Organizational Consultation: An Appreciative Approach–II. First and Second Order Change
Second-order change is always abrupt and noticeable. It may arise from a series of smaller, first-order changes that eventually require a second-order change: “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” To keep with the straw metaphor, one piece of straw which is placed on the ground becomes two pieces of straw when a second piece is set down beside it. At some point, when a certain number of pieces of straw are laid on top of one another, we no longer have pieces of straw, but rather a haystack. The haystack is a single, coherent whole—a system of sorts—that can be identified by a single word. A qualitative, second-order change has taken place, based on several, incremental first-order changes. Similarly, a child at some point becomes an adult. A group of people become an organization. A set of minor irritations become a problem.
First-order change involves gradual evolutionary alteration in some system. Second-order change involves abrupt revolutionary alteration. Typically, the changes we make in any social institution or in our own individual lives are either evolutionary or revolutionary in nature. While the end of a first-order, evolutionary change may represent a qualitative difference from the beginning, each change that is made will be minimal and may represent no qualitative difference from the immediately preceding change. The change can be considered transitional rather than transformational—in Thomas Kuhn’s terms, a part of “normal science” rather than a “paradigm shift”. Thus, the change is likely to be more acceptable and less stressful for a greater number of people than would be the case if the change were large and abrupt. This incremental strategy of personal and social change holds one major disadvantage. In the slow, progressive movement toward some change goal, the sense of direction and motivation to be found at the beginning of the change initiative may be lost. As a result, the change effort may simply fade away before the goal is attained (“not with a bang, but a whimper”) or the change effort may become misguided and end at a quite different point from that first intended.