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Change versus Transformation

There’s always alot of talk about change - World change, organisational change, personal change.

Why is it that some changes that we make will last, whilst others don’t? And why do some people find change difficult or painful, whilst others embrace it?

In the world of psychology, there are two types of change that shed some light on these questions.

1. First-order change

The definition of 1st order change is when ‘adjustments are made within an existing structure’.
For example, you change a behaviour (such as smoking or doing more exercise) but your fundamental beliefs or ways of seeing the world remain the same.

With this type of change, you are playing within the rules of the game – either your rules or someone else’s.

New learning is not necessarily required in order to make the change.  You can use your existing understanding or skills to make the change.  The old story continues to be told (whether it’s a personal story or an organisational story).

For example; “I’m too young to be taken seriously but i’ll keep trying and perhaps something will change”
or “People don’t like change. We have to make it easy for people and then they are likely to go along with it”

This type of change is reversible – you can make a change but you can also go back to how it was before and the reason for this is because the change tends to be superficial or behavioural. Nothing has changed at the most fundamental level – the level of your thinking.

2. Second-order change

With 2nd order change, the existing structure, model or modus operandi is challenged and disrupted.

For example, your behaviour changes because your thinking has shifted. Your world view has been shaken up and altered in some fundamental way. Behaviour therefore changes in line with a new world view.

2nd order change requires a completely new way of seeing things.  Rather than playing within the current rules, the rules of the game are changed.

This kind of change is irreversible. Once the change has happened, we can’t go back to ‘how it was before’ just like a butterfly can’t go back to being a caterpillar.

This is true transformation. A new story is born that replaces the old story. The old story no longer makes any sense.

For example, in ancient Europe, bloodletting was perceived as the best way to cure disease or illness. It was a common medical belief and this story was told for 2000 years.

When it was later discovered that bloodletting was causing more harm and disease (quelle surprise!), a new story  and a new understanding was born. People’s fundamental beliefs about disease and health were challenged and as a result, their approach to curing disease was transformed.
And it would never go back to how it was before.

Labotomies were pretty popular too, until they realised that removing brain parts was not the answer to mental health issues.  I could give countless examples but you probably get the idea.

So what does this mean for you and your life?

Well if there are important changes that you want to make that last through time, you can either work within the existing boundaries, structure or rules or you can challenge those boundaries, structures and rules.

All of the rules, constraints, boundaries and structures have been made up by us or other people. They are not gospel. They are not truth. They are just ideas. They are simply thoughts that are shared, adopted, passed on….

They exist to be challenged, reviewed, questioned, re-defined or transformed into something new.

Chantal Burns ScreenshotChantal Burns

Executive Coach, Speaker and Bestselling Author of

'INSTANT MOTIVATION: The Surprising Truth Behind What Really Drives Top Performance'

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