A month ago, the 2017 Organization Development (OD) Network conference theme called our body of applied behavioural and social science scholars and practitioners to answer the call of our times. That call, is to innovate for impact in these times of social upheaval. There were many highlights of the conference for me, most notably the honour of receiving my award (see video here). But by far my most memorable standouts from the sessions were (1) the Deep Inquiry plenary session titled What time is it…Are We Cracking Up or Cracking Open? This plenary was led by Organization Development Elders, Juanita Brown, Co-Founder of the World Café and Frances Baldwin, Founder of Designed Wisdom, with visual facilitation and graphic recording by Steph Brown and (2) the concurrent session Let’s Break the Rules – Let’s Talk Politics: Using OD to ignite Community Conversations for Change, hosted by a facilitation team of four American University Master of Science in Organization Development graduates. Between them, Shari Laldee, Ingrid Mendez, Christina Scott and Yodit Tewelde hold an impressive portfolio of experience spanning profit, non-profit, education, government/public service and leadership.

The What time is it session brought home to me again the power of well-designed group process in uncovering the wisdom that already exists in human systems. In opening the session, Frances Baldwin spoke as only an Elder can – she stated that even though the session title was a question, the choice is clear. We cannot afford to crack up! There is only cracking open. Changing, Transforming. Becoming more than we are today. In what followed, we worked in the space between stimulus and response – the space in which, each of us gets to choose:

  • What is the call of the times on me as a practitioner?
  • What courageous question must I ask myself?

The entire plenary engaged in these two questions, through small group dialogues in which we were reminded to practice the qualities of deep(er) inquiry that happens from an orientation to:

  • Caring – make world a better place
  • Curiosity – Seek questions that open new opportunities
  • Courage – to listen, speak and act from the heart
  • Commitment – fully engaged yet not attached to the outcome

This form of inquiry is in service of exploring focus questions through courageous engagement in conversations that signal a sense of direction to questions that no one knows the answers to!

And therein lies the crux of the matter. Processes like these fall within the realm of dialogic organization development. This is the form of practices that are grounded in complexity and the humanistic social sciences, that acknowledge how we construct our lives and find solutions through the meaning-making and outcomes generated in social interaction with each other. Nothing replaces the transformational impact of this type of shared inquiry, where each one sees that they are not alone in addressing questions that matter and can choose future actions that have been formed, informed or transformed by true engagement with others. Research overwhelmingly confirms this form of practice leads to sustained change in the direction of desired outcomes (see for e.g. reference list in my research article here). This may seem like common sense, but it is not common practice, even though it is imperative to approach the adaptive challenges of these times of complexity from these emergent approaches to solution-finding. Yet, we continue to attempt canned, simplistic solutions and quick fixes. These simplistic fixes may feel like progress in the moment, but we all know will not create lasting shifts in the directions needed. I left this plenary not only reminded and grounded in the power and need for more of these forms of inquiry in organizations and communities today, but holding my own responses that are right now informing my practice – the call to focus in what matters most day-to-day and the courage to ‘go there’ when it is required to make the differences needed for our world today.

If What time is it cracked me open to what is required of me as an OD practitioner today, Let’s Break the Rules – Let’s Talk Politics: Using OD to ignite Community Conversations for Change, was the embodiment of what that actually means in practice. This session was the most courageous one from both a facilitation and participant perspective. The facilitation team masterfully led us through a process called the Future Backwards method. Future Backwards is a group process for uncovering desired ideals (heaven or nirvana) for the future, by examining the chronology of events that have led to current realities. A unique feature of this process is that it also requires imaging what hell (worst case outcome) would be – For information on the process and how to facilitate it, see here.

The Future Backwards method is described as “an alternative to traditional strategic/scenario planning which place excessive emphasis on ideal future states.” * The intent isn’t to generate a strategic plan, but to surface collective hopes and fears that will help groups learn from the past and propel them in the direction of their future hopes. As a practitioner who believes in holding integrative perspectives to achieving desired transformational ends that allow for trauma/pain of past and current realities to be acknowledged and processed where they are present (see example here), this process deeply resonated. It felt relevant, timely and required for progress in our times. It was the only session I attended that allowed for deep inquiry into the US-centric and world issues of concern, beyond cursory and surface commentary. Specifically, the focus question we worked with was describing the state of race, gender and economic equity in the current political climate.

The process (felt experience) and outcomes of this session are still with me. I felt the shared hope in the room for a future of inclusion, equality, respect, cultural intelligence and human unity. I heard the same cry across all four working groups that the polarization, chaos and divisiveness of today will end. I felt the thick fear that arose in our collective gasp when all 4 subgroups realized our single joint and shared fear is a future with nuclear incident(s) and a breakdown into anarchy and war.

So what is the call of our times? What time is it and how do I use OD to ignite Community Conversations for Change?  I am holding the call that arose for me in the debriefs of both these sessions. It is a call that we must not now remain silent. That we must move beyond our comfort zones as bystanders and into places and spaces of influence to create the kind of future where humanity thrives instead of destroying each other. It is a call to influence change in the direction of our dreams wherever we find ourselves. This, is the call of our times.