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Why has OD failed?

Mayvin Directors James Traeger and Martin Saville challenge Organisation Development professionals (including themselves) to step up and play a bolder game and offer their insights on how to achieve this
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Why has Organisation Development (OD), and the associated ‘People Development’ agenda failed us as we start to engage with what the 21st Century holds? Starting with this negative question may seem very ‘non-OD’. Given the fashion for strengths-based approaches, perhaps we should be asking what has worked so far with OD? But we would like to engage with the ‘failure question’ because, while in our hearts we want to be appreciative people, we think there is a case for us in the OD community to answer. In this article we lay out what this case might be, and what OD can be doing to address it. As a prelude, we’d ask: has OD failed because we’re just being too nice?

So let’s start by laying out our stall: what do we do when we are doing our best work as OD practitioners? Let’s look at a recent case. We have been working with a local authority, a County Council, for some time. Like many other organisations it has been through tumultuous times. Their change agenda has been incessant and in the wake of the credit crunch they are dealing with a perfect storm in which they must do ever more with ever less. Our brief was to help their leaders get to grips with this change process.

Supported by the thinking of people like Professor Keith Grint, we developed with our clients the idea of ‘leaders as storytellers’ (Grint 2005). We weren’t doing this to enhance their capacity for spin, but rather to help them communicate their ‘narrative of change’ more effectively and coordinate it better in practice. We helped them hone their skills in co-developing the most appropriate and empowering narrative with which to act on their ‘wicked’ problems, to use Grint’s term.

Wicked problems involve highly complex situations where little is predictable. They require a more inquiring, ‘soft power’ approach to leadership. Over several days of our engagement with this County Council, we left them (in their own terms) better resourced, tooled up and wise to the changes, better listeners, readier to work together clearly and compassionately. By giving them facilitated time together, we addressed some important ‘elephants in the room’, expanding our clients' multiple intelligences (eg emotional as well as cognitive). As such, we helped to apply some ‘relational glue’, enabling them to stick together better. By our clients’ assessment we did a good job. Yet by the premise of this article, we’d still argue that at some level at least, we too failed. Why so? For that we need to explore a deeper.

Didn’t OD promise something, particularly as it gathered pace in the wake of the Second World War? Following in the tradition of the Western Enlightenment, OD popped out of the hope of a golden age of Reason. Frederick Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ was superseded by a more compassionate, heart-based tradition, influenced by psychology’s ‘Century of the Self’, and exemplified by Kurt Lewin’s ‘Action Research’. Lewin and others helped unlock the secrets of motivation, and that holy grail of business, ‘discretionary effort’. Thanks to this work, in theory at least we can now claim to understand the basis of some vital human capacities: motivation, engagement, innovation and ultimately, profitability and sustainability (in monetary terms). If you read people like Jim Collins, whose bestselling words have been on the lips of us OD people over the past decade or so, you could believe that the answer is absolutely clear. Combine this with Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits, and Bingo! The route map to ultimate success is as clear as the black print on the white, million-copies-sold pages.

But something else has happened to suggest that OD may have rather lost its way. The very fact that what these Gurus present to us is so clear and yet the future seems so murky is evidence in itself that something must be up, and that we in the OD world need to look deeper. For ourselves, our own introspection has led us back along the timeline. We think something happened round about the time of the September 11th attacks which may provide a clue about where to pay attention. It’s as if, following 9/11, the world moved towards an overwhelmingly fear-driven culture, one that isolates individuals into a grim world of ‘just holding on’. At the same time, the sheer pace of life seems to have led to us all becoming chronically hooked into the 'Hurry Up' driver.

As OD people, could it be that we simply haven’t challenged this enough, preferring to act like stretcher-bearers in a war? We cart people and their organisations off, patch them up and send them back into the fray. Are we bold enough to act for an end to the War itself?

If these are the areas where OD is failing, this is also where its promise most exists - where we can muster the grit required to get real traction with authentic human connection, and the wider intelligences and wisdom suggested by a more interconnected world. That means putting ourselves on the line: our hearts, souls, minds and bodies. There are of course many ways to do this. We’d like to point to three.


Our basic thesis is that OD fails when it wimps out. For example, we may well often tell ourselves as practitioners that ‘we have to meet the client where they are’. But when the client says ‘I’d like to a set of tools to fix our people quickly’, do we question hard enough the whole premise on which their request is based? When a client says to us (as one did recently) ‘we’re going to need lots of OD work, but we’re not going to call it OD, because it’s seen as too flaky’, do we need to challenge them elegantly, not because we want to make an enemy of a client, but because our lack of grit is what has generated this perspective of OD in the first place? Every time we fail to make that kind of challenge, is there a debasement of the currency to the point where at a time when OD is perhaps growing faster than ever, there are ever-more fundamental questions about whether it really delivers anything at all.

If we continue to wimp out, we’ll continue to degrade the impact that OD can have and therefore reduce its currency.

Self as Instrument

We regularly run programmes developing OD practitioners’ ability to use their 'self' as the ‘primary instrument’ of OD.

‘It is in who you are’, we say, ‘that your true power to make the difference lies, not in what you know or the tool bag you carry around with you.

‘After all,’ we continue, ‘two different practitioners can have a wildly differing impact on an organisation even though they may essentially have the same levels of knowledge, training and experience.’

When we put it that way people find it hard to disagree - it is self-evident. But this awareness alone doesn’t help people use their self differently or become more powerful practitioners. When we talk about the ‘self as instrument’ we are not talking just about the thinking self. Using the self as an instrument means accessing many other types of wisdom - in our practice we talk about wisdom in the transpersonal, the imaginal, the relational and the embodied domains.

Think, for example, about what it is that gives an OD practitioner the capacity to ask a powerful Chief Executive the right question in the right way such that they pause for a moment and reflect critically on their own certainties and begin to see things differently. What does it take to help that Chief Executive see that they too may be part of the problem? Doing this well requires courage and skill for sure, but it also requires empathy, intuition and a quality of presence to connect with another human being in a way that goes beyond the rational.

As well as the ability to connect deeply with others, the best ‘self as instrument’ practitioners also offer a world view that is different to the dominant perspective of their organisations. Used skilfully, this difference can start conversations that inquire into the default assumptions of the various players and ‘sub-systems’ in the organisation. Creating these conversations is perhaps the most fruitful work that an OD practitioner can do. It is through this 'reflexivity' that a new and shared perspective can be created; this is what leads to lasting organisational change in a time when things are moving just too quickly and unpredictably for traditional, command and control approaches to keep up.

Doing this well requires the OD practitioner both to understand their own world view and simultaneously to hold it up for scrutiny and challenge. This takes courage and openness, resilience and self-awareness, commitment to staying curious in the face of ambiguity. All of this is the direct antithesis of the fear-based responses we described as haunting our early 21st Century world. The opportunity here is for OD practitioners to step up and model something different.

How do you develop the qualities of the good ‘Self As Instrument’ practitioner? We don’t claim to have any definitive answers, but our own journeys of development have led us to work deeply on our own self-awareness, world views and entrenched patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.

Routes to this such as coaching and psychotherapy are certainly valuable here, but we also believe there is powerful wisdom to be gained from a more integrated approach to our physical bodies and indeed to the natural world around us. David Abram (Abram 1997) has suggested that there may have been a time in human history when we actually experienced the natural world speaking to us but that it fell silent with the advent of writing. Richard Strozzi-Heckler (Strozzi-Heckler 2007) has championed the notion that our physical body and our ‘self’ are in fact indistinguishable. His ground-breaking, ‘somatic’1 approach to leadership and personal development forms part of our practice as OD professionals. The possibility here is that by reconnecting to our bodies and to our environment, we get to experience a wider range of physical sensations than speed and with that, access to a broader emotional spectrum and a much-needed greater sense of connectedness.

So we are talking about an holistic ‘self as instrument’, rather than a dualistic one where the important bit - the brain - is ferried around from meeting to meeting by the brutish body. We recognise that this is challenging to a world where the ‘rationalist’ approach remains king. Rising to this challenge is part, we believe, of OD raising its game. We need to learn to access some of those non-rational wisdoms that are not usually talked about in our organisations and to communicate their value robustly and in the terms that our clients care about.

We believe the diversity agenda has long been too limited. This issue goes far beyond the numerical inclusion of diverse peoples, faiths, genders, developing economic blocs etc; rather than exhorting these groups to fit into the mainstream, the mainstream needs to question at real depth how it thinks and acts.

Placing diversity in the context of OD, rather than in its own separate cul-de-sac, starts to address the challenge of diversity more productively. Professor Amanda Sinclair of Melbourne Business School sums this up well in her four stages of executive culture’s engagement with diversity (Sinclair 1998, 2005). First the organisation is in complete denial of diversity as an issue. Next the issue is recognised but defined as the problem of excluded groups, for example women. In Stage 3 the organisational incrementally adjusts itself to the interest of these groups; for instance we have worked in Police Constabularies where shift patterns were changed for the sake of being more ‘family friendly’. This is the stage where women, for example, are deliberately promoted to senior leadership positions, but because the culture is still overwhelmingly male-orientated, they are unintentionally set up to fail and often topple over a ‘glass cliff’. Stage 4 is what Sinclair calls a ‘commitment to a new culture’. In this stage, all the organisation's practices, processes and ultimately the way it thinks are up for grabs. This is when diversity really starts to become an OD issue. The number of organisations that reach anywhere near Stage 3, let alone this final stage, are still lamentably few. Most organisations are therefore missing out on crucial perspectives as they make their strategic decisions.

So to summarise, we still believe in the promise of OD. We think the possibility is in a mindset that shifts the emphasis from OD as a set of knowledges providing the ‘answer’ to individual illnesses, to us as OD practitioners acting with boldness as part of a community of healers. We can do our individual, local, timely and relevant work well enough, but we must work towards connection to a wider, even global community. While we see OD as a set of neat text book answers, it will continue to fail people and organisations. When we practitioners practise our craft with integrity, heart, even a little more fierceness and a global perspective, we can offer real hope. In short OD is a set of values in practice, and if we ignore this, we are in danger of becoming a tool of workplace enslavement.
So we return to the story of the County Council that we started with. Why is this some kind of failure? Because the work is not finished while it rests on its comfortable laurels. As a story it might look neat to you, to us and even to the client we served, but this story is not enough. One organisation’s incremental improvement is something, but it does not address OD’s malaise. For that we need an ongoing discussion of how we can shift the emphasis from ‘hero narratives’, like those of Jim Collins, Stephen Covey, or even our own, to a more restless inquiry into our practice, connectivity and impact as an OD Community, as part of a world that needs us more than ever.

We aren’t offering an answer but a question - how can we continue to develop our practice, and change the mindset of businesses to match the required mindset of the world towards connectivity, community and healing? Without it, like the worst of medicines, OD may make the patient feel momentarily better but it will never deliver true wellness. Embracing OD's core mission of challenge, interconnection and wisdom will take some real guts. Have we got the guts?

From the Ancient Greek soma which translates approximately as ‘living body in its wholeness’
Grint, K. (2005). “Problems, Problems, problems, the social construction of leadership.” Human Relations 58: 1467-1494.

Abram, D. (1997). The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, Vintage Books, New York

Strozzi-Heckler, R. (2007). The Leadership Dojo: Build Your Foundation as an Exemplary Leader, Frog Ltd, Berkeley

Sinclair, A. (1998, 2005). Doing Leadership Differently: Gender, Power and Sexuality in a Changing Business Culture, Melbourne University

This article first appeared in Croner’s Developing HR Strategy, January 2011 issue 36.

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