President, Lefkoe Institute
January 14, 2011
Are you aware that there are three different types of change that are necessary for your organization’s success?
I call these types of change: first order, second order, and third order.
First-order change in an organization consists of improving on what already is. It usually consists of finding ways to do things a little more efficiently. It results in incremental improvements consistent with the existing culture of the organization. This is the type of change most organizations strive for and achieve. But in a world where what works well today frequently doesn’t work at all tomorrow, first-order change is insufficient.
Second-order change consists of creating something totally new. It is characterized by a behavior change that requires a new way of thinking. An example of this would be a company where certain employees see themselves as service technicians whose sole job is fixing and installing equipment. For them, taking care of the customer is an imposition. As a result, giving such employees information about the importance of taking care of customers would be useless because the information is inconsistent with their existing beliefs about themselves and their role. They would need to change those beliefs so that they saw themselves as “customer satisfiers,” at which point taking care of customers would be natural and normal behavior.
Whereas first-order change is incremental and consists of improving what already is, second-order change is more fundamental and consists of creating new thinking that make possible behavior that had been impossible before.
A third-order organization is always operating from questions rather than answers. It is an organization that is willing to question and change its beliefs and culture at all times.
As Eric Hoffer, the San Francisco longshoremen philosopher, once stated: “In a time of drastic change