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Change- principles of problem formation and problem resolution- Book Review

1 June 2006

Dr. Moria Levy

In 1979, Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fish published their classic book "Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution." Despite its seemingly peculiar title, the book goes beyond a mere name, exploring essential change methods. This article will review the authors' main change methods and analyze how these principles contribute to knowledge management.

Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fish are practitioners at the Institute for Mental Health's Rapid Care Center specializing in psychiatry therapy and research, marriage and family counseling, and psychiatry, respectively. However, the applications of their book extend far beyond psychotherapy, encompassing interpersonal relationships, organizational dynamics, and even international relations.


The methodology proposed in the book is grounded in two mathematical realms – set theory and logical type theory, which can be likened to the East and West of psychotherapy. The authors draw several features from these worlds to develop their approach.


Three essential qualities, familiar even to non-mathematicians, form the foundation of their methodology:

  1. Identity Organ: This element, analogous to the identity zero in mathematics, does not alter group members when acting upon them. The world of perseverance and change reveals instances where actions are taken with the hope of change and improvement. Yet, the situation remains unchanged – a concept colloquially described as "Full gas in neutral."

  2. Inverse Members: For every member of a group, there exists an inverse member. In the example given, the inverse of 3 is -3, and the inverse of 9 is -9. This concept holds significance in perseverance and change – adding the inverse to a number returns it to its initial state. Despite the energy invested and actions taken, one might return to the starting point after what seemed like progress.


By understanding and applying these principles, individuals can navigate the complexities of change, acknowledging that actions might only sometimes lead to the intended transformation and recognizing the importance of considering inverse elements in pursuing genuine progress.


Drawing on these concepts, the authors advocate exploring second-degree changes. These changes, referred to as "meta-changes" in a professional context, involve a profound shift in the frame of reference rather than a direct approach to the problem or situation. An illustrative example of a second-degree change is found in a well-known puzzle: connecting nine points (arranged in three by three squares) with four straight lines without lifting the pencil off the paper. A conventional, "regular solution" proves insufficient, necessitating a different perspective that extends beyond the imaginary boundaries of the square – a second-degree solution.


Another example featured in the book revolves around a girl crying during her initial days in kindergarten. Traditional attempts by the mother and kindergarten teacher to address the issue, employing "normal" methods such as allowing time for adjustment, prove ineffective. The accidental introduction of a second-degree solution – the mother's absence and the father's arrival at kindergarten – resolves the problem, leading to the child's adaptation and a self-correction of the system even upon the mother's return.


Examining second-degree changes reveals critical insights:

  • Second-degree changes often target aspects that, from a first-degree change perspective, seem like solutions rather than the original problems.

  • Second-degree changes may appear "strange" and less straightforward than first-degree changes that align with common sense.

  • Techniques for second-degree problem-solving frequently focus on the outcome and solution rather than the root cause, emphasizing "what" over "why."

  • As explained earlier, the application of second-rate techniques helps extricate situations from paradoxes induced by constant change, which stems from the use of identity and inverse elements.


After comprehending these changes, it is essential to elucidate how to bring about these positive transformations. The procedural steps are defined as follows:

  1. Clear Definition of the Problem: Define the problem practically, avoiding vague statements such as "I am not happy." A precise problem definition is crucial for effective solutions.

  2. Testing Previous Solutions: Evaluate the effectiveness of previously attempted solutions. If these efforts have proven ineffective, it is evident that repeating the same approaches will yield little success.

  3. Clear Definition of Desired Change: Clearly articulate the practical change you aim to achieve. Align expectations on what constitutes "success" to ensure a shared understanding.

  4. Drafting and Executing a Practical Plan: Develop and implement a practical plan that addresses the "what" and focuses on the solution rather than delving into the "why" of the problem. The book provides examples and implementation guidelines. Those interested in a detailed adoption of this method are encouraged to consult the original text.


Two important footnotes:

  • Buddhist Influence: The authors derived inspiration for their proposed action plan from the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Despite their complexity, these sources offer valuable and applicable insights.

  • Cautionary Note: It's crucial not to rush into second-degree changes until first-degree changes have been thoroughly explored and proven ineffective. Conversely, second-degree changes might not universally resolve all problems; sometimes, understanding the "why" is crucial. However, if conventional approaches still need to catch up, exploring second-degree changes is worth attempting. The authors' experience indicates a success rate of over 50%.


Consequently, it contributes to the realm of knowledge management; the book enhances knowledge management methodologies on three distinct levels:

  1. Understanding Terminology:

    a. Clarification of terms such as first-degree change and second-degree change proves invaluable for defining and comprehending applied methodologies across knowledge management disciplines.

    b. Differentiating between the focus on the "why" and the emphasis on the "what" is crucial. While concluding often involves addressing the "why," it is advisable to integrate methods dealing with both aspects. For instance, combining "why" methods like debriefing with "what" methods such as lessons learned enhances overall understanding.

  2. Navigating Logical Methods and Paradoxes:

    a. The book illuminates the paradox of persistence and change, elucidating the apparent contradiction in which logical methods may be implemented "according to common sense" yet fail to progress. Acknowledging this paradox is crucial in the context of knowledge management.

  3. Guidance on Recommended Solutions:

    a. Understanding the direction of recommended solutions is vital when managing change that simultaneously encounters challenges of persistence and change. Strategies include:

    b. Negating previously implemented solutions rather than adding to them.

    c. Seeking out-of-framework solutions, considered second-rate.

    d. The appropriateness of the proposed treatment method is examined, following the approach presented by Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fish, as detailed earlier.


In times of change management challenges within knowledge management, consider the teachings of Watzlawick, embrace mathematical insights, and contemplate second-degree change. Success might just emanate from this perspective.

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