The end of stable states

I’ve been reading Donald Schön and I find his idea of the end of ‘the stable state’1 provocative. He is writing in the context of state as government. But I am reading it to also encompass government of the self. He argues for the need that governments acquire new behaviours to enable it to act as learning systems – learning for society as a whole. But to do this it must:

discard the structure and mechanisms grown up around old problems.

My guess it that on the level of governments it won’t be hard to find examples of this not happening, which is why old problems and behaviours persist. But how can these ideas be applied to how we ‘govern’ our internal states? We can’t take on the challenge of new problems if we don’t clear out, or transform, old structures – structures that can be ‘particularly cumbersome’ to change.2 New learning needs to be accompanied by new unlearning – Schön writes that we need to design processes through which:

new problems can continually be confronted and old structures continually discarded.

Peter Senge 3 also writes about structure:

Structure produces behaviour, and changing underlying structures can produce different patterns of behaviour.

Like Schön, Senge writes from an organisational perspective, but what if we consider the external structures that we create as somehow a reflection of structures within us. Senge continues that:

redesigning our own decision making redesigns the system structure.

But does it not also bring about the redesign of ourselves?

I’ve grappled with similar ideas in Relearn to unlearn to learn again – how do we unlearn? Schön hints at an answer by writing that we need to design:

systems capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation.

Schön’s focus is on institutions; I find his ideas useful when seen in the context of the individual, family, group, and society as a whole.

What I take from Schön is that walking out of a situation may not do you much good – the only way out, is to learn your way out.


  1. Donald Schön (1973). Beyound the stable state. The Norton Library, W.W. Norton & Company INC, New York. 

  2. Is psychoanalysis an attempt to clear out old structures that are cumbersome? 

  3. Peter M. Senge (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation. Currency.