It’s Only A Model

We use models to help us simplify the situations we’re viewing, so we can reason about them more easily.  I’ve often found this to be enormously helpful.  It’s important, though, to remember that this is only a model.  We can use a model for understanding, and even for making predictions.

We cannot substitute the model for the thing that it is modeling, though.  The map is not the territory.  When we use a model in contexts where it doesn’t apply, it’s likely to lead us astray.  Similarly, when we mistake an illustration of the model for the model itself, we may make inferences that the model doesn’t support.

For example, a couple of my friends have recently tweeted complaints about the Satir Change Model in response to such misuses.  I find the Virginia Satir’s model extremely useful, and would like to disassociate it from these misuses.

Bas Vodde said,

“I come to dislike the Satir change curve, it seems to include the assumption that every change is good.”

In what approximates discussion on Twitter, it seems that the root of his problem is that diagrams illustrating the Satir Change Model commonly show a new status quo with “higher performance” than the old status quo.  Such an illustration makes sense if you’re talking about trying to introduce a change to an organization.  Few people introduce change intended to decrease performance.

If the Foreign Element is, instead of a new business process, the loss of an arm, you might well expect a person’s performance to go through the same plummeting chaos before they find a Transforming Idea that allows them to reach a New Status Quo.  You might also expect that the performance level of the New Status Quo will be less than that of the Old Status Quo.  There are things you can do with two arms that you can’t do with one.  And it’s unlikely that someone would choose losing an arm as a strategy to increase performance.  Bas is right that not all change is good–even when it’s well-intentioned.

There’s also the question as to what is being measured as “performance.” This is usually a conceptual illustration rather than some particular measure or estimate of performance.

Brian Marick said,

“Dammit, some people change because it’s fun. Not everyone changing can be modeled by a dysfunctional family! #satir #rant #overabstraction”

This statement was apparently a reaction to another tweet which said,

“Change cannot occur until the pain of the status quo is greater than fear of change. In work and in life.”

I’m not sure what connected this to the Satir Change Model for Brian, other than it has the words “change” and “status quo.”  I suppose the statement might even be generally true, but I agree with Brian that it mis-characterizes many situations.  For the vast majority of changes that we freely choose, there may be no fear at all, and the “pain” might be better termed “boredom.”  This would still technically fit the statement above. Somehow it sounds very different when you say “Change cannot occur until the boredom of the status quo is greater than zero.”

In general, the Satir Change Model applies to change resulting from destabilizing external events.  That’s not the entire universe of change.  I agree with Brian that, if you’re talking about voluntary, joyful change, then the Satir Change Model is probably of little use.  I would look to models about learning rather than about change.

For one of the examples that Brian mentioned, that of changing to programming in Clojure, you could probably fit the model to the events. Even though this change is a self-induced Foreign Element, I suspect that Brian’s programming productivity plummeted for a time.  Then, as he began to understand Clojure and internalize how to use it, he got progressively, but inconsistently better, until he finally reached a level of competence in the new language.  (Note: I’m envisioning this based on my experiences at switching programming languages.)

But while you could apply the model, I’m not sure what benefit it will provide.  Remember, It’s Only A Model.


Thanks, Bas and Brian for the impetus to write this article. I hope that I haven’t misrepresented your views. I realize that Twitter is a difficult place for nuanced conversations.

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Comments (3) to “It’s Only A Model”

  1. “Change cannot occur until the boredom of the status quo is greater than zero.”

    That’s brilliant, George! That’s similar to the rubric I use for searching for the “fluent cognitive edge” of the group or individual I’m playing with in WAYK. I try to add a new bite-sized piece in the moment right before someone experiences boredom consciously.

  2. […] Effective software development Join me at AgileTechDC May 14, 2011 « It’s Only A Model […]

  3. I agree that losing an arm would be a bad strategy to increase performance.

    Yet it could work, in a sence that I have seen people loose something and because of that realise they can no longer do what they are used to do. And then try to do what they always have wanted but where to afraid to do with 2 arms.

    I was 19 when my parents lost their house.
    Although it took me a year to realize it, from 1992 till 2002 I considered it the best thing that happened to me. (It’s still in my top 10.)

    I know people that had similar things happening to them and that feel that their life was ruined by losing their house. It’s not just the change, its how you react to it.
    It reminds me of the story of the Taoist Farmer:
    http://www.noogenesis.com/pineapple/Taoist_Farmer.html

    I generally like change, yet the model make me understand better why sometimes it’s harder for other people and why although I like change, it still messes up my life in some parts.

    and yes, “all models are wrong some are usefull”

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