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Divergent Dualities among OD Perspectives

Historical approaches to planned change typically offer prepackaged processes for driving changes to achieve organizational goals. However, the complexity of dynamically interacting and divergent forces at work in and around organizations limit the possibility of selecting one single approach for a change intervention. Seo, Putnam, and Bartunek (2004) offer the concepts of duality and tension to explain the dynamics of change and the implications of divergent approaches to change. A dichotomous perspective does not adequately represent reality, but dualities serve a valuable function for helping change practitioners to understand that managing duality is a key to “grasping the complexities and dynamics of planned change” (p. 102). To understand the key perspectives that have guided OD, I will consider key OD perspectives through the concept of dualities. I will then consider central debates and assumptions of OD change approaches against the duality and tension framework suggested by Seo, et al, and will conclude by suggesting that a dichotomous perspective can be limiting, but offers a way to understand how to balance multiple dualities that underlie complex change dynamics.

A foundation of duality

Since Lewin (1951; 1947) established the theoretical foundations for OD practice by proposing that bipolar forces pushing against the status quo, OD literature has tended to see change through dualities, meaning the polar opposites that work against one another. Dualities are not necessarily mutually exclusive alternatives; but “the choice to focus on one of the poles creates a tension and difficulty to enact both ends of the continuum simultaneously” (Seo, Putnam, & Bartunek, 2004, p. 74). For example, Yin-Yang, Theory E versus Theory O, first-order change versus second-order change, and episodic change versus continuous change all provide pictures of opposing perspectives on the same phenomena.

Western Force field theory versus Eastern Yin-Yang philosophy

Lewin (1951) represented the tensions between dualities as forces on one side attempting to maintain stability and forces on the other side attempting to change. A key to implementing change under the Lewinian model is to strengthen the forces for change and to weaken the forces for stability. Lewin’s rich duality has degraded into the simplistic unfreeze>move>refreeze steps for driving organizational change that requires introducing conflict to force change from the status quo to a desired state, replacing old with new for a better future.

With theoretical foundations based on humanistic democratic values that emphasize individual and organizational growth through collaboration (Marshak, 1993; Robbins & Judge, 2007), Lewinian OD practices do not necessarily work in non-western cultures (Marshak, 1993). Robert Marshak emphasizes this point by labeling American OD practices as biased[i], highlighting the differences between Lewin’s three-stage model of change that serves as the core of western OD practice and the Confusion concept of Yin-Yang that serves as a foundation of eastern cultural philosophy. Yin-Yang also provides a model for understanding how considering bipolar positions can allow OD practitioners to identify essential elements of and tensions between each (Livne-Tarandach & Bartunek, 2009; Marshak, 1993).

Yin-Yang is not a change model but a foundation philosophy of East Asian cultures, which assumes that all existence and phenomena are the result of opposing forces balancing to achieve harmony. Yin-Yang represents duality as opposing forces in a cyclical balance around harmony (Marshak, 1993; Nuyen, 2001). Change happens through the continuous cycle of Yin-Yang and the Five Forces, as follows: Wood (birth) Fire (growth) Earth (maturity), decline (Metal), death (Water), and repeat. This is a universal principle that explains how all phenomena relate to and balance against one another. For example, this philosophy holds the stars can determine government policy and predict the future. The cyclical nature of Yin-Yang means that all things eventually recycle into their opposites, all phenomenon contain the seeds of their opposite, no phenomena is void of its opposite, and all things are related (Marshak, 1993).

Lewin’s force field model and Yin-Yang both help to explain the schemata through which particular cultures perceive reality, thereby suggesting practices for effective intervention in respective cultures. Marshak (1993) compares five assumptions of each model and proposes implications for each, as summarized below.

Linear progression versus cyclical process.

Lewin’s model proposes that change is a linear process that strives for a better future, moving backwards means failure. In contrast, the Confusion model assumes that change is a cyclical process that revolves around harmony. No stage is better than the next, but they are each related and necessary to maintain an eternal cycle. The implication here is that a linear perspective considers any backward movement as inappropriate, while the cyclical perspective sees circles as normal and necessary.

Destination versus journey.

The Lewinian perspective assumes that success means achieving a goal or desired state, while the Confusion perspective assumes that change is a journey, what matters is following the Way. The implication here is that a destination orientation requires establishing end states, while a journey orientation strives for continuous improvement for all things by following the Way.

Create disequilibrium versus maintain equilibrium.

The Lewinian approach introduces conflict to shatter the status quo and move towards a goal. In comparison, the Confusion model assumes that change is inherent to existence, and that the change agent’s role is to harmonize the present.

Separate from the system versus one with the system.

In the Lewinian model, the change agent is a third party who changes the client system, while the Confucian model suggests that the change agent is a role model for aligning self and system system with harmony.

Static versus dynamic universe.

The Lewinian model uses punctuated equilibrium to generate activities towards a planned outcome, while the Confucian model suggests the purpose of change intervention is to restore the natural flow of the organization to harmony.

In spite of the dualities exposed in his analysis of Western Lewinian change practice and Eastern Confucian change philosophy, Marshak (1993) proposes that each perspective offers practical applications for OD practice. Situations that require episodic change to move an organization toward a specific goal will benefit from change models based on a Lewinian perspective. However, the Lewinian approach may be limiting in situations that require continuous change or within cultures that do not share traditional Western values. In contrast, organizations that do not face specific problems but want to implement continuous improvement can benefit from a Confucian approach to change. However, a Confucian approach can prove limiting in situations that require episodic change to meet specific goals, and within cultures that do not share traditional Eastern values. An important point to consider here, is that the dichotomy between East and West is fading as globalization merges elements of each culture into the other.[ii]

Theory E versus Theory O

Beer & Nohria (2000) expose duality in OD perspectives by proposing Theory E and Theory O, change theories that represent bipolar values, goals, and actions. With shareholder value as the key measurement of organizational success, Theory E is a “hard” approach to change that uses drastic economic restructuring and incentives to drive radical change in the tangible structures of the organization. Theory E is a quick way to drive a turnaround through radical transformation at the expense of long-term damage to organizational culture. With the key measurement being the organization’s ability to learn, Theory O is a “soft” approach to change that focuses on building organizational viability by addressing beliefs and social relationships while enhancing individual and organizational learning and continuous improvement. Theory O preserves organizational culture but can slow change processes to the point that the organization has difficulty adapting, while loyalty and commitment to employees can prevent managers from making necessary business decisions. Although Theory E and Theory O represent bipolar approaches to change, Beer and Nohria believe they are not mutually exclusive. Organizations can risk fomenting distrust by jumping between cutthroat and nurturing behaviors; however, they argue, “Companies that effectively combine both approaches to change can reap big payoffs in profitability and productivity” (Beer & Nohria, 2000, p. 131).

Episodic versus continuous change

Duality is also apparent in the philosophical shift from episodic change to continuous change that emerged as global competitive environments shifted from relatively static to continuously turbulent. Weick and Quinn (1999) define the metaphor of episodic change as the inertia-prone organization in which the pace of change is “infrequent, discontinuous, and intentional” (p. 365). This is “second order change” through which outside agents create leverage to change schema, meaning that the organization takes action to replace past practices with new strategies, structure, skills, and people (p. 365). Reviewing academic literature on change, Weick and Quinn conclude that “failure” (p. 365) triggers all episodic change, as follows: the organization suffers loss, makes plans to change, implements the plan, and then deals with unintended consequences.

Continuous change theory can help leaders to address the limitations of episodic change models by providing insight into the informal, continuous, and adaptive processes that dynamically interact with factors inside and outside the organization (Livne-Tarandach & Bartunek, 2009). Developing sensitivity to the change processes continuously at work within the organization can help leaders to evaluate and influence change readiness and develop organizations that can readily adapt in a turbulent environment. Continuous change is the incremental change that happens to the organization through the dynamic interaction of its people, processes, and environment. Weick and Quinn (1999) define the metaphor of continuous change as the emergent and self-organizing organization that constantly evolves and adapts. This metaphor provides a view of “first order change” (p. 365), which shows an extension and evolution of past practices with current people, knowledge, and skills.

Rather than being an occasional disruption, continuous change involves unending modifications in process and practice. The tempo of episodic change is “infrequent, discontinuous, and intentional” (Weick & Quinn, 1999, p. 365) events that spur the spontaneous evolution of the organization. Alert reactions to inherent instability drives change, as small changes cumulate and multiply to drive cycles of adaptation and evolution. Rather than throwing out old processes and people through an unfreeze-move-refreeze process, the agent driving continuous change redirects and shapes the change, by identifying clarifying, and reframing current patterns while fostering creativity, transformation, and learning. Weick and Quinn propose that this process is a “freeze, rebalance, unfreeze” (p. 379) sequence. In this sense, freezing means to capture and define emergent processes, rebalancing means to reinterpret the patterns and reframe issues as opportunities. Unfreezing after rebalancing means to “resume improvisation and learning” (p. 380).

Tensions between episodic and continuous change perspectives ease when change agents considers the unique aspects that each offers for different environments. Linking divergent perspectives provides leaders with a more complete picture of the same phenomena. Episodic change theory provides executives with definable and measurable processes for driving change at the macro level of the organization, whereas continuous change theory provides an understanding of the inherent dynamic processes that affect change at the macro level. In static environments, organizational leaders have the luxury of long-range business plans that only require infrequent, episodic adjustments to correct for failures or take advantage of opportunities. To survive in increasingly turbulent environments, organizational leaders have to develop continuous change as a core competency. In many change applications, leaders may find balancing both episodic and continuous change perspectives will result in more effective and lasting change (Duncan, 2010).

First-order versus second-order change

First-order and second-order change theories expose another duality in OD practice. First-order change attempts to solve problems within the existing framework, reinforcing established schemata. Many OD interventions focus specifically on first-order change, and can fail if the change agent does not consider the support for the status quo. When change agents find that present schemata are adequate, they can introduce change within the existing framework, which is first-order change (Bartunek & Moch, 1987).

Second-order change modifies existing schemata by gradually implementing change, phasing in new schemata while phasing out old. Second-order change efforts can fail if change agents do not consider that altering schemata may benefit some while restricting or threatening others. With second-order change, the change serves as a consultant who establishes, advocates, and facilitates others toward a desired state that the change agent thinks is best for the client (Bartunek & Moch, 1987).

Second-order change usually requires the introduction of a crisis that unfreezes the status quo. A change agent introduces a desired state, and then facilitates the organization toward the new schemata. Mechanisms for initiating second-order change usually involve introducing a state of cognitive dissonance in the change targets, like giving orders that cannot be carried out in the current schemata, relabeling behaviors, or showing how the current schemata does not serve the interests of others. The change targets must not only recognize problems with the current schemata but must also present a viable alternative. Second-order change is usually ambiguous and conflictual but can occur (Bartunek & Moch, 1987; Duncan, 2010).

Tensions among multiple dualities

Reality is rarely as simple as a dichotomy suggests, but when considering reality through a dichotomous schema, the OD practitioner must recognize a complex collection of multiple competing dualities that create dynamically interrelated tensions. For example, Seo, et al. (2004) identify tensions among multiple dualities within the target and characteristics of change.

Further complicating change processes, the tensions do not neatly fit on a spectrum between two opposing forces, but likely among multiple dimensions. This suggests that change is not a matter of balancing between bipolar extremes but also about recognizing multiple tensions dynamically interacting in and around the change target. An additional complication for change managers is that reality is more complex than considering bipolar extremes, like first-order versus second-order change. First-order change represents planned change within the current framework, second-order is planned change that changes the framework. However, these do not consider change that naturally occurs with or without planned changes, introducing a third dimension called third-order change[iii] (Bartunek & Moch, 1987).

Dualities and tensions among generations

Although the concept of dualities may be simplistic, Seo et al. (2004) argue that it provides a framework for understanding how the “relationships among and the management of these bipolar pairs are the keys to grasping the complexities and dynamics of planned change” (p. 102). The authors formalize the OD duality concept by categorizing OD approaches into three historical generations, and then considering each generation against dualities and tensions in change targets and change process. The dualities in change targets include individual versus organization, internal versus external, human systems versus technical systems, and first-order versus second-order change. The dualities and tensions in change processes include negative focus versus positive focus, continuous versus episodic, proactive versus reactive, and open versus closed. In this section, I will summarize this framework and consider other perspectives within the framework proposed by Seo, et al.

First generation OD approaches

Kurt Lewin established the foundation of OD by providing the theoretical foundation to guide OD practice, and by establishing research practices for testing real-world issues in laboratory settings. As stated by biographer Alfred Morrow (1969), “Lewin’s most enduring legacy was his innovative blending of science and practice” (p. 234). The OD practices that emerged from Lewinian foundations were built on a foundation of American management philosophy of humanistic democratic values that emphasized individual and organizational growth through collaboration (Robbins & Judge, 2007). First-generation intervention approaches included action research, sensitivity training, team building, socio-technical systems, quality of work life, and survey feedback. Seo, et al. (2004) say that first-generation OD approaches tend to focus on the following change targets: (a) groups and individuals while disregarding tensions between the individual and the organization; (b) internal drivers for change while disregarding external forces; (c) favoring human needs over technical systems, and (d) first-order change more than second-order, meaning that organizations attempt to make changes within the current framework (Bartunek & Moch, 1987). The characteristics of change processes in first-generation OD practice focus on the following: (a) negatives while ignoring positives; (b) episodic processes; (c) separate proactive and reactive processes, and; open processes rather than closed processes.

Second-generation OD practices

Turbulent global competitive environments in the 1980s forced organizations to develop adaptability as a core competency. Second-generation OD emerged with planned change processes to drive large-scale interventions and organizational transformations for aligning organizations with their dynamic environments. Bertalanffy (1969) offered the biological organism as a metaphor to explain how organizations are complex open systems that survive by aligning with and exchanging resources with the environment, a concept Katz and Kahn (1966) would adapt for OD practice. Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) proposed a contingency approach to organizational development, arguing that different environments place different requirements on organizations, and that organizations exist because they have adapted to their environments. Similarly, congruence theory emerged to explain how aligning environment, strategy, and organizational components could enhance organizational adaptability and performance. While first-generation OD practices focus on gradually developing individuals and groups for organizational effectiveness, second-generation practices focus on radical change at the system level to enhance continuous survival and growth by breaking from the past (Seo, Putnam, & Bartunek, 2004).

Second-generation intervention approaches include organizational transformations and large-scale interventions. Seo, et al. (2004) say that second-generation approaches tend to focus on the following change targets: (a) organization-wide transformation rather than individual and group change; (b) both internal and external factors that drive change; (c) strategic issues over human systems, and; first-order change over second order change, meaning that change interventions attempt to break from the past by replacing the existing framework with a new framework (Bartunek & Moch, 1987). Second-generation approaches to change also focus on the following characteristics of change: (a) negative sides while ignoring positive sides; (b) episodic more than dominant; both proactive and reactive processes, and; (c) open processes rather than closed.

Third-generation OD approaches

Seo, et al. propose a third-generation OD approach that parts from second-generation approaches by assuming that the past plays a key role in understanding the development of an organization. Rather than breaking with the past, Kimberly and Bouchihkhi (1995) argue that transforming an organization requires visionaries who can consider the organizational biography to understand how the organization’s past shapes the organization’s present and constrains its future. The learning organization and appreciate inquiry serve as the key third-generation approaches.

The learning organization.

Peter M. Senge (1990) offered the learning organization as a model for transformational change by arguing that a learning organization is “an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future” (p. 14). Senge offered five disciplines for a learning organization: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, and team learning. Seo, et al. (2004) say that the learning organization concept focuses on (a) individual, group, and organizational processes without recognizing tensions among them; (b) internal drivers and capacity for change rather than external drivers; (c) human systems as the means and the end of change rather than on technical systems; (d) second-order change over first-order change.

Although Seo, et al. (2004) consider only first-order and second-order change in their analysis of OD approaches, the learning organization concept helps expose a limitation of considering change through a dichotomous perspective between first-order and second-order change. Neither of these alternatives explains adequately third-order change, the natural change that occurs as organizational members develop the capacity to recognize when change is necessary so they can implement change themselves. (Bartunek & Moch, 1987; 1994). Third-order change is not planned and it cannot be controlled; but understanding third-order change can help agents to influence or explain natural changes. To develop a self-perpetuating organizational learning system requires that change agents foster perpetual learning environments in which people are continuously aware of their assumptions and appreciate the alternatives (Hendry, 1996). The learning organizational concept also focuses on the following characteristics of change processes: (a) both negative and positive aspects; (b) continuous aspects in preparation for episodic processes; (c) proactive to respond to changing environments, and (d) open systems rather than closed systems.

Appreciative inquiry.

Appreciative inquiry has become widely used worldwide since Cooperrider and Srivastva (2001) introduced it in the mid-1980s as a philosophy for creating revolutionary change to implement global sustainable development strategies.

 Though Appreciative inquiry assumes that people create their own reality through dialogue with others, social systems have multiple positive outcomes, and social systems can build consensus around positive aspects. Watkins and Mohr (2001; Seo, Putnam, & Bartunek, 2004) inquiry proposes five generic processes for change, as follows: (1) focus on positive aspects of change; (2) explore stories of life-giving forces; (3) find themes in the stories that invite deeper inquiry; (4) create shared images of the preferred future, and; (5) find innovative methods to create the preferred future.

Seo, et al. (2004) say that the appreciative inquiry method focuses on the following targets of change: (a) individual, group, and system-wide processes, while not recognizing potential tensions among the social dimensions; (b) internal drivers and capacity for change, rather than on external drivers; (c) human systems as the means and ends of change; (d) second-order more than first-order change. As with the learning organization concept, appreciative inquiry exposes the limitation of the dichotomous perspective on change by not recognizing the natural change processes that appreciative inquiry attempts to manipulate. Through appreciative inquiry, change agents attempt to facilitate third-order change by facilitating large social groups to be aware of established schemata so the members can believe they are creating their own future alternatives. Regarding the characteristics of change processes, Seo, et al. say that appreciative inquiry focuses on the following: (a) positive aspects without acknowledging the negative; (b) episodic and revolutionary change rather than continuous change; (c) strong preference for proactive processes over reactive processes, and; (d) open systems over closed systems perspective.

Although designed as an intervention process for manipulating global change, AI is increasingly popular as an intervention tool for all levels of organizational analysis. For example, Busch proposes that AI is an effective intervention for helping small groups to accelerate through development, improve relationships, and enhance performance. Busche describes an AI intervention approach for small teams with the following steps: (1) Group members recall the best experiences they have had with teams. (2) Each member describes the experience, while the other members are encouraged to ask questions about and discuss each shared experience. (3) The facilitator encourages members to be aware of and to put aside cliché’s and preconceptions so they can explore why the shared experience is a peak experience. (4) Once members have fully explored the experience, the facilitator asks the group to develop a consensus on the attributes of an effective group. (5) Finally, the facilitator invites the members to acknowledge what others have done to help the group demonstrate any of the attributes.

Group-level interventions are highly dependent on the skills of the facilitator, who must identify, crystallize, and communicate the images that the members describe without imposing personal images or interests into the process.


The complexity of dynamically interacting and divergent forces in and around organizations limits the possibility of selecting a pre-packaged approach for driving change. Increasingly complex problems in dynamic environments require increasingly innovative solutions that apply different approaches or mixes of approaches to organizational change. To understand some of the divergent perspectives that have guided OD practice, this paper considered key perspectives on OD practice against the field’s underlying duality concept, and within the duality and tension framework proposed by Seo, et al. This analysis shows that a dichotomous perspective offers a limited picture of complex reality, but does provide a framework for categorizing and understanding how to manage dynamically interacting dualities among dimensions of planned change. This understanding can help guide decisions about the right approach or mix of approaches to change. However, change practitioners should be constantly aware that reality is more complex than any dichotomy or collection of dichotomies suggest. Understanding and managing change successfully likely requires adjusting perspective and practice to match unfolding events, not by forcing events into a pre-conceived model.

Another common theme that emerges when considering dualities is that dualities do not necessarily mean mutual exclusivity; one approach is not necessarily better than another is, and creatively applying elements of multiple approaches may serve best in a dynamic environment. Understanding situational conditions and various can lead to more innovative approaches for implementing effective large-scale intervention. Adaptable organizations manage different mixes of change interventions to balance continuously the tension between multiple competing dualities. Organizations that effectively combine disparate approaches to change can achieve long-term competitive advantage while reducing the anxiety groups face during change events. In short, rather than considering one perspective over the others, the concept of duality provides OD practitioners with a more complete framework for understanding change because it offers “ways to embrace, draw energy from, and give equal voice to bipolar positions” (Livne-Tarandach & Bartunek, 2009, p. 17; Seo, Putnam, & Bartunek, 2004).

Works Cited

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Bartunek, J. M., & Moch, M. K. (1987). First-order, second-order, and third-order change and organizational development interventions: a cognitive approach. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science , 23 (4), 483-500.

Beer, M., & Nohria, N. (2000, May-June). Cracking the code of change. Harvard Business Review , 133-141.

Bertalanffy, L. V. (1969). General system theory. New York: George Braziller, Inc.

Cooperrider, D., & Whitney, D. (2001, August 7). A positive revolution in change: Appreciative Inquiry. Retrieved June 29, 2010, from Appreciative Inquiry Commons:

Duncan, B. (2010, June). Linking episodic and continuous change perspectives for understanding dynamic change processes. (M. Manning, & F. Barret, Eds.) Unpublished paper HOD707 .

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Katz, D., & Kahn, R. L. (1966). The social psychology of organizations. New York, NY: Wiley.

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Lawrence, P. R., & Lorsch, J. W. (1967). Differentiation and integration in complex organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly , 1-47.

Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science. (D. Cartwright, Ed.) New York, NY: Harper and Brothers.

Lewin, K. (1947). Group decision and social change. In T. M. Neweomb, & E. L. Hartley, Readings in social psychology (pp. 340-44). New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co.

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End notes

[i] An important point to consider when entertaining criticisms of American management practices being culturally limited or biased is the degree to which non-American management practices are biased within their own realm, if they even exist. For example, while proposing Ying-Yang as a change concept, Marshal admits that no contemporary change model exists in Asian cultures. When considered as a whole, Lewin’s force field theory starts to sound like the Ying-Yang concept by proposing that change is a product of two opposing forces. However, contemporary literature tends to relegate Lewin’s force field theory to a simplistic three-step concept.


[ii] In true Confusion manner, Japanese managers with whom I discuss change theory emphasize the “wa” or the harmony in all things. The Confusion concept of harmony is so dominant in Japanese culture that the nation represents itself with the Chinese character “和”, (wa), meaning “harmony”. This concept is so engrained in the culture that few are aware of the source of the assumption, they just live it.

Japanese management professionals and politicians consistently emphasize the role that every individual plays in promoting the “wa” of all things. However, while the Yin-Yang philosophy emphasizes achieving harmony by balancing conflicting forces, harmony in a Confusion construct generally means limiting opposition and reducing individual initiative (Nuyen, 2001). In the words of one manager that I recently interviewed: “We must do whatever necessary to preserve the harmony in our group, so we do not tolerate different opinions. For us to establish and preserve the harmony, we must all be the same.” In other words, opposing forces are not allowed to exist; harmony is not a balance among opposing forces but an elimination of opposing forces. I have seen this same approach alive in American political environments in which collectivist activists declare, “We must all be of one mind”. Through this schema, the power structure reduces individual initiative and differences. As suggested by Confusion philosophy, equality means that each individual is equal to all others; but each fills a different, unequal, role in the social structure.


[iii] Third-order change trains members to be aware of their schemata so they can change their own schemata as they see necessary. Third-order change requires that the change agent fill a role as a teacher and trainer who helps organizational members to determine when change is required so the members can implement it themselves. In this situation, the change agent has no established schemata; but is helping the client to be aware of existing schemata, assess how the schemata influences actions and influences effectiveness, and develop new schemata (Duncan, 2010).