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Fire and the Pendulum

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One of the fundamental principles of organizations is that they 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—a tipping point if you will—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.

Reversibility and Irreversibility

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.

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