Mayvin_OD for real

Mirroring our experience of organisational change

My colleague Rob Warwick and I have been commissioned to write a book about Organisation Development. Here are two letters from us that explains our motivation for this book and in doing so a little about ourselves.

The beginning of our Organisation Development book is an antidote to a traditional approach that introduces the authors to the reader in grandiose terms that creates a separation that becomes hard to bridge. Our intent is stay connected and acknowledge that we share a world with you. We may not always succeed but our intent matters, in this way we mirror our experience of organisational change, that is our fate.

A letter from James Traeger

One of my favourite sayings is that ‘we are all people of colour’. What does this mean? It means that everyone carries some story of great interest and richness, connecting them to the wider historical and social weave. My own story is that my family were Eastern Europeans, refugees from oppression and poverty, who travelled amongst millions others across a continent, finding themselves washed up in one of the greatest cities in the world. Which is just a grand way of saying that I am a Londoner. But my view is that all of us have in some way such a grand narrative. This is important, not only because it is just really interesting, but also because remembering this bigger canvas on which all of our stories are painted is important for our work, especially in OD. It provides us with some personal expression and the possibility of some confidence and connection; that is connection to everyone else and all of their versions of this grand and complex narrative. This narrative is the stuff of OD, because it is what creates meaning. And from meaning flows the things that matter to OD people: energy, inspiration, and engagement, relationship. These are the stuff of humanity – all that organisations need in order to make things happen. That is part of my hope for you in this book. In reading it, you will develop some enthusiasm for your own story and for the story of so many diverse others, not as some hero story, but as it is really lived at ground level. The curiosity and inquiry that this can unleash is galvanising.

And organisations in this day and age, full of uncertainty, insecurity and flux, certainly need galvanising. The trouble is I often meet people who say ‘I don’t have any stories in me. I am just a boring person’. In the same way that people often say ‘I can’t sing or paint’. This is shame, not just because they probably could be taught to sing or paint. It is like learning to drive: If you have never really had lessons and put in the practice, how can you expect to do something that takes a certain craft, as if it is an ‘innate’ thing? The same goes for telling your story, It is a skill to learn that has a craft and can be put to use, to serve a wider purpose; so that we can tell together the story of stories. We will at some point in this book talk about the notion of instrumentality and the idea of ‘self as instrument’. That is in brief, the ability to be the change that we hope to see in the world, to paraphrase Ghandi. Being clear about who you are, where you come from, what you value and how that has all come about, may seem like a self-centred act, but I would argue it is the opposite. It is utterly selfless, if you see it as the creation of a piece in a wider jigsaw puzzle. I say ‘creation’ deliberately. That is because this story like the wider story of the organisation or that of our human life together on this planet, is a constant act of creation. There is no fixed state. As Heraclitus is supposed to have said:

‘We can never stand in the same river twice’. That is true of us as it is of the river, or the organisation, family or community we are part of. Starting to see ourselves and the world that way, taking the wonder of that movie and understanding the implications. Of this for our work in OD, is what this book is all about.

It is potentially a beautiful movie. It has its ups and downs of course, and like all good movies there is a dark side, but in the end it is a great adventure. We hope you enjoy this adventure with us.

A letter from Rob Warwick

My interest in organisational development has been long in the making intrigued by the question: how might we make the world of work a ‘better’ place? It is a question made more vivid when I came across events that I did not understand, particularly where I saw a lack of rationality and power games at play. Of course, my opinion of irrationality was often at odds with those more closely involved in the action. And when it comes to organising that is our fate – decisions with good intent were followed by: ‘clear’ objectives, misunderstandings, reinterpretations, progress, head scratching, rhetoric of success or failure, mutterings and gossip. And through this process of communication and miscommunication somehow, we make progress. But it could be so much better, and by this I do not mean being more dogmatic and ‘clear’.

Here is an example, it must have been about 15 years ago when the organisation I worked for went through a ‘culture change’. I remember the time and day vividly: 13.00hrs at the National Motor Museum, near Coventry, UK. I should explain at the time I was working for a part of the NHS that provided vital clinical services, but one that existed behind the scenes. The day in question was to launch the new ambitious organisation with ‘missions’ and ‘values’ to enable us to seize the moment. It was at 13.15hrs when the keynote was introduced, a senior vice president of customer experience from a prestigious American hotel chain. With his roving microphone, he came amongst us, 50 or so senior managers. His actions, arm waving and voice lent more to Tigger from Winnie the Pooh than the rather quiet, introverted group that we were. He then stopped and sombrely told us to reach underneath our chairs to find an envelope, we did as instructed and opened it. The envelope contained a plastic type credit card with our new missions and values. The whole experience was rather odd and was the topic of conversation at tea, and weeks and months after. The exception being the IT department who were just as interested in this new roving microphone technology. What was it that missed the point? Why did the organisers think it was a good idea? There were many choices available so why fly this smart suited energetic American over that was everything that the people in the room were not?

Roll on 18 months or so, and an odd phenomenon was happening. Senior managers and directors were walking around with a book, this was odd in itself. The book in question was John Kotter’s Leading Change (Kotter, 1996), a book that at its core strips the complexity of change into eight steps. Apparently one of the directors had read this book and become inspired by it which led to further conversations across and down the organisation. And further copies bought and carried around. Rarely did it seem that a meeting went past without mention of a guiding coalition, short term wins or anchoring our culture. In time the bookshelf was added to with Jim Collins Good to Great and Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. What fascinates me is how these conversations occur and how we pick up on, make sense and then try to do something with these new insights. I read these books and in doing so became increasingly of the view that I was in a small minority. But despite this something was happening.

These two events amused and bemused me. Other organisational development work was going on as well such as leadership development programmes, coaching, strategy work, and so on. During this process, I noticed people becoming increasingly confident and able to achieve things that up until a few years before, would not have seen possible.

What was going on? There was nothing of a clear linear process going on here, it was mercurial. Something was happening that was changing the pattern of conversations. These were taken up and responded to in ways that rippled throughout the organisation enabling further change to happen. Success was noted by our stakeholders and there was a confident buzz in the organisation. As a postscript in these successes seeds were sown of future problems, of competences being achieved and tightly held thus limiting our ability to notice and respond to different challenges.

This is why I find the art of organisational development so fascinating and these are the themes that I’m keen to explore in this book with James.