Choosing Marginality

After posting the blog entry pointing to Paul Graham's essay about good ideas coming from the margins, I shared the link with my Organization Development colleagues at ODNet. This produced an interesting exchange of ideas, on-going.

I think I first encountered the concept of marginality in OD a long time ago (early 70's) in discussions about collusion.

In 1988, in a strong critique of the state of OD, Margulies and Raia commented that OD consultants are "in bed with" their clients. They wrote:

"It is our belief that OD practitioners have become an integral part of this collusion. The field has been and continues to be technology-driven. Many practitioners have become routine in their applications; they have succumbed to management pressure for the quick fix, the emphasis on the bottom line, and the cure-all mentality; they have failed to maintain "marginality" in their roles as consultants and helpers to management- they are for all intents and purposes "in bed" with their client-systems; and more important perhaps, they seem to have lost sight of the core values of the field and the need to engage in the difficult and challenging process of integrating them into the organization’s value systems as ends in and of themselves."

More recently, while team-writing the chapter on internal OD for the second edition of Practicing Organization Development, we had some spirited debates about whether "maintaining marginality" was as relevant for the internal OD consultant as for the external. And if it was, what did it "look like?"

From what I have learned, marginality is a choice that we make. A relational stance toward our clients. A way to provide clients with outsider perspective, professional distance, neutrality, and honesty.

The marginality of a change agent gives the best vantage point for assessing the system and determining the changes that will bring about the needed improvement. Such marginality is an intentional space that the consultant chooses to operate from. He or she can be deep inside of the organization yet maintain marginality.

Marginality in OD helps to keep the relationship professional.

And, if Paul Graham's ideas, about the powers in the marginal, have any application to OD...

~ for example, Graham points out that new ideas often come from the margins and that outsider status brings different opportunities than those available to insiders

...there could be a whole new vista on marginality for OD practitioners.

Is it time for OD to reclaim the powers of marginality?

Posted by Terrence Seamon, 07/26/06


Anonymous said…
Anonymous said…
Terrence Seamon said…
Thank you, Anonymous.
Terrence Seamon said…
Another aspect of this is that "It's not about You." Rather, it is about the Client.

You the consultant (or facilitator or coach) are not center stage. You are the neutral servant. Your job is to be of some help. The spotlight belongs to the Client.

Your job is to work yourself out of a job...but to leave the Client and her System better off than they were at the start of the engagement.

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