Donald Schon: Beyond the Stable State (1971)

Philippe Vandenbroeck
5 min readDec 22, 2019

A Systems Library, Vol. 6

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

This book, published in 1971, is so amazingly pertinent in addressing the challenges for learning organisations! Meanwhile the need for deep societal and geopolitical change has only been growing. One wonders what we have been doing over these last fifty years.

Schon sees ‘the stable state’ as a deep individual and collective need for comprehensibility and control in life. But the problem is that the dynamics of the world around us and this desire for a fixed identity are increasingly at odds. Schon’s leading questions, therefore, are: How to maintain self-identity and self-respect in the process of change? How to invent and develop institutions that are learning systems? In short: How to learn about learning?

Schon takes his cue from the evolution of the ‘business firm’, an institution that had demonstrated the ability to reinvent itself ‘without coming apart at the seams’. In his outline of businesses’ evolutionary path from the ‘classic firm’ — centered around one product or production technology — to the ‘business system firm’, Schon anticipates ideas that were embraced only decades later by strategic management, systemic design and network governance theorists.

The organisational logic of the business system firm — marshalling sets of interacting product and service units — creates the potential for ‘whole system’ innovation. Not because it casts a wider net of managerial control, but 1) because the firm defines itself as responding to a higher-level societal need, and 2) because it anchors an ecosystem for social learning “in which sequences of deliberate entrepreneurial intervention interact with unanticipated and inadvertent processes”.

The longest chapter in this book is devoted to the subject of ‘government as a learning system’. Schon deplores that government has been dreadfully inept at the process of public learning. “In spite of the language of experimentation, government-initiated learning tends to be confined to efforts to induce localities to behave in conformity with central policy.” Sadly, that still seems to be the case today.

One of the key reasons for this inertia is that administrations are taken problems at face value. They don’t reflect on where a given problem statement comes from. For Schon, a problem definition is always the contingent result of many forces. They come to awareness, they diffuse, gain power and are legitimized. After a while they lose relevancy again. Schon refers to an accepted problem definition as ‘an idea in good currency’. A learning system must transform its ideas in good currency at a rate commensurate with its own changing situation. One of the principal criteria for effective learning systems is the ability to have ideas in good currency reflect present problems. In reality, governments are locked into issues that have grown obsolete, or they are induced to move on to the next issue while the old ones remain urgent and unresolved.

So how can government become a learning system? Schon submits that both the organisational structure of government and its theory of policy implementation must change. Rather than to operate from the assumption that things can be solved at the center, government ought to leverage the potential for learning at the periphery. Central’s role is then to detect significant shifts at the periphery, to pay explicit attention to the emergence of ideas in good currency, and to derive themes of policy by induction. As a result, the movement of learning is as much from periphery to periphery, or from periphery to center, as from center to periphery.

Schon then returns to the ideas around ‘functional systems’ designed to meet key societal needs (say, enhancing community resilience, or increasing quality of life in urban areas, or improving geriatric care). The business system firm is one strategy to put this into practice. All elements of the system are then assembled within an organisational perimeter and subjected to central coaching and management. However, the functional units can also be semi-autonomous and jointly seek to create conditions for concerted action. Technologies and logics of network management and design gain pivotal importance then.

However, Schon’s main interest here lies not with the managerial but with the ethical dimension of working in distributed networks for whole system change. First, he stresses the importance of network roles — the broker, the muckraker, the underground manager — and the willingness of people assuming those roles to accept personal risk and to work from the margins.

Organisations that operate in this mode will have to embrace change rather than stability as a foreground condition. Very perceptively Schon concludes that there must be a shift upward in the level at which the organisation provides security and identity for its members.

In the final chapter, Schon unfolds an ethic of learning, ‘beyond the stable state’, in absence of a rational model of problem solving. He labels this disposition as ‘existentialism’.

Existentialism acknowledges that situations of public action contain more information than we can handle and are inherently unstable (a strong echo of Herbert Simon’s ‘bounded rationality’). Diagnosis comes about through intervention. Each form of resolution requires some commitment to action in an uncertain situation before the formulation of a clear picture of the nature of the problem. It is only on a non-rational basis that one can make the leap from the virtually infinite set of solution elements to some finite set (Simon would disagree with these conclusions, however).

Schon concludes with what is a professional manifesto of astonishing relevance and perspicacity:

There must a knowing and learning agent who maintains continuity over the learning process.

The learning agent must be willing and able to make the leaps required in existential knowledge.

The learning agent must be able to synthesize theory, to formulate new projective models out of her experience of the situation, while he is in the situation.

In carrying projective models to the next instance, the learning agent must be able to maintain her projective model as a basis for action while at the same time regarding it as a point of view on the situation. The paradoxical combination of tentativeness and resolution is the characteristic mode of existence of the projective model.

The learning agent must be able to confront multiple, conflicting perspectives.

He must be able to work in the interpersonal ‘here-and-now’.

The learning agent must be willing and able to use himself as an informational instrument within the learning situation. His own abilities to listen rather than to assert, to confront and tolerate the anxieties of confrontation, to suspend commitment until the last moment all condition her ability to draw information from the situation while it is in process.

“The ’musts’ in all these statements reflect what is in fact an ethic for existential knowing. It is the function of such an ethic both to reflect and to build the strength of the self in its confrontation with the uncertainties inherent in public learning.”

A book to be cherished.

Check out my other Medium stories for more reviews of classic systems thinking books. Follow me on Goodreads to find out what other stuff I’m reading.



Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?