OD – Psychology, Structure and the Need for Balance

20151104_145251In the last post I said it was the approach to OD that needed to change. That approach is psychological in nature and focuses on structure and design of organizations. To be more precise, the change is more a balancing of these two approaches. As approaches to OD they have real value. When these approaches are the only way we approach OD then I think we do have a problem. I would say that this approach is mostly unquestioned in OD circles. And if you dare to question it you will be quickly criticized.

If you use the word balance then there must be things opposite from what is to be balanced; something considerably different. Something on the other side of the scale.

The balancing perspective of psychology is social construction. The balancing perspective of structure is interaction.

As I was preparing to get back to writing these posts I looked back at a lot of blog posts I had written on the topic and thought that some of these simply needed to be used again, perhaps with a bit of editing, mainly for context. To illustrate the above perspective, below is a post from 2009; very relevant to this topic in 2016.  I have been writing posts for over 10 years now; this post is the 3rd most read post during that time. I have included responses. Edits and additions are in blue. Please continue on through the comments for the conclusion of this post.


Two weeks ago my colleague and I attended and presented at the OD Network conference.  It was an interesting time with lots of conversation, chances to meet new and interesting people and then to reflect on the experience and see what emerged.

Perhaps the first thing that stands out for me was that the people who I met there and conversed with were really good people.  Everyone seemed to be very sincere in their efforts to make a positive difference in the work they did and were at the conference to learn new things and meet new people that would help them in their work.  It is nice to be with a group of people where you sense that sincerity alongside high levels of competence.

The second thing that emerged for me was that the primary and often unquestioned method by which OD practitioners look to help their clients was to assist them go ‘inside and deeper’ ( a psychological approach).  By this I mean to look inside oneself or one’s organization and try and go deeper inside until some core truth or meaning is found and then by bringing forth that deeper truth into the world, improvement could be made.  This might be referred to as true vision, who you really are, deeper meaning, core self, or some other manifestation that resides within us to be found if we go deep enough.

This models the psychotherapeutic (a version of psychological) method and while this method can add value it struck me as the conference moved on how dominant this viewpoint and approach was and how little it was questioned let alone the investigation of alternative methods.  In fact I would surmise that a large percentage of the attendees at the conference have never considered or been exposed to other methods of making sense of the work world.  They have certainly seen a variety of ways of approaching the ‘inner and deeper’ approach (many illustrated at the conference) but not often exposed to a fundamentally different perspective.

As an example I was with a group of about 15 where the word psychotherapeutic was used and everyone nodded in agreement of some understanding what was meant by that.  The word social construction was then used a little later and only one person knew what was meant by that, and they were an academic studying the subject.  Intrigued, I then experimented in the same way with two other groups with almost identical results.

Our presentation was on complex responsive processes; the work of Ralph Stacey and colleagues which has a solid grounding in social constructionist thinking, or basically the ‘outward and broader’ view of the world and people in it.  In contrast to psychotherapeutic thinking, social construction posits that we exist and develop in a world that is social and this social process is primary.  It is not exclusive of inner and deeper approaches but would say that even if discoveries were made by going inner and deeper those findings came into being by a social process and do not gain meaning until played out in a social context. If you click on these links the idea of interaction as balancing systems thinking (structure and design of organizations) is what our presentation was focused on. Probably one of the most challenging and rewarding ‘presentations’ I have ever done. This was also the first big ‘public’ presentation of our interaction model after a couple of years working with it on our own. Since then it has become the foundation of how we understand and work with organizations. Really how we understand this crazy world of ours.

I believe it is time for the OD world to be much more inclusive of social approaches to development and change.  At a very practical level it matches what is actually happening in the world of our clients.  They interact in a social process continually and if we engage that process we can work within it, not outside of it which is what the psychotherapeutic process requires.  Too often the OD world asks, even demands that the work world slow down and go inner and deeper.  Perhaps it is time to match the pace of the world and go outward and broader.

I have no doubt that the people I met at the conference have the capacity to do this.  They were smart, awesome people.  The theme for the conference was Now is Our Time.  I would agree.  Now is our time to move outward from the constraints of the psychotherapeutic model and seriously look to additional ways of adding value.


  1. Janet November 6, 2009, 1:33 pm

    Excellent Article. I’m sharing it with some of my OD/Change Leader type friends.


  2. Rachel Lyn Rumson November 6, 2009, 2:41 pm

    Great observation and I totally agree with your assertion that meaning making is primary a social process. Nice to know that there are more social constructionists “in the room”.

    Makes me wonder about the social context of OD, specifically American OD. How does the culture context we are in, which values individualism and capitalism, shape the ways of knowing in our field and the ways of practicing?



  3. Joseph Logan November 6, 2009, 4:07 pm

    Excellent points. OD has had a troubling tendency to value technique over context, with the unfortunate result of losing trust within client systems. Psychotherapeutic approaches in particular are troubling because clients don’t necessarily want or need them–it isn’t always necessary to go deep in the helping relationship–and because OD practitioners without the proper training and accreditation in intrapsychic counseling are unqualified to practice it. Despite using the term “organization development”, I have noticed that a great many OD practitioners work almost exclusively at the individual, interpersonal, and group levels. The organizational level and its context deserve serious contemplation and inclusion in OD engagements.


  4. Michael Lewin-Papanek November 10, 2009, 3:16 pm

    Thanks Tom for a great perspective.

    I also share your firm’s belief that the social system is critical and is where both positive change and barriers to change must be discovered and addressed. I see this as clearly linked to the Lewinian concept of Field Theory and a Gestalt approach vs. a more Freudian psychotherapeutic method.

    It is an old adage in OD and CM that “culture eats change for lunch”, yet rather than address the social system directly, much of OD is focused on 1:1 (“coaching”) or small team interaction, in part b/c this is seen as a more manageable and measurable area. But, to use another old OD metaphor, we may be looking under the lamp post just b/c the light is better, rather than searching in the dark where the real solution might be.

    Sorry I missed your session at ODN and thanks for making your materials available on-line.



  5. Rachel Lyn Rumson April 17, 2010, 2:09 am

    Applause. I appreciate this perspective and the comments. I could not agree more that both, the social constructionist perspective is useful and that organizations, even regions or communities, need to have a contextual approach to change. Indeed, such systemic thinking might bring our clients into intentional relationship with the economies in which they are rooted leading to more practical approaches to sustainability, performance and less myopic goals.

    Sorry, that I did not meet you in Seattle.

2016 – I’m not so sure we have made a lot of progress since 2009 in the field of OD. Perhaps this just goes to show that a content focused event (see the Learning and Development posts) doesn’t change the world very effectively 🙂

But let’s keep trying. We now have blog posts to do this, more of an extended process of interaction. We can still change the world!

We need to start from something very basic however. The fundamental difference of purpose between organizations and people. Not often looked at but that will be the next post. It kind of changes everything 🙂 !


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: