Rather than aspiring to a perfect system, a worldview that constantly disappoints, why not see the organisation as a messy, beautiful human system? In this blog post Mayvin Director James Traeger reflects on his personal experience of Jewish New Year and its resonance with the here and now of organisational life.
It still seems odd to celebrate the New Year in September, and it got me thinking about how it connects to our practice at Mayvin of doing OD & D for real in organisations. All my life I have been conscious of having two identities: a public English one and a private Jewish one. It seemed safer that way. It used to fill me with horror when I was a teenager that my school and my synagogue were geographically close together. Jewish New Year coincides with the start of a new term and a new class and so before we'd even really begun the school year, I would be taking the day off to go to Synagogue. Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the New Year found me dressed in a suit, tie and shiny shoes having to take a fast walk past my school, trying to hide from my new classmates.
The here and now
There is an odd logic about New Year being in the autumn, a logic that reflects the eccentricity of a Jewish outlook. In the Torah, we are actually commanded to celebrate the holiday of Rosh Hashanah on the ‘first day of the seventh month’. The story that we read from the Torah on the first day of the New Year is a particularly troubling one. It is the ‘Akidah’, the ‘binding of Isaac’, a nice euphemism for the near sacrifice of our historic founder’s first-born son. Abraham was prepared to blindly carry out the instructions of God until the very last moment, when God stayed his hand. As with most Jewish theology, interpretations abound; there is no single, accepted commentary. For me it is about both the possibility of darkness and light, and the messiness of the human story. Judaism is a strange old faith. We don’t even have a heaven or hell as such. It is all about the here and now, and it somehow works to be slightly troubled by the nature of things.
Embracing the messiness of organisations
It isn’t a coincidence that there seems to be a resonance between this worldview and the outlook inherent in Organisation Development and Design (OD) Practice. The predominant view of organisations is that of a well-oiled machine that performs in a rational and ordered way. Most agree that that is what should be happening. The trouble is, no-one ever experiences this. What they see is a system that constantly fails to live up to this ideal. The paradise of perfection constantly recedes, leaving behind a beaten populace, banging their frustrated fists against the ground. OD people offer some solace by pointing out that it has always been thus. Embrace the messiness, and work with it. All the outputs of productivity, profitability and creativity are realisable. In fact, they may be more obtainable than ever, if we can dance to the rhythm of this organic pattern. This is OD’s unique contribution.
What the OD practitioner can bring
However, even we in OD can slip into the mindset of the order-perfection-disappointment cycle. We start to see OD as a system of models and tools that seem on the surface to buy into the perfectible organisation. At Mayvin, we are developing a way of working that we call ‘OD for Real’. This suggests that these models, tools and techniques are not enough. As change people, we need to recognise how change really happens: in a messy, often painful way. Working with this messiness and pain takes a different kind of skill. That skill is what the OD practitioner can bring.
At Jewish New Year, as we begin a new cycle, we accept that next year is likely to be as messy as the last, but in that messiness we will still aspire to a good life. Creativity and love still inspire us to greater things. I wish you L’Shanah Tovah, ‘may you be inscribed in the book of life’ for a happy, healthy and successful year of OD practice.