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Skilful OD: Is the work of OD about tools and techniques, or something more?

Mayvin Director James Traeger shares his experience of working in a boatyard and how they relate to skilful OD. Once, years ago, I worked in a boatyard. I spent a bright winter there, watching the grinding and welding of iron sparkle under the starry sky, reflections bouncing off the river under the glinting flight path […]
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Mayvin Director James Traeger shares his experience of working in a boatyard and how they relate to skilful OD.

Once, years ago, I worked in a boatyard. I spent a bright winter there, watching the grinding and welding of iron sparkle under the starry sky, reflections bouncing off the river under the glinting flight path of Heathrow, in Isleworth. The Christmas twinkle lasted from October to February, when I was fired. I wasn’t a very good boatbuilder. I was the sort of carpenter who built two-legged tables, because I got bored before the third leg was finished. And there isn’t much call for two-legged tables. But at least I learnt what being a good boatbuilder was all about.

Boat work is the most skilled kind of carpentry. In fact it is much more than just carpentry; a good boatbuilder must learn to design, weld, engineer as well as fix and join wood, whilst fettling with diesel engines and the like, all without the help of a spirit level or a plumb line, the tools he’d be glad to lend you any time (as the old boatbuilder joke goes), because they are useless to him on the water. (In those days there weren’t any women boatbuilders around – I wonder if that’s still true?)

The boat yard was on an island in the middle of the river, and when the tide was in, we had to catch a lift from a boatman to work. Occasionally, when I wasn’t falling in the river (which is another story) it was my job to ferry the workers, as it was a simple job that even I couldn’t mess up too much. As I rowed back and forth across the river, I had a unique perspective on the boatbuilders at work. It seemed to me that there were broadly two types as typified by two particular exemplars. Let’s call them Dave and Pete.

Dave was bright and keen. He was (like me), more of a boatbuilder by choice, rather than born into it. As such, he was keen to show what a natural he was. He knew lots and would be glad to tell you how much he knew. He was particularly well equipped. He had a great big toolbox, with the widest range of equipment. ‘You have to be prepared’, he might say, as he’d show off the latest addition to his proud armoury. Once I heard someone say, perhaps unkindly. ‘Oh yes, Dave – all the gear and no idea.’ This was harsh. Dave was competent. And what did I know? After all I was really rubbish! But occasionally he would struggle with the odd, complex job because he didn’t quite know which tool to use.

Pete on the other hand would have struck you as rather unimpressive on first glance. He was a bit dishevelled. Occasionally he would arrive a bit late and hungover at the dockside, and greet me with a sheepish grin. No one ever scolded him though. He would probably be carrying a milk crate, and in it were about 20 tools, maximum. Possibly fewer. (He may we vll have lost one or two in the preceding few days). They were good quality tools, sharp, but not impressive. What was most striking was the way Dave worked, when he fell to the job at hand. Like a demon, he would seemingly be able to apply himself to the most complex of joins, where all the angles converged like a wood block puzzle. He would be able to use his few tools in a range of bewildering configurations, and was seemingly never as stumped by the job at hand as he was by the simple things in life, like getting up in the morning in time for work. I liked Pete. He was kind and avuncular, born to the life on the river. I once watched him apply himself to a particular challenge, involving what boatbuilders called a ‘spile’ – measuring up and cutting in a piece of irregularly shaped wood to a particular location of seemingly impossible proportions. It went in, first time, with the most satisfying of thunks, requiring no glue or screws. It was a work of art. I have worked with a very many clever people in my life but rarely have I worked with true geniuses. I would number Pete amongst them.

The point of the story, as you may have gathered, is that the tools weren’t the thing. The reason why the tools weren’t the answer in the boat yard, and may also not be the answer for us in the world of OD, is because the situations we meet are always unique. This isn’t to say that tools are useless; far from it. Pete’s twenty or so tools were good ones. He was happy to use them in very flexible ways. But the most important tools of course were within Pete himself, his mind, eye and hands, his whole self in fact.

A recent conversation with my colleague and friend Phil Mix resonated with this story and its applicability to OD. We were discussing a particular organisation’s approach to OD. They had a methodology that they are very passionate about. This is fair enough - it is a good method of work around change. But it struck Phil that they could be a bit monomaniacal about it: “How applicable is it in every situation”, he said, “ and what if they encountered a situation where it didn’t fit so well? Would they adapt the tool or would they adapt the situation, making the world fit their own outlook?”

A recent example of my own accords with this. On a recent OD capability-building programme, in an action learning set meeting, one person reported that their own organisation had a problem with competing methodologies around change.

On the one side, there was the Continuous Improvement group, with a particular, incremental view of change, using a project management mind-set. ‘Find the immediate problem, fix it, move on’, as they put it. On the other hand there were the appreciative inquiry advocates who had a worldview that jarred against the whole ethos of Continuous Improvement: ‘look askance at the problems, focus more on what works and do more of it.’ The OD job here, as we came to see it in our action learning set discussion, was not to take sides, but to find a ground-level commonality between these two groups.

Rather than another set of tools, this required modelling of a mindset of dialogue, extemporising what can be made to work in local, timely way. In it sense, it doesn’t really matter if in theory these worldviews are incommensurate, because in practice the people involved could be facilitated to work together. It is a bit like, how any carpenter would frown upon the idea of using a screwdriver like a chisel, in theory, but if they find themselves on the job, fitting something at an awkward angle, and the screwdriver is not to hand, they might be able to find a way towards a quality outcome.

OD know-how is all about what works on the ground, rather than in theory. That is because the context is always changing, and any set method will always find it hard to keep up with the dynamics of the here and now. So tools aren't necessarily the thing in OD. Maybe the outlook and skilful use of the self is more important. Not that I would avoid using a few good sharp OD tools, but I wouldn’t stay too attached to them if I were you. Keep them in a milk crate, and meanwhile focus on your skilful use of yourself in the local context in which you are standing.

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