quo brought to the forefront by the imposed change. We merely stretch the rubber band before it pulls back into place or force the pendulum to one side of it's relentless swinging.

Changes that endure (second order change, double loop learning) transforms the underlying premise. The change agents play with the rules instead of playing by the rules. They see the pattern being followed and alter the basis for that pattern to emerge. The rubber band is redeployed to hold a bundle of envelopes. The pendulum clock is relocated in it's entirety.

These system experts held as a basic truth that "a system cannot change it's own rules". It takes an outsider to be in a position to revise the basis for equilibrium. When the change agent revises the underlying premise, the upper level system reconfigures itself accordingly. The rubber band no longer stretches and snaps back in cycles when holding the pack of envelopes.

Second order change occurs when we let change happen as a response to the revision of the underlying rules. The obvious change emerges from the deeper shift in paradigm , presupposition or premise.

More recently, the underlying premise has been viewed as a story. We are all enacting stories that give our lives a sense of coherency and consistency. Our conduct emerges from the underlying story that patterns our lives. Change the story and we will act very differently. A change of story is a second order, enduring change.

Rather than mess around with how we're acting, we can revise where we are coming from. Rather than adopt New Year's Resolutions or self-improvement goals, we can create ourselves as a different person entirely. When we start messing with our online identities and avatars in games, we are learning this fluidity to spawn lasting changes in conduct. We've dropped out of oscillation, trying to improve our behavior and overcoming stubborn habits. We've entered the realm of transformation and renewal.

Related posts:
Revising underlying structure
Third and fourth order change
Hard wired to flip flop
Trying smarter for a change


  1. Tom, I love this post! Great reminder of what happens with change and about the need to shift the underlying rules in order to create lasting change. Very helpful to me right now, so thank you!

  2. Thanks Michele!
    I'll say more about this today.


  3. Children are constantly creating & recreating themselves as different folk - it's called play. They invent the games not merely the characters altho', of course they embrace received types.

    And now the adult world invents myriad ways to invalidate, corral, deform this process. And the oscillation begins.


  4. Tom, This is fascinating. Any suggestions on favorite books or websites where i can learn more about this history? Thanks in advance.

  5. Thanks Howard. The Wikipedia page on "second-order cybernetics" is loaded with useful links. A favorite book of mine on this topic is Change - Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution by Paul Watzlawick Ph.D. et. al. published back in 1974.

  6. Thanks, Tom. In reflection, i pulled a couple of books off my own shelves - The Age of Heretics by Art Kleiner and Rethinking the Fifth Discipline by Robert Louis Flood. It's this type of historical, comparative study that i have in mind. I'd never heard of Walzlawick but will take a look.

  7. I learned something about this. I am a student and I have something to share.

    Changing times

  8. I'm glad you've started a blog Khass. I hope you write more of your thoughts about emotional and holistic change. I share your desire that we change our consciousness, rather than let technology dictate what changes occur. Good luck with all your studies and reflections.