Volume 9 Number 2 1996

Paths of Change, W. McWhinney, Sage, 1992, 273 pages, 28 hardback.

Change management and Weltanschauung.

We seem to desire stability and consider change inconvenient, or even as a threat. Attitudes to change and people's intellectual and emotional ability to cope with it, can be traced to the spiritual roots of civilizations (Hofstede 1991). In comparison with the Chinese civilization there seems to be a gap in the intellectual equipment of our western civilization. The Chinese have their dynamic philosophy or religion of Taoism (Lao Tzu 1961) and their intellectual technology of change in the I Ching (Douglas 1971). Western managers and management consultants used both (Cheng 1988. Heider 1985).

Our Judeo-Christian heritage has provided us with a dynamic religious concept of history moving towards salvation. Our idea of God's relation to man involves the concept of covenant and human rationality and dignity (Zeitlin 1984). The message of Jesus is that of spiritual freedom and service to the poor. These have been potentially revolutionary concepts. Our Greek roots have given us the experience of two dynamic institutions, the market and democracy, and of two dynamic ideas of scientific enquiry and rational critical philosophy. But apart from an early isolated attempt of Heracleitos (and a few paragraphs in Aristotle) our civilization has not developed a theory of change or an intellectual technology of change management; moreover, our inherited Greek ideal of harmonious beauty may have stimulated our preference for equilibrium and stability. The explosive nature of this mix may offer some explanation (at the intellectual level) of our violent history and expansionism (the latter being a release of internal tension).

In this century, technological dynamism has turned change management into a precious skill - a source of competitive advantage in the marketplace and a wealth of experience of social change (mis)management has been accumulated. Operational research has been in the forefront in its theoretical utilization. From the failures and disappointments with systems analysis, soft systems thinking has developed. Peter Checkland's methodology (Checkland 1981, Checkland and Scholes 1990) introduced the concept of a human activity system as a model of 'soft' changing reality, where subjective Weltanschauungen colour and bias the very concepts which are the building material of the system and, in turn, make up the language in which the system can be investigated; hence, the reality as well as the tools analysis becomes problematic. The sources of change and conflict are inherent in the system and our approach to it.

McWhinney's Paths of Change is another step in the breakthrough started by Peter Checkland. It presents a theory of social change which is the most comprehensive and profound of the action orientated theories available at present. But it is a complex theory and its comprehension requires effort. This article will review the chain of the arguments and, hopefully, introduce potential readers to it.

Plurality of worldviews.

At the level of theory, McWhinney's starting point in chapter one is the plurality of worldviews (Weltanschauungen), ie. of different understandings of reality that are held by people in Western cultures. McWhinney refers to the work of Lawrence LeShan on psychological biographies of leaders, scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs in Western societies. LeShan observed that these individuals displayed widely different behavioural patterns, among which he recognised four different archetypal systems of behaviour. In turn, he postulated a close link between a system of behaviour and a system of beliefs about reality, and distinguished four archetypal worldviews, four visions of reality. (Four sociological paradigms by Burrell and Morgan 1978, are mentioned in this context). McWhinney speaks about different realities constructed by us in our minds (cf., Berger and Luckmann 1967, and also Checkland and Scholes 1990). They are systems of implicit and explicit assumptions about what is real and what reality is like.

At the level of practical, organizational and social life, people try to resolve pressing human 'issues'. They select, see, and interpret the issues differently, and design different programmes and, in turn, try to implement changes, being informed by different worldviews. Conflict arises out of the clash of these incongruous attempts and programmes; hence, conflict is considered as primary, self-generating, self-feeding, since it is implied in our human means of coping with our social and natural environment and in the pluralism of 'realities' within our minds.

In his theory McWhinney describes and analyses different paths or strategies of organizational and social change with the help of the four realities. He tries to provide a meta-theory (meta-praxis) which explains and guides the choice of an effective strategy of issue resolution and social change. It is a contingency theory where the contingencies are specified in terms of characteristics of the 'realities', as revealed in cultural (external and internal) environment.

The four 'realities'.

To understand McWhinney's theory it is necessary to be clear about the status of the 'four realities'. In the author's words they:

I believe that for clarity's sake it is useful to distinguish between the four archetypes and a particular system of belief and behaviour that is characteristic of a particular person. The former are constructs, ideal types. The latter is a point or region in the continuum delimited by the four archetypes, a combination of their features. As McWhinney observes, people live in several worlds trying to merge and harmonize their different modes of operation or just ignoring the discrepancies. People move from one reality to another when designing and implementing change, or just in order to cope with it; also, one needs to appreciate that people take their worldview for granted and hold it as unproblematic and exclusive. The four realities are as follows:

The sensory reality: this is the reality in terms of which people of our civilization have mostly been thinking until relatively recently, and which most of us, still by necessity, inhabit at least for a part of our day. It is the world of natural objects and traditional artifacts and technologies, as reflected in common-sense language and pre-twentieth century 'hard' natural science. It is an objective, deterministic world of separate things ruled by the natural law of causality.

The social reality: this is the reality of feelings, attitudes and values of people. Today is a realitivistic tolerant social world without absolutes, where different values, moral codes and views are accepted. This world is constructed through interactions among people but individual differences remain and, hence, the ambiguity of what is 'real' remains.

The unitary reality: this is the reality of only relatively separated abstract concepts and principles, which are all parts af a single whole, and subject to a single all-embracing order. Mathematics, logic, and some philosophical and religious systems are examples of such worlds. A bureaucratic system or formal organization are other examples. Any attempt to describe such worlds involves us in a paradox because it assumes stepping outside it and hence, breaking its constituting principle of unity. We will return to this point below.

The mythic reality: this reality is most difficult to describe. Our language has grown primarily as a tool of survival in the material world, as a medium of sensory reality. To describe the mythic reality of meanings, language must be stretched and used in a symbolic manner. Examples of this reality include a world of meanings created by a strong charismatic leader or can be a universe of meaningful images created by an artist (Tolkien's creation). But the nearest realization of this archetype is the world of Hindu mysticism in which all beings are united in one supreme soul of the universe.

The scheme behind these four archetypes is a typical combination of two binary variables (p.25):

  1. Degree of differentiation among the elements of reality, with two poles of monism and pluralism. This dimension can be interpreted also with respect to change: does the change move things towards being more alike or more different?
  2. The source of change: is the change a part of external natural conditions (an assumption of determinism) or is it produced by a free agent as an act of volition?

A combination of these two pairs of alternatives produces the following matrix:


Degree of Differentiation
Monism Pluralism

The important point to understand is that "no person or group operates entirely out of a single (archetypal) view of reality". Europeans in the past lived in the sensory world complemented by the unitary world of religion. It is a "mark of a healthy and mature person, culture, or society" to be able effectively to combine archetypes (p. 29).

The four realities, their combination and switching from one to another are the building blocks from which McWhinney constructs his theory, models and paths of change.

A theory of change.

Further concepts are introduced in chapter two. In dealing with organizational and social conflicts, it is useful to distinguish between 'problems' and 'issues' ('tame' and 'wicked' problems in an earlier terminology of Rittel and Weber 1973, and 'problems' and 'messes' in that of Ackoff 1979). Problems are recurrent, reasonably well structured, and their resolution is subject to stable rules. An issue is an ill-defined, unbounded, unique complex of problems. Characteristically, the organizational and social world cannot be successfully approached in the problem-solving mode: it presents us with messes, issues. Trying to solve isolated problems generates unwanted, often unforeseen, consequences and further problems. To resolve an issue means to free the organization or society from the frustration of previous unsuccessful attempts to solve isolated problems. McWhinney aims at creating a 'meta-praxis' (methodology) of issue resolution based on the tradition of the school of organizational transformation.

In the space of 'realities' three orders (degrees) of change are distinguished, following Bateson's (1972) orders of learning:

  1. Pattern-forming, habit-forming change which does not involve a change in the underlying 'reality'
  2. Creation, restructuring, class-forming and naming, which use one reality to modify representations in another 'reality'; for example, a business leader embodies his/her vision (mythic reality) through (in terms of) the other three realities. The realities themselves are products of this second-order change.
  3. Creating a 'meta-praxis', a space in which to choose the 'realities' required for resolving conflicts; 'learning to work from spaces beyond our habitual bondage'.

The second-order change can occur in two directions:

  1. Conventionalising, when a thing or event is placed within a conceptual framework: the organizing or symbolizing act forms a convention.
  2. Differentiating, when an element is separated: the organizing or symbolizing act forms a difference.

Chapter three introduces six modes of change defined in terms of combinations of pairs of realities involved. The six modes are classes of tools or methods used to achieve a change or solution in four characteristic situations, modelled as games on four boards. A game on board one is played with fixed rules, such as in chess. Its mode of resolution is analytic: it involves the sensory 'reality', where the game is played and the unitary 'reality' within which the rules are defined. A game on board two is about setting the rules, as in politics. An 'influential' mode of resolution may be used. It involves the unitary and social realities: feelings, attitudes and values are ordered according to a unitary system of authority. Alternatively, an 'imperative' mode is applied combining the mythic and unitary 'realities'. The board three game is that of ethics where purpose is set and values assigned in a 'participatory' mode (involving social and sensory 'realities'). A game on board four is that of leadership where meaning is created. The mode of change involves the mythic 'reality' in combination with the social ('emergent') mode or with the sensory ('inventive') mode.

The key concept of a 'path' has already been introduced earlier in chapter two as a 'progression in the use of worldviews ('realities') and their logics in the pursuit of a resolution of a conflict or change' (p. 56). Faced with a mess, an issue, people are seldom 'conscious of any alternative paths to resolution. Paths are taken by accident, habit, or ideology' (p. 115). Probably the value of such tools as I Ching lies in alerting us to the plurality of choice. In chapter four, alternative paths are explored. They are based on the concepts of alternative 'realities' and the problem-solving processes introduced in earlier chapters, as well as the roles of myths and stories in finding the paths of change. In the discussion, two languages are combined, that of the analytical social sciences and that of myth and story. The view that 'a strategy (i.e. path) is a conscious formulation of a myth that can be acted upon' (p. 16) is approvingly quoted and documented with examples (Interlude IV).

Two great paths of issue resolution are described:

'Revitalization' is basically a top-down strategy which 'grows from a set of principles that form a political philosophy, a religious dogma, a humanistic vision' (p. 127), located in the unitary 'reality'. Its aim of implementing the vision is pursued through the progression of stages leading from the unitary to, in turn, mythic, social, and sensory 'realities'. On the way, four modes of change are employed in turn: analytic, imperative, emergent, and participative. Two examples of revitalization are the American revolution and, at the micro level, cases of organizational transformation guided by the vision of 'excellence'. 'Renaissance' is a path of death and rebirth (p. 133), again proceeding through all four 'realities' and the same four modes of change, but in a reversed order. It starts with a loss of direction, an ideological vacuum being realized in a participative mode, and proceeds to a search for new meaning in an emergent mode. The leadership takes up the new values and guides the organization (or social system) in the creation of a new corresponding organization and culture. McWhinney gives as examples the paths embarked upon by Chrysler and the recent revolutions and contemporary transformation in Eastern Europe (though the latter case would be interpreted differently by some and the actual strategy of transformation taken in Central Eastern Europe has many features of revitalization).

In chapter five the contingent side of the meta-praxis is dealt with. 'Hard' management science and systems analysis deals with economic conditions, technology, and legal and political constraints; however, McWhinney's meta praxis investigates the mental 'realities' as the key to the choice of a suitable path. Their three aspects, that of leadership style, worldviews of the followers, and culture are considered.

At several places in the book, the reader has been alerted to the alogical or paradoxical features of change and the journey through different 'realities'. The final chapter six discusses important moral problems usually left out in managerial literature, in particular those of guidance and commitment, conviction and courage necessary to take up, follow and complete the journey. The author suggests that shared myth and stories provide the important ingredients. An important concept of a 'storied space' is introduced: it is 'a space protected from secular threats, similar to what we experience in "retreats", on crusades, in fantasies and on occasions of storytelling'. The required 'courage comes from knowing stories of success, mythic or real, that allow us to operate in unfamiliar realities. .. The great epics and histories provide guidance for deeper resolution. .. Tales that describe the past as histories aid in setting direction and values. .. The summary proposition is that issues can only be resolved in storied contexts.' (p. 230).

The place of meta-praxis.

Paths of Change deals with important aspects of conflict and organizational and social change in an original and penetrating manner. The message may gain acceptance by those trained in the tradition of the organizational transformation school. But analysts coming from a different intellectual background used to dealing with 'hard' aspects of organizational, social and economic life, could accept the theory as a complement to their traditional concerns; for example, I can envisage that Checkland's soft systems analysis may be used as an overall framework by incorporating the 'meta-praxis' into the 'stream of cultural analysis' (Checkland and Scholes 1990).

Micro or macro, oganization or society?

The two levels, micro or macro, of analysis and meta-praxis application must finally part at this point. The owner(s) of an organization is/are in a position which entitles them to try to create a storied space of shared myth in the organization. A distinguishing mark of business leaders has been the ability to do so, while the contact with wider social values under guaranteed basic civil liberties protect the employees from excessive manipulation.

Great politicians also influence the storied space and use myths to mobilize support; however, the reader of Paths of Change should have been warned that this theme of the book intersects highly problematic and controversial areas of political philosophy and sociology. An approach suitable at a micro-level cannot be extended to a macro-level without further discussion.

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Bateson, G.: Steps to an Ecology of the Mind, Ballantine 1972.
Berger, P.L. and Luckmann, T.: The Social Construction of Reality, Penguin 1967.
Burrell, G. and Morgan, G.: Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis, Heinemann 1978.
Checkland, P.: Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, Wiley 1981.
Checkland, P. and Scholes, J.: Soft Systems Methodology in Action, Wiley 1990.
Cheng Yi: I Ching: The Tao of Organization (translated by T. Cleary), Shambhala 1988. Douglas, A.: The Oracle of Change, Penguin 1971.
Heider, J.: The Tao of Leadership, Wildwood House 1985.
Hofstede, G.: Cultures and Organizations, McGraw-Hill 1991.
Lao Tzu: Tao te Ching (translated by Dr John C H Wu), St. Jonn's University Press 1961. LeShan, L.: Alternative Realities, Ballantine 1976.
Rittel, H.W.J. and Weber, M.M.: 'Dilemmas in a general theory of planning', Policy Sci., 4, 1973: pp155 - 169.
Zeitlin. M.: Ancient Judaism, Polity 1984.

Ludek Rychetnik
University of Reading

Copyright Ludek Rychetnik 1996

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