In these times of rapid change and complex human dynamics, the field of Organization Development (OD) has been contested more than ever before. Those of us researching, studying and/or practicing in the field have expressed concerned that mainstream organizations are losing sight of the developmental ideal and potential for organizations who pay attention to humanistic values in how they lead, design and support the growth of their organizations. Others, however, are seeing the continued fundamental need for organization development skillsets in a global, competitive and interconnected world with increased stakeholder expectations and disruptive technologies
In my article in the spring issue of the Organization Development Practitioner, I outlined how the literature in OD has raised alarm for the death of OD in order to acknowledge our collective anxiety for needed shifts to respond to the needs of today’s organizations and workforce. I show how a competing commitment for the way things have been and concern for the denigration of the field if it becomes too integrated into adjacent practices is holding us back from opportunities to ourselves grow and influence. I used our own consulting practices to explore where application of the theory and practice of OD is working and summarized the resulting themes from these thriving OD-centric thinking and/or practices.
As a result, I concluded my inquiry by proposing that we as a field, consider ways of engaging going forward that exemplify us at our best and remain in inquiry that will help us continue to thrive. The excerpts below are my conclusions from the article.
1.Claim unique value and space: My core reflection from this analysis is that OD must claim – and return – to development as the core domain of practice, even when working in change. As Bushe and Marshak have articulated, change alone as the domain of OD practice is a depleted image and sets OD up in competition with so many other growing fields of practice (Bushe & Marshak, 2017). These alternative fields such as change/project management, HR, IT planning etc. are more planned and structured and therefore bring comfort and reduced anxiety to clients. Interestingly, even though the OD Practitioner survey showed a move away from OD practice in large-scale change, the volume itself in which the article is housed points to a move back towards more inclusive and large-scale human systems transformation and change practice. What might it look like if we just claimed this domain of system development and flipped our contracting questions. For example: From: What change would you like to make to: What would you like to develop? From: What competency shifts do you want to see to: what do you want to be different in how you and your leaders lead? From: What are your desired outcomes to: What developmental goals would you like to achieve? One implication of this is simplifying our definition of OD to amplify developmental processes. A recent working definition I have been using with clients is OD is the application of the behavioural and social sciences to develop groups of people from where they are to where they want to go through high-engagement and high-inquiry processes. So far it has been resonating…
2.Expand OD practice domain to work at full scope: In complexity thinking and human systems dynamics, when a system is stuck, you need to go up a level or down a level. In the current state, I see OD working primarily in the middle. We are not at the most influential leadership tables – as client supports or as leaders. We shy away from working predominantly at entry and professional levels or so-called “grassroots” levels of organizations. Hence our sponsors are primarily middle to senior management. How might we engage the wisdom and power of the crowd to galvanize leadership support for required systems changes? How might we engage at the highest levels of executive and policy-making so that we gain more than influence power and can use our knowledge and practices where they are most needed? How might we broaden our practice beyond conventional organizations into meaningful human systems work? As noted, ‘we realize that OD has been transitioning from being primarily focused on “organizations” to more inclusive of how the “human systems” transforms the organization.’ (Rothwell, Stavros, & Sullivan, 2016, p. 5)
3.Return to the values-base of our field: OD has concluded our humanistic values are here to stay and required in the future we are collectively creating. How might we be persistent in practicing these values in ways that allow them to grow? Our scenarios in table 2 of what’s working tell us this is possible.
4.Build and share portfolios of cases and research: On the note of what’s working… How might we expand our practice of collecting and sharing case studies and case books to illustrate the impacts of our practices? While there is some validity to calls for OD to better engage data and statistical thinking, I think this is only partially necessary. Remember we are an applied social science field. There is tons of evidence and empirical research out there that supports our work. Our work as practitioners must be curating that evidence for our clients and generating our own case examples…
5. Forge new partnerships: In recent years, we have been learning a lot from other fields. This is ok – we have always been an interdisciplinary applied social science. How might we continue to develop meaningful partnerships with the complexity sciences, design thinking, social change and advocacy, international development, policy and governance, quality improvement, change management, developmental psychology and others? Engage in disruptive practice: Overall, how might we disrupt our practices to embed these ideas and thinking in how we engage the systems we work in? A recent brilliant example of this is a change process in the UK on Breakthrough environments for inclusive research into race and mental health (Owusu, Tuitt, & Wilde, 2017). This article is described by Gervase Bushe as “an unusually thick and rich description of a change process. Thought provoking.” It is illustrative of all the experimentations and adaptations above that I am suggesting we test as a field.
Bushe, G., & Marshak, R. (2017). Valuing both the journey and destination in Organization Development. In D. Jamieson, A. Church, & J. Vogelsang (Eds.), Enacting values-based change: Organization development in action (in press). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Owusu, S. K., Tuitt, D., & Wilde, J. (2017). Breakthrough environments for inclusive research into race and mental health: Co-creating social justice impact via the #justcare event and social media. Research for all, 1(2), 328-350. doi: https://doi.org/10.18546/RFA.01.2.10
Rothwell, W., Stavros, J., & Sullivan, R. (2016). Practicing organization development: Leading transformation and change (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.