What Does OD Mean. . . to You?

Rowena Morais, the Malaysia-based editor of HR Matters, asked me to weigh in on an article she is writing for the October issue. The question she is asking many HR thought leaders is this:

~ What does OD mean to you? What are the things that you believe the person tasked with this role should look to manage and resolve?

At its essence, Organization Development (OD) is about change. Change that renews and strengthens the organization, enhancing its capacity to pursue and reach its goals.

Years ago, one of the seminal figures in OD, Dick Beckhard, defined it this way: "Organization Development is the planned effort to increase organization effectiveness and health through interventions in the organization's “processes,” using behavioral-science knowledge."

The intent of organizational change, then, is to improve the operating effectiveness of some part of the organizational system (or the whole system), improve the results, and improve the capabilities of the organization.

Whether the projects address such diverse topics as leadership development, succession planning, merger integration, diversity, culture change, strategic planning, team building, or performance management, the common denominator is change. And the person tasked with an OD role is an agent of change.

Therefore, the effective OD practitioner is ever mindful of the change goal, understands the nature of organizational change, and utilizes change models. The effective OD practitioner is a consultant who manages OD projects by managing expectations with sponsors and clients, as well as those affected by the change, and other key stakeholders such as Human Resources.

Because change causes uncertainty, stress, and even conflict in the organization, the effective OD practitioner is ready to help facilitate the conversations needed to help people navigate their transitions to change.

In the field of change management, they say that 75% of organizational change initiatives fail. Why? For any number of reasons. The bottom line is that changing the way that an organization works is far easier to talk about than it is to actually do.

In recognition of the dangers and pitfalls in this work, another seminal figure in OD, Herb Shephard, published his Rules of Thumb for Change Agents, a compendium of wisdom for OD practitioners that includes the following:

- Stay Alive: Staying alive means taking risks "as part of a purposeful strategy of change, and appropriately timed and targeted. When they are taken under such circumstances, one is very much alive." Shephard adds: "Staying alive means loving yourself. Staying alive means staying in touch with your purpose."

- Start Where the System Is: "Starting where the client is can be called the Empathy Rule. To communicate effectively, to be able to build sound strategy, the change agent needs to understand how the client sees himself and his situation, and needs to understand the culture of the system."

- Don't Work Up-Hill: In this section, Shephard offers several practical guidelines for OD work including Starting where it is most promising, Working in a team, and Understanding how systems work.

- Keep an Optimistic Bias: When facing conflict, the change agent must help the parties resolve their differences, if possible. "Individuals and groups locked in destructive kinds of conflict focus on their differences. The change agent’s job is to help them discover and build on their commonalities. The unhappy partners focus on past wrongs, and continue to destroy the present and future with them. The change agent’s job is to help them change the present so that they will have a new past on which to create a future."

- Capture the Moment: "One captures the moment when everything one has learned is readily available, and when one is in touch with the events of the moment."

Reading Shephard's principles, you sense that the effective OD practitioner is a blend of consultant, detective, facilitator, mediator, designer, and artist. It's no wonder that OD is hard to pin down, hard to "sell," and hard to do well. It's no wonder too that the field of OD attracts such brilliant, passionate, capable, and diverse people.

How would you answer the question: What does OD mean to you?

Posted by Terrence Seamon on Friday September 9, 2011


Earon Kavanagh said…
I'm trying to stay away from the phrase these days, Terry. Maybe "organization development, renewal, and realignment" is more fitting for me at the moment. Great article, thanks.
Terrence Seamon said…
Some are staying away and are reframing. Some are just now starting to discover OD! I am guessing that the Malaysia magazine HR Matters may be representative of the latter as OD catches fire in Asia. Thanks for commenting, Earon.

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