What is Organization Development and Who Can Do It?

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.)


The Goal of Organization Development

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.


The Reality of OD and Change Work

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.


Who is qualified to fix problems?

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.


OD and Change

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:

  1. Surfacing what’s going on in an organization. There are many ways and mindsets for how to do that. You can conduct surveys, lead focus groups, observe behavior, conduct interviews, review performance data, host open/emergent discussions, and more. There is no one best way. Which to choose depends upon the mindset of the practitioner and the situation at hand. I recommend more than one method for gathering data be used.
  2. Defining situations. How you analyze the data is dependent upon how it was gathered and the purposes of the intervention. I recommend one method for gathering information is one where people are allowed to freely define their situations in their own way and which encourages new ways of thinking and possibilities. I beleive that the more data and information gathered and compared, the better the determination of what is.
  3. Selecting action(s). Gervase Bushe and Robert Marshak compiled a list of 40 Dialogic OD methods. Rothwell, Sullivan, and McLean list over 40 OD interventions. Which one(s) you select are dependent upon any number of variables (far too many to be discussed here). Suffice it to say the selection depends upon what the group and you believe to be the best way to proceed.
  4. Taking actions and adjusting. It is highly likely that your initial plan will be modified as you implement your actions. Organizations are not static. Situations change and the very fact that you are engaged in an intervention, changes things as well. And, once you have finished implementing your actions, things will change again.

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.