Exactly what is organisation development again?

Written by
Changeboard Team

26 Aug 2016

26 Aug 2016 • by Changeboard Team

Exactly what is organisation development again?

Good question. And if you’re asking it, you’re in good company says Alex Swarbrick. In Roffey Park’s 2015 Management Agenda survey, when asked "the main barriers to effective organisational development (OD) in your organisation" the most common single response was "managers don’t know what it is".

Organisation development cannot be put in a box

So how have we made something so simple so obscure?  Actually, a more useful question might be “How will we make something so significant less obscure?”

Maybe there’s something inherent in OD which doesn’t help. Many of us like things that can be neatly labelled, wrapped up and put in a box; things that can be boiled down to a single concept, deconstructed and reduced to a single principle. OD is exactly the opposite. It’s about the bigger picture; it’s about the complexity of systems and the messiness of human interactions that make up organisational life.

Maybe there’s also something in OD practitioners that doesn’t help. All professions like a bit of obscurity; it adds to the mystique and intrigue of your work. But some would say OD professionals have turned obscurity into an art form.

Defining OD

So what is OD? I like Ed Griffin’s definition (2014) . Ed, a former Roffey Park colleague, co-editor of “A Field Guide for Organisation Development”, and an OD practitioner describes it as being concerned with:

“How an organisation develops and implements strategy with the full involvement / engagement of its people.”

While some OD people’s ‘yes …but…’ about that definition is ringing in my ears, for me it passes the Ronseal test. 

Here’s why. Let me ask you another question. Why does your organisation exist? What’s its ultimate purpose? To make money? Fine. To provide a specific service? Fine. And how’s that going for you? Are the challenges coming from outside? From inside? Or both? The reality is that no organisation exists in a vacuum and nothing about it is static. Externally, it lives within an economic and social system. Internally, it only achieves its purpose through the participation of the people it employs, its suppliers, its contractors, shareholders, other stakeholders. And neither outside nor inside is the organisations’ world is static. That means that to survive and flourish it needs to be capable of change and adaptation. Sometimes what needs to change will be the ‘hard’ stuff; the structure, systems, machinery. Sometimes it will be the ‘soft’ stuff; the culture, your leadership style, what helps your people succeed and flourish.

So in Ed’s words again, that’s the purpose of OD.

"the intention to build sustainable successful organisations where people are truly valued"( 2014).

But, you might be thinking, surely that’s the responsibility of everyone in the organisation? And certainly all managers? You’re right. It is. It just isn’t always uppermost on their responsibility list, nor do they always feel confident knowing how to go about it. 

So that’s where professionals in the field of OD have something to offer, not only in methods and practices, but in the philosophy and mindset behind the practice. If we accept the view that organisations are better understood as dynamic and complex human systems, than as machines, then to help organisations and their people flourish  a ‘big picture’ mindset is valuable. That’s part of what’s meant by systems thinking. A view of people as ‘worth believing in’ also helps; as does courage, open mindedness, and an appetite to pursue development. 

And the ‘doing’? How does all this good stuff actually happen? And who does it? 

In addition to having specific behavioural science, academic and philosophical roots, OD has a range of specific tools and techniques in its practice. Processes for working with large groups, collaboration methods, learning and development practices, and approaches to culture change. And facilitation skills

Survey findings

Our Management Agenda (2015) survey found that in practice the issues OD practitioners found themselves most commonly involved in were Leadership Development (67%), Culture Change (42%) and Performance Management (33%). But that’s not the whole picture. And although some organisations position OD as a function which ‘does things to’ the organisation, that misses the point. OD needs to be the function that facilitates the organisation and all its people to ‘do the doing.’

So, exactly what is Organisation Development again? Back to the Ronseal test, it’s the mindset, the understanding, and the skills that help the organisation develop; and keep developing; along with all the people working in it, collectively and individually, in pursuit of the organisation’s success. Whether that’s through large group conversations or individual leadership development or some other intervention. 

Or put another way, Linda Holbeche, a Roffey Park fellow, and Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge (2011)  describe OD’s outcome as:

“ To improve the health and effectiveness of organisations and people that work within them in a sustainable way”

Take away the mystique, and looked at that way, it seems to look like it “does what it says on the tin”.