Change: principles of problem formations and problem resolution by Paul Watzlawick, John H. Weakland, and Richard Fisch

This isn’t an organisational change book.

It’s about individual problem solving from the perspective of psychology and therapy – but the underlying ideas are applicable to change management anyway, and for this reason the book is a useful addition to the change manager’s bookshelf.

Change is an individual journey anyway.

All change management models I can think of: PROSCI’s ADKAR, Kotter’s 8 Steps, William Bridges Transitions model, Lewin’s unfreeze-change-freeze (that really needs a better name), change equation, Peter Senge’s approach … they all focus on the individual (less so Kotter perhaps).

So a psychological approach is useful, but we have to be careful. If we’re not trained psychologists, we have to be cautious with using the little bit of knowledge we get from this sort of book, and make sure we don’t overreach into territory we’re not qualified to operate in.

So I’m not going to talk about all parts of the book, I’m going to twist this review toward organisational change management and learning and development … so if you’re interested in this from a therapist’s perspective, this review won’t float your boat.


The approach they take is to look at change as the solution for a psychological or behavioural problem. Not all change projects are about solving problems, they could be about exploiting or anticipating opportunities, or about some kind of personal development or general improvement, perhaps working toward an inspiring vision (the “big hairy audacious goal” Jim Collins talks about), or a response to external or internal pressures … but despite this, I think there’s value in expressing any project as a problem that needs solving. I’ll talk about this more another time because I think it’s a powerful technique.

Once you do this, the next step isn’t to solve it, it’s to define it and understand it.

Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch – hereafter known as “the authors” – define two types of change that they call “first-order” and “second-order”.

First-order change is the change within a system, second-order change is change to the system itself.

I don’t mean to show off, this isn’t about me, but I created a similar system for categorizing change management projects. Since reading this book, I’ve brought my model in line with this one so it’s no longer just something I made up one day, it has a proper citation now.

[S]econd-order change is always in the nature of a discontinuity or a logical jump

The insight the book offers is that you can’t create second-order change using first-order language … that way lies resistance, misunderstanding, stress, demotivation and lots of other horrid things.

They dwell on the mathematical underpinnings of this approach, citing mathematical group theory or something. This is of interest if you’re a bit of a geek and maybe spend time watching Numberphile videos on YouTube, but it’s one of those things that whilst I’m glad to know is there, and reassured that someone understands it and has done the sums, I’m not going to spend too much time on it myself.

The authors argue that the first step in problem resolution is about understanding what order of change is required to solve the problem, and being careful to not jump to any quick fix things that might seem obvious.

One of the most common fallacies about change is the conclusion that if someting is bad, its opposite must of necessity be good

If you get this wrong, whatever so-called “common sense” (first-order) solution you apply might itself be the problem, be exacerbating the problem, and/or be obscuring a more effective solution (that probably sits in second-order change).

This isn’t easy.

They argue that you cannot generate second-order solutions from within, that …

it cannot produce the rules for the change of its own rules [and that] second-order change appears unpredictable, abrupt, illogical etc. in terms of first-order change, that is, from within the system

It’s like not being able to see where your own subjective perspective stops and objective reality starts. We can’t do it because we exist inside our own perspective. On a larger scale, we can only get a superficial understanding of our culture unless we’re able to step outside of it. All the things we think are normal suddenly melt away when you go and live somewhere else … I’ve done this, and believe me, living off chip butties made with sliced white bread and oven chips doesn’t seem quite so “normal” when you’ve lived for a decade in Spain.

If you don’t get this right, if you don’t get that external perspective, you can cause “the most perplexing, paradoxical consequences” and the attempts to solve the problem end up compounding it.

It’s worth spending time here, and thrashing it out. Jumping to common-sense is dangerous at any time, but especially here. There’s a Julian Barnes quote (from A Sense of an Ending) I like:

[W]e make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure of reasoning to justify it. And call the result common sense

And another by a chap called Albert Einstein:

Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen

The authors argue that there are three ways we stuff up our handling of problems:

  1. We don’t act when we should
  2. We act when we shouldn’t
  3. We take the wrong action (the action is at the wrong level)

They come up with some fun language about this:

If a terrible simplificateur is someone who sees no problem where there is one, his philosophical antipode is the utopian who sees a solution where there is none

I love the phrase “philosophical antipode“. I have been trying (unsuccessfully) to use this in everyday conversation for a while now.

There’s an interesting application to learning and development here.

A lot of “attitude” breakthroughs don’t just require additional knowledge and skills, they require different mindsets. We can’t achieve this with “first-order” thinking, we need to step outside the system and change the rules.

I think this is an excellent way of looking at change or learning (although I don’t think it’s the only way).

If you’re not getting the desired responses by filling knowledge and skills gaps, it may be that people can only see from within their familiar first-order group and are only aware of first-order options (all of which they’ve tried before and don’t work!)

Instead we need to work out how to create the conditions for second-order change.

This is some seriously solid theoretical ground for us to operate on, and some insightful ways to improve our understanding of learning and change.

A key approach they advocate is to not focus on why a behaviour happens (why does Bob feel like an imposter in the leadership role, is it because of his Father ignored him etc.?) and focus instead on “what is being done here and now that serves to perpetuate the problem, and what can be done here and now to effect a change?

In other words, we act only on the behaviour, not the reasons or motivations driving that behaviour.

This is unusually pragmatic – arguably superficial – for the therapy business, but bang on the money for L&D and change management.

They talk through various types of paradox that we might get knotted up in, and focus mainly on variations of reframing as a way to try to force second-order thinking.

Reframing means changing the emphasis from one class membership of an object to another, equally valid class membership, or, especially introducing such a new class membership into the conceptualization of all concerned

… and, quoting Epictetus:

It is not the things themselves which trouble us, but the opinions we that we have about these things

This is powerful when done properly – and that’s the hard bit, especially when if you get it wrong it can sound trite (“Look on the bright side, it’s a learning opportunity” – I call these triteries), and it can be met with resistance, especially by what I call “heroic failures”

The “heroic failure” is someone who does the right things: they work hard and have good intentions, but are unable to succeed because of the inherent unfairness of the system (or some other immovable external obstacle they cannot control). They will not accept any frame that puts the control back in their hands.

The authors describe the “heroic failure” too (although they don’t use that term):

[Q]uite a few people seem to enter therapy not for the purpose of resolving a problem and being themselves changed in the process, but behave as if they wanted to defeat the expert and presumably “prove” thereby that the problem cannot be solved

We could easily swap the word “therapy” and “resolving a problem” for “learning”.

Their approach to reframing is complex. I’m not convinced all of their approaches are directly useful in L&D and change, but they make two key points that are valid foundations to all attempts at reframing.

First, reality isn’t a fixed thing, it’s what “a sufficiently large number of people have agreed to call real“, but we forget this and assume our “reality” (or frame) is a direct view onto objective reality. This means we’ll fail to question it, and might believe that people who see it differently are wrong, that they don’t understand, they’re missing the point etc. – in short, different frames look wrong.

Second, to reframe successfully, we need to understand the existing frame fully, understand the assumptions, opinions, expectations, reasons contained within the frame, and then use these in the individual’s own language to help build the new frame.

Even if people don’t buy into the reframed reality, the idea is that because we change the rules of the game (second-order change), the individual “now sees something different and can no longer naïvely go on playing

This is all very well, but still devoid of illustrative examples that bring it to life in our world of learning and change. The examples they use are therapy-based, but also feel a bit manipulative and silly. The use of praradoxes might make sense sometimes (e.g. tell the insomniac to stop trying to go to sleep, instead try to stay awake) because the solution is causing (or exacerbating) the problem, but in other times it feels like a clumsy manipulation.

An example that stuck with me was about schizophrenic patient seeking to live outside of the institution they were in, and the therapist, instead of common sense encouragement and advice on avoiding relapse, advises them to be cautious, to go slow, and because they’ll almost certainly have a relapse, they should try to provoke a relapse in order to crack on with it.

This technique meant that either of the two outcomes was a success: a relapse (well done, you provoked it, we knew it was coming, now we can deal with it), or no relapse (well done, you managed to control the situation and avoid relapse, you’re better than we thought!).

This was a moving example of reframing, and implementing a paradoxical solution, but hard to imagine its application in the workplace. We couldn’t advise someone with a fear of public speaking to provoke an anxiety attack or deliberately clam up, but perhaps we could consider a paradoxical intervention.

The frame that terrifies them is that they will lose credibility, that the audience is judging them, that they’ll spot any mistake and talk about them with their neighbour … all of which is probably true … but it’s also probably true that the audience is more interested in the content, and they want a competent, engaging speaker … they want the speaker to succeed, not to fail.

So, instead of hiding their fear, why not advertise it? Why not start the presentation with

Hi, my name’s John and I have a fear of public speaking

Make as big a thing of it as you can get away with.

Things to expect during this talk: my voice will rise to octaves not normally associated with male speakers, there will be an awkward silence as I go blank for no obvious reason, you might even spot an embarrassing shake in my voice from time to time … points will be awarded for spotting each …

… this will achieve two main things immediately, it will relax the speaker, and it will encourage the audience to be compassionate. It might even help the speaker enjoy the experience as their fear becomes part of the performance.

This action seems nonsensical when considered from the initial frame where the audience are viewed as judgemental critics, sneering at failure, but when viewed from the second frame, that the audience are compassionate colleagues that want you to succeed, the action seems less paradoxical.

The process to arrive at this kind of intervention is:

  1. Shared understanding of the problem (what happens now, what actions are taken, what impact do they have)
  2. What’s been tried so far (and are these compounding the problem)
  3. Create a shared understanding of the goal in clear concrete terms (here the facilitator needs to be cleverly reframing to encourage second-order change but hanging on to as much of the language of the participants as possible)
  4. Create a plan to get there (considering paradoxical non-common sense solutions)

This isn’t a ground-breaking process on the surface, it’s strength lies in the use of the first-order and second-order thinking; the awareness of the limitations and dangers of “common sense” and first-order solutions; acting on the “what” not the “why”; use of reframing techniques to encourage second-order understanding; and the use of seemingly nonsensical paradoxical techniques to make breakthroughs.

The authors argue that using paradoxical solutions, doing the opposite of what you might think is the logical solution, can be a way to break through into second-order change. I’m not convinced this is always directly applicable in workplace learning and change, but the thinking behind it is.

The schizophrenic case mentioned above is a good example. The problem was the patient wanted to live outside the care facility, but feared their ability to make it, and specifically feared relapse. The proposed solution reframed this so that relapse was seen as progress, an expected next step to the action. This allowed the patient to move forward and take control.

The most applicable aspects of this story for us are that the direct common sense approach was counter-productive, and that reframing was needed to move forward.

Similarly, another example used in the book was that of overbearing parents who took over the lives of their son and daughter-in-law on their regular and lengthy visits (to a house they’d chosen, paid for, and decorated). All attempts to fight their well-intentioned mollycoddling turned into a battle, the mother and daughter-in-law fighting over who was cooking dinner and how the house was organised, the father and son fighting at the checkout to be the one to pay the grocery bill! The reframing was about making the parents see that being great parents (this is how the parents saw their actions, this was their “frame”) was not to do everything, decide everything and pay for everything, but to encourage independence.

Instead of fighting for every tidbit of independence and failing, they turned into slothful teenagers who expected – demanded – everything be done by the parents. They soon tired of this and realised that the couple needed a good talking to and needed to develop their independence.

The action of moving from fighting each battle to the paradoxical action of giving in completely (maximum dependence when they wanted maximum independence) forced the parents to reframe what it meant to be a great parent.

This was achieved as in my public speaking example above: instead of framing the audience as the provider of pressure and anxiety, they were reframed as providers of support.

We have to be careful not to paradoxify for the sake of it.

A nervous leader suffering from “imposter syndrome” might be able to get away with saying something like that once, but people would soon tire of it and demand clear confident leadership … so finding just the right new frame is the key step in the above process … and this won’t be the first one you find probably, it won’t be the obvious one.

I think the main way we can use these ideas in L&D and change management is:

  • Not to resort to common sense triteries
  • Take time to understand “problems” fully, understand what’s going on within that “frame” (and understand it’s a frame, not reality)
  • Work to create a new frame that explains the goal in concrete detail
  • Consider actions that can be taken to help get there – and think creatively, is there space for a paradoxial approach – not for the sake of it, but because it forces second-order thinking.

It could be dangerous if we sling these ideas about willy-nilly, I think we have to be careful – the ideas are about using therapy to solve problems, so the application for L&D and change is around trying to achieve second-order breakthroughs.

I like books to sound like they’re based on something real, not like something someone thought up on the bus on the way to work (I can’t be doing with those books that read like breathless blog posts), and this does – it’s wordy and academic, but not inaccessible.

This means it’s a lot of words discussing a fairly narrow technique in a lot of depth and so it won’t be for everyone …  it’s for the change and learning geeks who like to wallow in theory – so for me basically.



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