What is Organisation Development (OD) for? I have found myself saying that a good definition for me is to ‘give to the system what it doesn’t already have enough of’. I am not sure that’s enough anymore.
“I've never seen anybody really find the answer. They think they have, so they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.”
- Ken Kesey.
Inspired by a recent conversation with a group of OD friends, I felt something needed to be said about OD and its role in helping us to live with mystery. This feels timely. The worlds of organisations and communities more widely are challenging, not least because of a need for people to orientate themselves in very confusing times. OD in my view has paradoxically become more mainstream than ever and also perhaps slightly disempowered. The disempowerment is visible in the way it has become a sort of corporate vehicle for managing change, rather than a movement for the humanising of organisations, perhaps one who’s role has long been to challenge the objectifying and normalising trends of globalised commerce.
As Chris Grey says, ‘The informal always runs away from attempts to enclose it, for that is what the informal organization means.’ (Grey, 2009, p162)
What happens when something becomes more mainstream is there is a tendency to codify it, even professionalise it and that tendency can be restrictive of an incipient creativity and vibrancy. Orthodoxies get set up, obeisance is paid to gurus and ideologies become fixed.
The recent conversation in our small OD support group moved towards wondering about how so many of the arenas of discussion these days tend to have an either/or, black and white discussion. I related my own concern about the battle between feminist and trans activists; for me these two should be allies against far deeper, darker forces. That is one example of the many places in which certainty and entrenchment displaces dialogue and inquiry. In Mayvin, we have been having our own discussions about race, prompted by BLM and our roots of Jewishness, problematised by the fact that now we are demographically more non-Jewish as a business as we have grown and therefore, whither our own difficult conversation of race and identity? We came up with a powerful phrase for the work we were doing, which was that the job here seems to be to ‘stay in relationship whilst feeling charged emotionally.’ That in itself is a skill, and also part of wider craft in our practice with organisations: when we enter a human system, we both need to feel the emotional weft but at the same time, remain somehow distanced from it, in order to be able to usefully arbitrate. This in essence is what I think being an effective ‘self as instrument’ (Cheung-Judge, 2001) requires.
In that ambiguous space, both emotionally engaged but remaining somehow dis-‘passionate’ (literally) lies a mystery. How is that possible? I don’t know, but I know that it is something I do, and how I can be useful to my clients, or at least that is what I aspire to do. It is essentially unknowable, at least in purely rational terms. Something else is opened up, some other knowing, like the knowing one has of something greater than self when walking through a field and hearing the wind rush through the barley. This is mystery. It allows us to be on the one hand and the other, and to hold both at some dynamic (is it?) tension. It strikes me that there is an awful lot of ‘knowing’ out there; massive amounts of opinion and persistent pontification. Our times offer a deluge of answers.
I think that mystery shows up in a variety of settings in the practice of OD that we take for granted as useful, even if we don’t quite know how they work. For example:
- Parallel process. The way that when you discuss a client situation with another practitioner, sometimes the very phenomena that the client system is experiencing can show up in your relationship with each other. This is particularly useful in co-consulting. If you maintain a quality of curious inquiry, this can be enlightening.
- How often is it that you ‘get the clients you deserve’ as they say? These are the situations when, in working through the issues in the clients context, some aspect of your own development edge shows up that you need to deal with. This is sometimes difficult, and always useful if we retain a level of reflexivity.
- How is it that by offering a small amount of creative inquiry in a safe space, so much can be done that seems hard to do in the everyday whirl of things? We sometimes ask groups to ‘check in’ using a picture or object that tells a story about an issue or concern, and the results can be astonishing.
- Carl Jung called it synchronicity, the way that things happen in an uncanny way, like the time when a poster on the tube train on the way to the client carried a message that seemed so apt and resonated with the issues that you encountered with the group or team, in a way that unblocked something.
There are many more examples of such things, and the point here is not to elicit some kind of magical thinking, but to notice that there is an element of mystery in how things work when they work.
Perhaps the next stage of OD’s work, and maybe it always was the work of OD, is to work with the mystery, the liminal, the half glimpsed, the not knowing but staying in relationship nonetheless. Maybe I was wrong: maybe it is still the role of OD to bring to the system what it doesn’t already have enough of, but maybe paradoxically I am clear that what we don’t have enough of, right now, is an accommodation with mystery.
(With thanks to the colleagues in the WMC group members).
Cheung-Judge, M-Y (2001) The Self as an Instrument A Cornerstone for the Future of OD (OD Practitioner 33(3), 2001)
Grey, C. (2009) A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Studying Organizations (Sage)