Organizational Consultation: An Appreciative Approach–II. First and Second Order Change
Someone like Alan comes along to suggest the unthinkable—maybe the problem itself should be reviewed and even redefined. Maybe a goal was set too high or too low, or a person or department is conceived as a barrier when actually a resource (or vice versa). This reconceptualization of a problem requires a “second order” change, instead of the “first order” change that usually is initiated when a problem is encountered.
The notion of first and second order change finds its origins in two unlikely fields of study: linguistics and experimental psychology. We will briefly detour to these two fields in order to better explain the nature and use of the powerful techniques associated with second-order change.
Meta-Language and Learning How to Learn
One of the dilemmas faced by linguistics, semanticists and philosophers in recent years who study languages and their use is that one must use language in order to discuss language. In discussing the inability of most languages to describe ongoing, organic processes, for instance, one must make use of a specific language which is itself limited, static and unyielding to an accurate and vivid description of these dynamic processes. This paradoxical condition concerning the use of language to talk about language was addressed by Bertrand Russell in his Theory of Logical Types. The noted philosopher and social activist observed that any system, words, or taxonomies that are being used to describe a particular collection of objects, experiences and so forth, cannot itself be a part of this collection. In other words, we must somehow move outside of a system when we are trying to describe it.
Gregory Bateson has noted that a map of a territory is not itself the territory. A map of Seattle Washington, for instance, is not Seattle, but only a map. Similarly, the word “cat” cannot scratch you. The word “chair” is not actually a chair, but only a representation of this type of furniture. These examples are obvious, and even absurd. Yet, often we find ourselves in the difficult and puzzling situation of not being sure whether we are addressing the real problem or only a representation of the problem. We encounter people (often ourselves) who confuse the concept (e.g. “superego”) with the reality that this concept is supposed to represent. Thus, we search for the location of the superego in the cerebral cortex, rather than accepting the concept as a useful metaphor to describe a complex set of human activities and experiences. We must somehow be able to distinguish between the map and territory, between words and things, between “first-order” language that describes things and “second-order” language that describes how we use language.