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First and second order change

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Edited by Ian Harrison, Sunday, 31 July 2016, 15:14

 When thinking about organisational change it is important to consider the type of change that is being proposed. A system is able to change in two ways:

  1. Individual parameters change in a continuous manner but the structure of the system does not alter; this is known as "first-order change.
  2. The system changes qualitatively and in a discontinuous manner; this is known as "second-order change."  

First order change deals with the existing structure, doing more or less of something, and involving a restoration of balance. It is characterized by being incremental, a linear progression to do more or less, better, faster, or with greater accuracy. “It consists of those minor improvements and adjustments that do not change the system’s core, and that occur as the system naturally grows and develops” (Levy 1986).

It can be described as:

  • Transactional
  • Evolutionary
  • Adaptive
  • Incremental
  • Continuous
  • Making moderate adjustments

 Practice, reinforcement, and time will be the most likely approaches for facilitating sound developmental change of this kind that may involve changes to organisational structure and/or management practice. Other examples are:

  • creating new reports
  • creating new ways to collect the same data,
  • and refining existing processes and procedures (Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch, 1974).

Second order change is creating a new way of seeing things completely. It requires new learning and involves a nonlinear progression, a transformation from one state to another. The aim would be to enable the individual to behave, think, or feel differently. It can be described as:

  • Transformational
  • Revolutionary
  • Radical
  • Discontinuous
  • Reinvent
  • Reengineer
  • Rewrite

 Within the second-order change approach, applicable practice tools might be modeling, confrontation, conflict work, refraining and, most important, the introduction of decisively different personal experience over time and mat involve mission & strategy, leadership and/or organisational culture.



First-Order Change

Second-Order Change

Change in one or a few dimensions, components, or aspects.

Change in one or a few levels (individual and group level).

Change in one or two behavioral aspects (attitudes, values).


Quantitative change.

Change in content.

Continuity, improvements, and development in the same direction.

Incremental changes.

Reversible changes.

Logical and rational change.


Change that does not alter the world view,

the paradigm.

Change within the old state of being (thinking and acting).

Multidimensional, multicomponent change and aspects.

Multilevel change (individuals, groups, and the whole organization).

Changes in all the behavioral aspects (attitudes, norms, values, perceptions, beliefs, world view, and behaviors).

Qualitative change.

Change in context.

Discontinuity, taking a new direction.


Revolutionary jumps.

Irreversible change.

Seemingly irrational change based on different logic.

Change that results in a new world view, new paradigm.

Change that results in a new state being (thinking and acting).


Levy, A. (1986) Second-order planned change: Definition and conceptualization, Organisational Dynamics, Vol, 15, Issue 1, pp. 5, 19-17, 23

Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J.H., Fisch, R. (1974) Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution. New York, Norton.


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1st and 2nd order

The clearest decription ive ever read of 1st and 2nd order change
Leighah Beadle-Darcy

clear and useful

A clear and useful account of first and second order change. Exactly wht I was looking for - thank you!