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Why OD? James says the crazy paved world of activism

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In this episode you can listen into an interview with James Traeger Mayvin Director about how and why he got into Organisation Development.
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Welcome to the second interview in our Podcast mini series. Why OD? In this episode you can listen into an interview with James Traeger Mayvin Director about how and why he got into Organisation Development.

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Transcript of the interview with James Traeger

Claire Newell 1:43
Hi, James Traeger, do you want to introduce yourself a little bit? Just a little bit about who you are and what you do?

James Traeger 1:50
So I'm a director of Mayvin, one of the founder directors, I started working with Martin and our other colleague, Tony Fraser, who's now retired. Back in I think it was 2008 or 2009 when we first started talking about coming together. What became Mayvin in 2010. And a lot of my work in Mayvin is supporting others to do the work really.

I'm the sort of Director of overseeing practice, and we have a particular meaning for practice. What we tend to mean by that is how we show up in the work that we do with organisations and with people. And sort of more formally, I'm the director of qualifications. Because we have a partnership with the University of Chichester. And I'm the person sort of responsible for that at a kind of academic level for our masters and our postgraduate certificate programmes.

Claire Newell 2:49
That answers that. Thank you. So the reason I've asked you to do a podcast is because I think OD isn't something that most people have heard of. And so I'm interested in hearing how Mayvin consultants found their way into this thing we call organisation development. So yeah, how did you first hear of it? And how did you start getting involved with with OD?

James Traeger 3:12
Yeah. So straightforwardly, I think one of the common roots in for people in organisational development. Or at least it used to be. Perhaps it is less so now, ironically because it's become a bit more mainstream. But was in what you might broadly call community action or community activism.

And so, I was involved in the late 80s, early 90s, (very long time ago now), in environmental activism. In the area that I lived in, which was sort of broadly southwest London. On the borders of the home counties. And I helped to organise a forum for all the local environmental groups. It was for them to come together and work with a local authority at the time, which was a London borough.

And It became the first conservative authority to sign what was then the Friends of the Earth Local Government Charter. Which became agenda 21 and then fed into the whole COP kind of process and Rio and beyond. And yeah, I was organising this group of very disparate people and realised quite quickly that I didn't quite know how to do that.

Not at an organisational level, but at the kind of human level in terms of all these groups with slightly different agendas. And sometimes politically, quite far apart. From the kind of food cooperative on the left wing end. To the Surrey Wildlife Trust on on the slightly less left wing end. And so I needed some skills. I recognised that there were skills I didn't have. But I didn't quite know what they were, I didn't know what I didn't know, but I had a sense that there was something I didn't know.

And what happened actually next was quite was quite serendipitous really and probably synchronicity. And you know, I'm a bit of a believer in how the universe works in mysterious ways to be helpful at times. But one of the things that came out of that forum is we set up an environmental centre. Like a cafe and meeting place for environmental interested groups and people. Like an Information Centre and whatever.

We had a cafe and one day I came in to the cafe that I'd helped found. And the on the table were leaflets for a programme at Surrey University, called the facilitator styles. And it was a postgraduate diploma in humanistic psychology.

It was run by a group called the Human Potential Research Group founded by someone called John Heron. And they would run a two year Postgraduate Diploma in how on earth to run crazy groups like the one that I found myself running.

So that kind of happened. And at the time I was running, well working in a photo agency, which I ended up then running. As well as running these community groups and this community environmental activist kind of group. And I found myself on this postgraduate diploma in humanistic psychology, this facilitator programme, along with people from BT, and Hewlett Packard, and all of these people who worked in organisations doing this thing they call change, and OD.

They didn't really call it OD then, it was called things like change process, Gestalt practice and facilitation and that kind of thing. But that was my way in. I was quite starry eyed with all of these people who worked in these well known names. This whole world opened up of human change processes. And that was my way in and I think the activist way in. That community organisation way is one of the common ways in, in that kind of crazy paved world.

Claire Newell 7:20
Because practically, you needed to get these disparate communities talking to each other.

James Traeger 7:26
Yeah. And interestingly, in the end, I was too facilitative. So I was kicked out of that group. They weren't. They wanted was to be more, which is typical in activist groups, they wanted to be more aggressive. And I refused to adopt, a kind of enemy position, oppositional type approach to it. But by that time, I kind of moved on anyway.

For the first three months, I didn't even know I was kicked out of it. That's how wonderfully activist groups sometimes work. But because actually, interestingly, I found myself on this post grad diploma with all these people from the NHS. And as I said, BT and Packard and British Airways and other organisations.

There were 21 people on this programme, and only about six men. And it turned out that one of the reasons I got on the programme was. I was a lot less qualified than quite a few of the people on the programme, who got on it. I'd done a psychology degree, but I didn't have any idea about this world and no experience in it. I was in my 20s, you know, I was quite young and starry eyed.

And turned out that one of the reasons I think I got in the programme is because I was a man, and they needed a few more men. And when some of the women found out. Including some of the women who had been on the waiting list to get on the programme, they were incensed. Because the world of OD is a very female dominated world.

And this became a whole big pallava, a whole big controversy in the group that we had to spend hours and hours and workshops of time working through, as you do on those types of programmes. And it was a revelation to me that, you know, gender was an issue. I said, I was a naive young guy. Yeah. And that took me into being interested in these issues around gender and masculinity. Because it was a whole new world.

And that was my next stepping stone. So I was doing work, again, at a kind of an activist level, but more in corporate settings, around masculinity in organisations. And how men were adjusting to this changing time where women shock horror, were starting to be in leadership positions.

And this was an adjustment, these men needed help to adjust. Crazy old world and so I ended up doing that for 10 years actually, that that work. Which led to me doing a PhD at the University of Bath in action research around masculinity in organisations. And took me into whole world of doing work with one of our associates, Carol Daniels.

She and I did work in the police around gender issues. What's interesting about all the stuff that's coming out now about the police is all of this came, was coming out at that time. Which was in the early noughties. And there was some attempt to deal with it. But it was so related to who the Chief Constable was at the time.

We went from Ian Blair, who was very open to dealing with some of these issues, like the current Chief Commissioner is. But because of the. I don't know, if you remember. But a Brazilian kid got shot by accident, during the whole scare about terrorism in London. De Menezes his name was, at Stockwell station, interesting enough, just where my son lives.

And that meant that Ian Blair resigned. And so a new chief commissioner took over who was much less open to dealing with some of these issues. Culture lurched back again. So again, learning about you know, how leadership and culture work together, which of course, is saying. Because we were working on gender issues at in the Met at the time, and there was quite a lot of interest, which suddenly kind of disappeared. Very hierarchical organisation.

That's sort of the next phase was doing the sort of gendery work. So I think it's not enough to be interested in OD in itself. Sometimes it's useful to have OD and. And it was OD and community activism for me. Or OD in the context of community activism. Then it became OD in the interest of changing gender relations in, in the police. And, you know, now it's something else.

Do you see what I mean? Sometimes it's not just OD for the sake of it, it's in service of a particular view of change. And now, I think the OD for me is in the service of a whole new world of learning in organisations, we represent core practice based learning, which is actually much more about learning close to the grain of the work rather than removed from it and at arm's length.

Which learning so often is in organisations. Or go on course, and they go away, to do an away day and you know, everything is away from. And actually how can you make learning much more of an integrated part of organisational life? Because organisations don't have time anymore to send people away. They need to do to the learning as they're doing the work. And as they're changing. OD has a purpose is not just for the sake of OD. For the sake of changing something we want to change in the world.

Claire Newell 13:02
No. I guess just hearing you talk about the kind of different places you've worked and the influence you've made, that's going to be pretty rewarding in terms of seeing, making a difference?

James Traeger 13:16
Yeah, it is, I'm really proud of what we've done at Mayvin. And I think we have made a difference. Interestingly, one of the articles, that chapter that I've just written is about, well, what's the sort of difference that matters, in terms of what's the sort of difference we make?

Because I think what people think change is, is big, large scale programmes. And of course, as everybody knows, one of those comes along every week. And they usually make a lot of noise and mess. Then they disappear again not having changed very much at all. And what we've done, a lot of the change we do, is in the small things that matter, as I call them.

The relationships between people and how people run their their own life and their own work. And how they show up in their own kind of relationships in practice and how they are enabled to do things better in a way that's better for them and also better for their organisation and their colleagues.

And we think they're little things but actually, they're the big things. Because we have this obsession with big bags of change, we don't value them as much because it's harder to see them. It's a bit like you know, it's only when that moment that famous murmuration of starlings is flying we can see the patterns in it from the outside but we can't, each bird can't see the pattern.

They can just follow the birds that they're following. And that's what we see is the wider pattern in you know, that make those beautiful shapes that you see from the outside that add up to a bigger change but don't to themselves look like a big change.

You know, now I think over 1000 people have been through our programme in the civil service. And all the time now we get messages from people saying, thank you it is the best thing I ever did. It was amazing, it's really made a difference for me, it's helped me do my work better. It's changed my relationship with the people around me. And it's had an impact on me and my world beyond work.

That's the murmuration. There's this whole idea of inheriting traditions and handing them on. I met some really impressive people when I did that post grad diploma nearly 35 years ago, wherever it was, and those really impactful people. What they were doing and where they've gone.

And, one of them actually died in November, John Heron, the guy who's done that programme. He was 94. And I think there's something about handing on a legacy to us. And we've got people doing our masters. We've got people doing programmes that we run, and we're handing that legacy on. And that's all you ever do, I think is you hand a legacy on. That's what makes it valuable, I think.

Claire Newell 16:22
Nice. Okay. We'll leave it on that shall we.

James Traeger 16:26
Is that Is that okay?

Claire Newell 16:27
Yeah, yeah, no, that's perfect.

James Traeger 16:29
Probably 10 seconds in there.

Claire Newell 16:33
No, there's lots in there okay. Thanks, James.

James Traeger 16:38
All right. Great.

Claire Newell 16:41
Thank you so much for listening to us today. And we hope to see you next time. Take care. Bye bye.

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