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Home Truths About OD

Much of our work is ‘Organisational Development (OD) capacity building’ – that is, giving the people in the organisation who manage change and oil the wheels of development some skills, tips, tools and techniques to make their often tricky work more productive, resourceful and enjoyable. In doing so, we have learned some important home truths […]
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Much of our work is ‘Organisational Development (OD) capacity building’ – that is, giving the people in the organisation who manage change and oil the wheels of development some skills, tips, tools and techniques to make their often tricky work more productive, resourceful and enjoyable.

In doing so, we have learned some important home truths that are worth bearing in mind. This isn’t an exhaustive list – indeed I aim for this to be the start of a series, and as they come to us in the course of our practice, we’ll add more.

I also expect that the ones we’ll post here will be perhaps the more speculative, controversial and even provocative home truths, in order to prick some interest.

So here goes –the opening salvo:

  1. The only person who should be responsible for OD is the CEO (or COO?)
  2. HR is the last place OD should sit in the organisation
  3. OD isn’t about making more money

So let’s dig a bit further…


1. Why the CEO is the one who should take responsibility for OD

The OD principle that I am draw on here is a systemic one. OD, in its purest form, is a discipline that looks at the organisational as a whole system. If you take tools such as the Burke Litwin framework , the intention behind them is to take a holistic, systemic view. The trouble is that most roles in the organisation, right up to Director level are inherently siloed into departments. The dynamic that is inevitably set up is that fundamental in-group/out-group dynamic inherent in human relationships. I am not suggesting that people who start to view their colleagues in other departments as outsiders are flawed. It is a trait in all of us to see those in our own ‘family’ as ‘like us’ and therefore fundamentally sharing our interests, and those outside our ‘family’ as ‘not like us’, and therefore whose interests at odds with our own. If there is any doubt about this, think about what happens when there is a whiff of resource scarcity on the wind  - even ’good’ people start fighting for their own corner. It’s just what we do.

But there is one role whose job it is to take responsibility for the whole – systemically they are set up to do so – and that is the CEO. So shouldn’t OD be their role? In fact, although formally they might be seen as removed from this. Most CEOs I have worked with are all too preoccupied with the interpersonal dynamics of their direct reposts. They are doing the ‘real’ (highly political) OD anyway, and any other OD activities is often pushed into a side-show in the service of this informal activity. ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’, as Peter Drucker famously said.

In fact, I was distantly involved in some KMPG research into the C-Suite experience a few years ago, and this suggested that, far from being interested in the wider Organisational system, most effective CEOs are only interested in the impact the business (i.e. the outputs) and not the organisation has on the outside world. So whilst my thesis stands systemically, the reality is that the opposite is true – most CEOs don’t give a fig for OD, even though they are well-placed to do so. Perhaps OD should be the COOs role, ideally?


2. NOT HR!

Linked to the above proposition, could it be that HR is the last place that OD should be situated? Now, again I am not having a go at HR here – I am merely again taking a systemic view. Simply put it is this: HR is primarily about managing the best practice, within what is legal decent and feasible of how the people in the organisation are managed. As it’s name suggests, it is about the people resource. It is about making sure this resource is handled well, protected, secured, incentivised etc. etc. What it is less about is more what OD focuses on – the dynamics of how these people relate, in order to get the job done. To use an age-old OD term, coined at the Tavistock Clinic in London in the 1930s by the founding fathers, Eric Trist, Ken Bamforth and Fred Emery, OD is about the socio-technical system – the relationship between the people and the stuff that produces the outputs of the organisation. (In their case it was the machinery of coal mines). So why not HR? Well, if HR is about the people, OD is about the spaces between the people, the relationships between people and people, and people and ‘stuff’. So it isn’t that people aren’t important – HR ensures that they are, but someone else should be dwelling on how this resource and all other resources in the organisation interact.

It is often a kind of bias (and even a gendered bias) that puts all the soft stuff in the feminised world of HR and fails to read that the hard stuff of managing the dynamics of the system should not be ‘relegated’ to something pink and fluffy. It is a big mistake. That’s why most organisations suffer the way they do.


3. It’s not about the economy, stupid

OD is founded (by people like Trist et al) on the principle of people’s wellbeing first. In systemic terms, this matters because, as Eve Mitleton-Kelly, an LSE professor of Organisational Complexity told me recently, when I was privileged to have a chat with her, ‘people are not like bees’. In her view, most complexity thinking in organisations is flawed because it suggests that people behave like the insects that most social complexity studies have focussed on. But, as she said, people have free will, or volition. This means they know they are being studied (hence the famous Hawthorne experiment), and also, by and large, know (or at least suspect) if they are being manipulated.

Any OD practice that suggests to people that their views are being taken into account (say in the development of ‘organisational values’) and then they feel persistently ignored, will fail. If you don’t value people’s wellbeing, in what you say as well as what you do, what you say will be literally meaningless. The problem is compounded by the fact that people have been round the block a few times. They have seen initiatives come and go. They are primed to believe that change will be (especially in the post-industrial economies of developed countries) ultimately about saving money. So unless leaders really believe that their socio technical resource is precious, and treats it that way, they will not get the promised by-product of performance improvement they hope for.

I am not saying here that OD can’t deliver savings and efficiencies. It can and it does. But the paradox is that it has to set out, when dealing with intelligent volitional people, to genuinely care about their relationships and wellbeing first, and be honest about the profit being the by-product, or they will see right through it. Wouldn’t you?

So there you go. Three home truths to get us started. What more can you add?



Martin Saville: It's funny - when James first showed me a draft of this blog, the first thing I noticed was how much of it I disagreed with! As one of the other directors of Mayvin, this was a bit awkward.

“For Heaven’s sake man!” I said at a recent business meeting (or words to that effect.) “Half our business is with HR people. I am on the faculty of the CIPD’s OD programmes. How can we say that the last place for OD to live is with HR?”

“It’s tongue in cheek.” replied James. “I’m wanting to make a point. Provoke people a bit to start a debate. Should I tone it down?”

Then our wise Ops Manager, Pip, stepped in. “Why don’t you post it up as is and Martin – and anyone else minded to – can add their comments?” Good idea Pip. So here are my thoughts…

The CEO and OD
It’s all very well to say that the CEO (or COO) should be responsible for OD work, but what happens when they’re not interested? Do we just take our ball away and say we won’t play or do we try to pique their interest? If so, how much do we compromise in order to achieve this? Also, in the most effective organisations I know, department heads are simultaneously able to focus on their own area of responsibility and hold a wider perspective. Surely OD is trying to foster that kind of spirit across the organisation?

Not HR
Really? HR as it is practised in the UK is really starting to embrace OD principles. Indeed OD has been on the CIPD’s professions map for several years now. With the increasing popularity of business partnering approaches and a greater emphasis on strategic HR I would say the worlds of HR and OD are converging if anything. Besides, who says HR is just supposed to be about pay and rations? Why can’t HR adopt a systemic perspective? There’s also a pragmatic political point here – OD as a field needs to find its way into the organisational mainstream by whatever means available. HR seems to be a door that is open in the UK – or at least ajar – so why not work to open this door rather than banging on other doors that are locked and bolted? I’m not saying HR is the only place for OD, but nor would I say that OD has no place in HR.

Not about the economy?
Well I can meet James here in some ways – OD, in my view, is about helping organisations achieve something important in the world, no matter whether they are corporates, public sector or not-for-profits. My problem with this section is that it seems to suggest that matters economic don’t have a part to play. I suppose my sense is that OD sometimes has to navigate the inherent tensions, contradictions and paradoxes between meeting the organisation’s needs (including its economic needs) and those of the people who work in the organisation.

Where I am 100% with James is when he says: ‘unless leaders really believe that their socio-technical resource is precious, and treats it that way, they will not get the promised by-product of performance improvement they hope for’.

For me that is absolutely the heart of the matter. Phew – common ground at last! And so the debate continues... We'd love to know what you think.

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