03- First and Second Order Change

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[Co-Authored: William Bergquist and Agnes Mura]

[Derived from William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Ten Themes and Variations for Postmodern Leaders and Their Coaches. and from a forthcoming book, William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Building an Appreciative Organization: Themes and Strategies for Effective Postmodern Leaders, Consultants and Coaches. For information on both books contact Emily Browne, Administrator, Pacific Soundings Press, 3550 Watt Ave. Suite 140, Sacramento, California 95821.]

Theme: Acknowledging the Role of Revolution in Our Postmodern World

Fundamental Question

What might we learn from postmodern theorists, observers and critics as well as contemporary physicists and biologists about the nature of change as it is now occurring in 21st Century societies?

In the first essay (1.1), we noted that pendulums—and organizations—tend to move toward homeostasis (the same final state) and toward homeo-rhesis (the same pattern). It is difficult in any organization (operating like a pendulum) to change either the tendency to move toward a specific final state or to alter a pattern. Stasis and rhesis are typically only altered with profound—even revolutionary—change. Gregory Bateson describes this as second order change and contrasts this with first order change. Second order change is a process (like fire) that is irreversible. A second order change takes place when we decide to (or are forced to) do something different from what we have done before. A second order change occurs when an organization chooses to provide a new kind of compensation, rather than merely increasing or decreasing current levels of compensation. Rather than paying more money or less money, a leader pays her employees in some manner other than money (for example, stock in the company, greater autonomy, or a new and more thoughtful mode of personal recognition and appreciation). Second order change is required when a leader chooses not to increase or decrease his rate of communication with his subordinates (first order change), but rather to communicate something different to his subordinates than what he has ever communicated to them before. In other words, rather than talking more or talking less about something, this leader talks about something different.

In the case of any second order change, there is a choice point when an organization begins to move in a new direction. Once this choice point is traversed (what systems theorists call the point of bifurcation or what poets call the fork-in-the-road) there is no turning back. Once the fire has begun, one can’t unburn what has already been consumed. One can extinguish the fire, but a certain amount of damage has already been done and a certain amount of warmth has already been generated. Once a leader has changed the way in which she compensates my employees, there is no turning back (as many leaders have found in their unionized organizations). Once a leader has begun to talk with his subordinates in a candid manner about their performance, he can’t return to a previous period of indirect feedback and performance reviews. Once the story has been told, there is no returning to the moment before the story was first told. There is no untelling a story.

In summary, the concepts of reversibility and irreversibility relate directly to those of pendulums and fires, and first and second order change. Just as some changes are first order and others are second order, and some look like the adjustment of a pendulum while others look like fire, so it is the case that some changes appear to be reversible and others irreversible. Those organizational change processes that can be reversed involve the restoration of balance or style. They typically are first order in nature. These processes resemble the dynamics of a pendulum. Other organizational change processes are irreversible. They bring about transformation and parallel the combustion processes of fire, rather than the mechanical processes of the pendulum. Second order change is typically associated with these irreversible processes of combustion.

Throughout the essays offered on this blog, we explore, either directly or indirectly, the nature of irreversible, second order changes in our emerging postmodern world. The implications of organizational irreversibility are profound, for major problems often emerge when organizational fires are mistaken for organizational pendulums. The 1991 Soviet coup, for instance, appears at least from a short-term perspective to exemplify an irreversible, combustible form of change. Whereas the coup leaders thought that the Soviet Union would continue to operate as a pendulum with each new group of leaders restoring the government to its previous state, the people on the streets saw this as an opportunity to bring about a fire—a second order change. There was going to be a change in the very process of change itself. This new order of things was not one of restoration, but rather one of transformation. Even if the new Russian order fails, there will never be a return to the old order. There will never again be a Soviet Union as we knew it during the years of the Cold War. The story can not be untold.


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