Setting the Stage for Transformational Change

By Paul R. Scheele Ph.D. | Lead

In the previous posts of this series you have come to understand the definitions, importance, and processes that facilitate transformational change. In this post we explore how to create the ideal environment within an organization in which transformation can occur.

In Presence (Senge, Scharmer et al.) and later in Theory U (Scharmer), the authors attempted to go beyond contemporary theories of change, which in their estimation are too narrow or too broad. Because they recognized that society needs changes that are both personal and systemic, they looked at the deeper dimensions of transformational change, dimensions they argued that have been left largely unexplored in management research and leadership studies in general.

A major premise of Senge and Scharmer and their colleagues is that humanity cannot resolve today’s complex problems by applying historical solutions or ways of knowing. Present mental models, attention, intentions, and behaviors arise from a “blind spot”—an invisible dimension of the social field, “the inner place or source from which a person or a system operates” (Scharmer, 2007, p. 22). Consequently, people must learn to look into what they cannot readily see and learn from the future as it is becoming the present. Only then can they connect with the sources of the social process from which all social action comes into being, and learn and act from the future as it emerges.

Mezirow explained the concept of blind spots and their importance to adult development in different terms:

The idea that uncritically assimilated habits of expectation or meaning perspectives serve as schemes and as perceptual and interpretive codes in the construal of meaning constitutes the central dynamic and fundamental postulate of a constructivist transformation theory of adult learning. These meaning schemes and meaning perspectives constitute our “boundary structures” for perceiving and comprehending new data. (1991, p. 4)

How can leaders and educators help people look into their blind spots? How can they foster individual and organizational transformation? The literature on transforming mental models points to an intriguingly simple direction: facilitating dialogue and the critical reflective discourse it promotes. K. Taylor et al. pointed out that a central tenet of constructivist-developmental theory holds discourse as “crucial to the alteration of perspectives that is learning; and that such transformed perspectives are developmental in the lives of adults” (2000, p. 22). In other words, dialogue may hold the power to encourage change at the deepest level of human interaction, the mental model.

Change here isn’t easy. The tendency to hold on to mental models comes from a variety of habits of mind, including objectification, independence, literalness, rigidity, and violence (Isaacs). When authoritarian leaders try to change others through discussion, these habits tend to emerge as feelings of coercion and manipulation . . . with negative consequences. In fact, the word discussion shares the Latin root quatere (“to shake or break apart”) with percussion and concussion. The alternative to discussion, coercion, or manipulation is dialogue—one of the keys to transformative learning (K. Taylor).

According to Isaacs, dialogue impacts two of the most recalcitrant habits of mind, polarization and immunity to changes in self-image:

What makes dialogue . . . unique is its underlying premise: that human beings operate most often within shared, living fields of assumptions and constructed embodied meaning, and that these fields tend to be unstable, fragmented, and incoherent. As people learn to perceive, inquire into, and allow transformation of the nature and shape of these fields, and the patterns of individual thinking and acting that inform them, they may discover entirely new levels of insight and forge substantive and, at times, dramatic changes in behavior. As this happens, whole new possibilities for coordinated action develop. (1993, p. 25)

Holman argued that every person has the power to create the world he or she wants to live in. What’s needed to cope effectively with the chaos that emerges during times of change is “conscious self-organization” into a “partnership society” (1999, pp. 337-338). According to Holman, a partnership society has three primary characteristics:

  • A positive change core or deeply felt purpose provides direction and connects the community.
  • People act from passion and responsibility.
  • Reflection and inquiry flow and ultimately emerge as action. (p. 338)

The activities needed to produce this type of idealistic self-organizing system include appreciative inquiry, open-space technology, and dialogue—“interventions” that are well documented and clearly accessible to any change agent.

What is needed—by individuals and social systems—is nothing short of transformational change. Transformative learning is a likely route to transformational change. Scholars and practitioners insist that leaders within social systems can act as change agents, facilitating transformational change by promoting dialogue across complex adaptive systems. And clearly dialogue can help individuals confront their built-in immunity to change, and expose and challenge the assumptions held in societal blind spots.

If you need more assistance in developing effective dialogue across boundaries within your organization, give us a call at Scheele Learning Systems to explore how that can happen. If you already have what you need to get started, wonderful. In our next post we will dive deeper into the process of transformational change.


Holman, P. (1999). Peggy Holman’s vision of the future. In P. Holman & T. Devane (Eds.), The change handbook: Group methods for shaping the future (pp. 335-343). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Isaacs, W. N. (1993). Taking flight: Dialogue, collective thinking, and organizational learning. Organizational Dynamics, 22(2), 24-39.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Scharmer, C. O. (2007). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges: The social technology of presencing. Cambridge, MA: SoL.

Senge, P. M., Scharmer, C. O., Jaworski, J., & Flowers, B. S. (2004). Presence: Human purpose and the field of the future. Cambridge, MA: SoL.

Taylor, K. (2000). Teaching with developmental intention. In J. Mezirow & Associates (Eds.), Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. 151-180). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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