I have been struck by a clear message from the 2019 Organization Development (OD) Network and Afrocentrism Conferences. Both conferences converged on a call for more humanity in our relationships, organizations and communities, even though the starting point for each was quite difference. I offer here a brief synopsis of why and how I saw this convergence happen and a few thoughts on what this means for us as leadership and organization development practitioners and humans in the world today.
Organization Development Network (ODN) Conference 2019: Agility & Resilience – Navigating Complexity & Transformation
The OD field has often been criticized for overemphasizing humanism in ways that can impede our clear impact on the business and operations of the organizations we serve. That however, was not my experience of ODN 2019. It was in fact, because the conference was focused on business and organizational agility within our 4th Industrial Revolution that the thread of the call for humanity stood out to me. The conference was a balanced array of offerings across the breadth of socio-technical and evidence-based methodologies—a clear-eyed view of building and supporting thriving organizations in the context of today’s complexity. Yet, right from the get-go, there was a reminder from David Rock that in the neuroscience of leading through transformation, the moments of insights that amplify change are predicated by social learning. How might we design for that in the midst of virtual ways of working and learning? As the conference progressed through keynote after keynote and workshop after workshop sharing learnings to support agility in the midst of our 4th industrial revolution, the need for centering humanity in the designs of the future was clear. There was so much to chew on in this sense but one exemplary note was the reminder from the award-winning article and work by Frederick A. Miller, Judith H. Katz, & Roger Gans: AIxI=AI2: The OD Imperative to Add Inclusion to the Algorithms of Artificial Intelligence. This article highlights that human and systemic biases have already been embedded into AI and Machine Learning (and why wouldn’t that be the case given the principle of bias in, bias out?) and that “Today, our task is to identify and root out the biases and inequities of human society that are being absorbed through machine-learning processes and presented as objective and unquestionable reality. This is no small task!”
This call for humanity resounded through all the other plenaries—The panel on agility spoke of bringing back the human focus because agility can be used for human good or ill. Jeanie Cockell, Joan McArthur-Blair, Jackie Stavros, & Cheri Torres, PhD, centered resilient conversations as essential practice for Navigating Complexity and Transformation. Meg Wheatley admonished us as always to be warriors of the human spirit and seek deeper connection and islands of sanity in a time of systemic decline and Chris Worley ended with perspectives on the Future of OD by offering “no technical solutions,” just reflections on identity and what unity, liberty and charity requires of us in a profession that offers this to others.
Afrocentrism Conference 2019: Decolonizing Academia: Seeing the World Through a Different Lens (https://afrocentrism.org/goals)
This conference as you can imagine from the title was all about claiming space. It was fundamentally, as the iconic keynote speaker Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o put it, about people of African descent claiming Africa, African peoples and African issues as the centre from which to engage the world. He called “for the emancipation of the center from which we look at the world; a center driven by democratic logic, rather than the one driven by imperial logic. The democratic logic assumes the network of equal give and take in relations among peoples, cultures and languages. The Imperial logic assumes hierarchy, with some languages and cultures being higher than others. Imperial logic drives Eurocentrism.” And so the conference took on this ambitious task through an exploration of Afrocentrism from multiple perspectives including history, literature, culture, tradition, nutrition, sexuality, business, leadership and afrofuturism. It was a drones-eye view of the current experiences of diasporan Africans in Vancouver claiming their space and asserting belonging, as well as a re-imagining of possibilities. The conference also acknowledged the importance of this work being done on indigenous lands and included discussions of the connections and implications of doing so.
Two moments in particular unified the two conferences for me:
- First, Meg Wheatley noted that all OD knowledge is indigenous knowledge that already existed somewhere. This was repeated in various ways throughout the conference and was for me a fundamental premise of the Afrocentrism conference—centering and validating indigenous African knowledge. My friends and OD colleagues Sarah Owusu and Judith Okonkwo have previously noted just how this is so within OD in their article: Remembering the Gift of OD.
- Second, in a historic moment, two African-American women, Frances Baldwin and Darya Funches, received the Lifetime Achievement Awards. In accepting the award on Frances’ behalf, Meg Wheatley highlighted words from a conversation with Frances about receiving the award. She noted that Frances shared: I always knew that I had a self within myself that can be trusted. I have a right to be where I am, doing what I am doing with no apology for the work we do – an unconditional faith in self. I am the right person, I am doing the right work. It struck me that this confidence in the face of challenging conditions is what it looks like when those considered socially-marginalized take center stage. It is in fact what the student-led organizers of the Afrocentrism conference had done.
In sum, three themes of both conferences were:
- A complex systems view of the world. The deep understanding that transformation in our complex world requires shifts at every level, where ALL take the agency and responsibility needed for the collective to shift.
- The need for agility and new solutions. It was clear from both conferences that where the dominant narratives of the status quo are not serving us, new solutions are required.
- The need for more humanity – just as the Afrocentrism conference was a call from the margins, the OD Network conference was a call to all—everywhere people gather—with an ongoing challenge to stand for our shared humanity in an era where it is increasingly easy to lose sight of that.
So Leadership and OD Practitioners: What do these themes mean for us?
There is good reason Organization Development Specialists are listed by World Economic Forum on the list of top 10 jobs of the future. Our work is needed now, more than ever. Note also that so is General and Operations management, the leaders that we are so often supporting to hold businesses and organizations together and move them powerfully forward in the midst of complex transformations. Here are some questions from the challenges that Meg Wheatley presented at the ODN conference to reflect on further:
- Who do we choose to be?
- What is the work that requires your perseverance?
- How do we facilitate sane leadership in a time that it is desperately needed?
- What stand will we take for humanity?
 Bradford, L. D., & Burke, W. (2006). The future of OD? In J. Gallos (Ed.), The Organization Development: A Jossey-Bass Reader.
 Miller, F.A., Katz, J. H., Gans, R. AI x I = AI2: The OD imperative to add inclusion to the algorithms of artificial intelligence. Organization Development Practitioner, 50 (1), 6-12. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/323830092_AI_x_I_AI2_The_OD_imperative_to_add_inclusion_to_the_algorithms_of_artificial_intelligence
 Okonkwo, J. N. & Owusu, S. J. (2016). Remembering – the gift of OD. Organization Development Practitioner, 48(3), 57-63.