I’ve often been asked to define OD. There are many definitions; most are quite similar. For years, I relied on Beckhard’s definition: (paraphrased) “a planned organization-wide effort, managed from the top, to increase organization effectiveness.” But, as I am preparing the change leadership certification with Drucker Graduate School, I’ve began thinking of OD a bit differently. This article reflects my personal thoughts. (It is not a formal treatise.)
I believe the goal of OD is to improve organization Cultures. I use a capitalized “C” to represent the several components and levels of culture. We can all agree that an organization culture includes many, many components from values and beliefs that create psychological environment to myths, customs and unspoken rules, as well as formal policies and procedures that shape behavior. There is ample research that posits a positive culture has a positive effect productivity and performance and a positive affect on people’s attitudes and feelings toward work. By improving an organization’s culture I contend that one can improve organization performance.
Scope: I’ve been doing OD and change work for forty years, both as an internal and external consultant. During this time, I’ve only had four interventions that addressed the whole organization. One was in a business information organization, another was a manufacturing plant, the third was a chemical plant, and the other was a Chinese BPO company servicing U.S companies. In each case we worked on the transforming organization’s culture.
Other than these four exceptions, the work I’ve done has been within a division, a department, a group or a team. In my experience, most OD and change work is done below the organization-as-a-whole, mostly at the department or team levels.
Focus: Most of my OD consulting involved change management; fixing some sort of clearly defined problem or implementing a clearly defined process or solution. For example, I spent a lot of time introducing and implementing new policies or procedures, improving leadership, raising morale, facilitating the human side of mergers and acquisitions, organization restructuring, or improving operational effectiveness. In each case there was a predetermined objective.
I’d venture to guess that most “OD” work involves fixing finite problems by making specific changes not changing organization cultures. I agree that improving cultures can resolve many problems, but the main reason we OD and change consultants get work is that someone wants something fixed or improved.
If we are talking about changes to fix problems, just about anyone is qualified to do it. I can think of several instances where frontline employees came up with great ideas for improving the way things were done and the whole company adopt the ideas. An HR Director may implement an improved performance management program that better addresses professional development planning for managers. An IT specialist may come up with a new program that improves analysis of performance data and changes how everyone enters data into their computing devices. A Trainer may design and develop a training program for improving cross-functional collaboration. All of these involved making changes to bring about improvement, but is what they did OD? I think not. OD is more that simply making changes.
What’s the difference? I think about change from William Bridge’s perspective. He writes that change is situational. It can be a new boss, a new team member, a new site, a new product, a new process. It’s like HR, IT, and Training examples above. Making or managing change is not organization development.
Bridges goes on to define transitions as the “psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation” (change). No matter what the change is and how well it’s managed, people go through an adjustment or transition period after the change occurs. For some employees the transition is easy for others it’s difficult. Transitions are unpredictable, filled with uncertainty, and risky. The literature is rife with documentations of failed change initiatives.
The role of the OD practitioner is to plan and manage change and the ease the ensuing transitions with the ultimate goal of improving an organization’s culture, performance and effectiveness.
Who can do OD? Obviously, I have a bias. It’s not toward a specific profession, but rather to someone with a set of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that allows her or him to plan and lead all phases of change and transitions. The OD Network had a list of 140 competencies of an OD professional. ODN revising that model, due to the changing nature of OD, but suffice it to say that people possessing a majority of those competencies and ample experience should be qualified to do OD.
(Our certification program includes a change leader competency assessment. People completing it are able to create a professional development plan for acquiring the knowledge and skills not covered in the program.)
What is OD? As stated earlier, there are many definitions of OD. Based on my current research, I now think of OD as “a set of processes used to plan and implement planned change and ensuing transitions.” I’m beginning to think that anyone who understands and can facilitate these processes is capable of doing OD. These processes are:
I started this article with two questions: What is OD and Who Can Do It? I’ve shared my shifting thoughts on these questions as I’m in the process of developing the Change Leadership Certification Program. I want participants to learn the profession’s history, its key theories, and the thoughts that are shaping its future. But, most importantly, I want participants to be able to apply them in the work they do in organizations and build on their knowledge from that application effort.
Just a bit of personal background – I’ve been doing OD since 1978, when I joined the City of San Diego’s OD and Training Department. I’ve led my own OD and Training consulting firm since 1989. My education and experience in OD is what Bushe and Marshak call a traditional “Diagnostic OD” approach relying heavily on initial assessment and diagnosis. But, OD is changing; influenced first by Appreciative Inquiry and next by Dialogic OD. And with this transition, my thoughts on what OD is are changing, as well.