Leading into the Future III: From the Pendulum to the Fire
A third feature of the pendulum is the reversibility of its process. The pendulum must swing back and forth, repeatedly moving back to a space that it occupied a short time before. The pendulum, like many mechanistic systems, frequently undoes what has already been done in order for the system to remain in equilibrium and in operation. A pendulum that swings in only one direction (“to but not fro”) would soon be replaced by one that works properly. Organizations that operate like pendulums shift in one direction, then soon correct themselves and shift back in the opposite direction. Large inventories are soon corrected by a reduction in production orders. Later, production orders are increased to make up for a reduction in inventory.
Rhesis and Orders of Change
In organizations that resemble pendulums, homeostasis is always preserved—eventually. The organization keeps returning to an ideal or minimally acceptable state. Homeorhesis (a Greek word referring to the tendency of organizations to return to a common pathway or style) is also preserved. Leaders of the organization oversee, review and readjust the organization’s mode of operation in order to return to a desired path, style or strategy. Time reverses itself and even restores itself as the organization returns to a previous stasis or “rhesis.” The exceptional biologist and anthropologist, Gregory Bateson identified a theory of logical types—which soon is translated by many other theorists and practitioners into a concept of “first order” and “second order” change (Bateson,1972) . In essence, a first order change is one in which people in an organization are doing more of something that they are already doing or less of something that they are already doing. They bring about first order change as a way of returning to some desired state of being (homeostasis).
When engaging first order change, we spend more money on a computer system in order to reduce our customer response time to a former level. We reduce the cost of a specific product in order to restore our competitive edge in the marketplace. We pay our employees higher wages in order to bring back the high level of morale and productivity in the company. First order changes are always reversible, because we can go back to the drawing board and repeatedly readjust our change effort, while being directed by feedback systems that provide us with information about how we are performing relative to our standard or goal.
Bateson contrasts first order change with something that he calls “second 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, I pay my 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 I choose not to increase or decrease my rate of communication with my subordinates (first order change), but rather to communicate something different to my subordinates than what I have ever communicated to them before. In other words, rather than talking more or talking less about something, I talk about something different.