OUCH! Organization Development

20151104_145251My plan was a summer break from writing the OUCH! posts. And now here it is December and I’m finally writing a new post! I’m not too sure why summer stretched into fall and then winter but I have a sense some of the delay had to do with knowing that I was going to be writing posts on organization development. The topic is close to home, and while it is an area I have been focusing on for the better part of 30 years, I also think organization development as it is primarily practiced now is deeply flawed. I wasn’t clear how to address a topic that I am intimately involved with and at times simply makes me want to scream in frustration!

I’m still not clear but it seemed clarity was not forthcoming so I finally decided to just start writing and see what emerged. Based on the posts dealing with strategy I probably should have realized this was the best approach a long time ago! Our left loops are pretty strong and ubiquitous it seems when it comes to wanting certainty (clarity in this case)!

One of the things that kind of got me over the hurdle of writing these posts was a radio interview with Garrison Keillor the creator of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion which ran from 1974 – 2016 when he decided not to do it anymore. I don’t know a lot about Garrison Keillor or the show but in the interviewer’s introduction of Keillor he used a term to describe Keillor’s approach to writing that stuck with me. The term was ‘ferociously gentle’. I like the combination of those seemingly opposing terms.

Quite often when I would write, or talk about organization development the screams of frustration would be forefront; perhaps representing the term ferocious. And yet when I work in the field, with colleagues or associates the screams of frustration are not at the forefront. Most people I have interacted with in the area of organization development are genuinely trying to make their organizations ‘better’, for everyone involved and grapple with a definition of ‘better’ that is often not aligned with the rest of what the organization needs or wants to do. It is this experience that brings the term gentle to the forefront.

I do believe those of us in organization development need to seriously question what we are doing. I believe that what we are doing simply has to change if we want to deliver on the definitions of ‘better’ that I hear so often. If not, I believe we will continue to contribute to the shame, blame and guilt pattern of interactions that we say needs to be changed.  Our good intentions are not sufficient. We need to apply the strengths and skills we have very differently. We need to be better. I believe that those I have worked with in this field can do this. And that we will all need to be ferociously gentle as we do.

So off we go!

In order to consider and write about organization development it is necessary to define what organization development is.

Unfortunately there does not seem to be a working definition to be found, in OD circles anyway! Post a question in a LinkedIn group dealing with OD asking what the definition of OD is and a couple of hundred responses later you will be no closer to a definition. Here is a link to a video titled What Is Organization Development? by the Organization Development Network. You would likely think they would have a definition given their focus and membership is involved with the topic all the time. My guess is that if you watch this 13 minute video you will be no closer to a definition of what organization development is. And the framework that is hinted at won’t help you either.

The Wikipedia definition of OD is:

Organization development (OD) is the study of successful organizational change and performance.

The problem with this definition (besides the singular focus on study vs application of that study!) is that everyone in an organization would be an OD person! Everyone is involved in change and performance in some way!

The telling part about OD history is that it originated as a discipline in the 1930’s when psychologists noted a connection between organizational structure and design and behavior. From these beginnings the field and practice has exploded, never losing these fundamental roots; those being a psychological approach and a focus on organization structure and design affecting behavior.

So while the definition above would include everyone in an organization, the psychological and structural approach to that definition enabled OD to become a separate entity. Not everyone was an OD person, not because of what OD was, but by the way you went about doing that definition.  Kind of sneaky really and quite effective at keeping the discipline alive and well today.

I believe it is this approach to OD that needs to change; where we need to be ferocious in our critique of what we do as OD practitioners and to make fundamental shifts.

To this end, the definition I am using for organization development in these posts is quite similar to the one above:

Organization development is the study of and interactions associated with movement toward successful change and performance.

Everyone IS focused on OD in an organization. OD ‘people’ or departments study (or should be) the interactions leading to successful change and performance more than others.

The definition above works for these posts. It also leads to the need for so much more defining and grappling with meaning. That’s where we can all be both ferocious and gentle as we work to apply the definition above to the topic of OD itself.


2 Responses

  1. Want to update the Wikipedia definition?

    • Well Kris, updating the definition of OD with the intent of finding agreement I think is pretty much an effort in futility! I had to land somewhere and the definition I have used works for me. I expect there would be a number of people that would disagree with my definition but I’m hoping it will become more clear as these posts emerge.

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