Leading into the Future III: From the Pendulum to the Fire
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 I have changed the way in which I compensate my employees, there is no turning back (as many leaders have found in their unionized organizations). Once I have begun to talk with my subordinates in a candid manner about their performance, I 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 this series of essays, I explore 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—as much as the current leaders of Russia would like this to be the case. There will never again be a Soviet Union as we knew it during the years of the Cold War. The toothpaste can’t be shoved back into the tube. The story can’t be untold.