A Conversation with "The OD Guy" Robin Cook

Robin Cook is a distinguished Organization Development professional based in Arlington, Virginia. The creator of the Organization Diagnostic Molecular Model, he is a George Land World Class Innovator Award recipient and an Innovation University Fellow. Robin is trained and highly skilled at implementing Dee Hock’s Chaordic Theory (one of few OD consultants in the world with this distinction).

I've known Robin for years, mostly through the Organization Development Network, and am happy to feature him on my blog.

In this interview, Robin talks about his work in helping organizations through challenging and often complex change.

Q Robin, Please give the readers a thumbnail description of your background.

As you know, Terry, I am a seasoned organizational development practitioner and change agent.

I'm proud to have been a key player on teams that developed and led processes that included complex change initiatives operating on many levels. I have led large and small scale turnaround and culture change initiatives as both an internal and an external OD practitioner. I am one of very few people trained in implementing Dee Hock's Chaordic Theory, and I have developed a new organizational diagnostic tool, the "Molecular" Model.

Q Who were the major influences that shaped your approach to OD work?

I have always been a change agent, Terry, from my earliest years. At the age of 8, I petitioned the City of San Diego to place a traffic light on a hazardous corner in my neighborhood. I was given the Key to the City of San Diego as an award.

Initially, my graduate program was in Human Relations, which was almost totally experiential. My knowledge of actual theory and theoreticians has come from various sources including ODNet. I've increasingly learned that everything I do is, in fact, grounded in OD theory!

In graduate school, our primary resource was the various University Associates handbooks. Of course, I've accumulated many of the "standard" tools over the years. Many of the structures that I led at the Chicago Ys were originally developed by the Dennisons. I further modified them as we went along.

I've developed a couple of "proprietary" tools of my own. In the past 15 years I've been heavily influenced by Dee Hock and by Doug Hall's Eureka Process for innovation. In addition to Dee's books, I've also been recommending Ray C. Anderson's "Confessions of a Radical Industrialist" and Cmdr. (Ret.) Michael D. Abrashoff's "It's Your Ship: Management Secrets from the Best Damned Ship in the Navy".

Q - You've been fascinated by cultures of innovation? What do organizations need to do to change their cultures?

As with everything OD, there's no "one size fits all" answer to this. However, I have identified nine characteristics shared by some of the most innovative organizations in the world. I believe that these are a good starting point, and many of them are quite easy to implement.

First and foremost, find bottom up solutions that fit your organization. If you create the right culture, process will follow (or, often, be unnecessary). People's natural creativity and innovation will come to the fore.

Q - Organizations are under severe stress these days, making it hard to effect positive change. What would you recommend?

That this is precisely the time to begin such initiatives. Positive, effective change is more likely happen when the pain is the greatest. It is precisely during such times that the opportunity is greatest for those wiling to take the risk.

Q Following up on the nine characteristics, what do you recommend to an organization that wants to continue to promote innovation?

Focus on culture. Once you've created the right culture, the rest will follow. If you feel that you must have a formal innovation process, create one that is fully supported every step of the way by the culture.

I like to cite the story told to me by the head of the Chicago office of Ideo. He told me that at one point, so many of their clients were clamoring to learn their process that they created a small consulting group to do such training. What they quickly learned was that the reason Ideo's process is so effective is that their entire organizational culture is built around it. They could teach their process until they were blue in the face, but the client organizations' cultures didn't support the process & so nothing happened.

Q - What is the leader's role in making culture change work?

Clearly define the "what" (including what's negotiable & what isn't); clearly explain the "why"; and then be willing to step back and say, "OK, now YOU tell me how."

My belief is that mission and values alignment are the most critical pieces. However, it's also very important to maintain understanding and gain insight into the organic dynamic whole - the way everything interacts. My "Molecular" Model diagnostic tool can help to foster such understanding. It graphically shows how all the elements (for example, Mission, Values, Culture, Systems, Environment, etc.) influence and interact with each other.

Q Regarding the pain that organizations often have, how do you help them see the positive opportunity in change?

It's all in the facilitation, as is virtually always the case in OD. It's going to be different in every case, but perhaps the most critical piece is in the data collection. If you collect the right data, that's what usually "makes the light bulb go on."

Q Can you describe one example of the way you help clients with change?

I served as Director of Local Planning for the YMCA (Y) of Metropolitan Chicago where I spearheaded a successful culture change. At the Y, the underlying issue was that they were a "legacy organization" - everyone came up through the ranks & learned to do it "the Y way". That worked beautifully for 120 years, until the 70s and 80s when they were faced with massive competition in health & fitness from the new commercial fitness centers. That was only one of their core businesses, but it was the one that generated most of their revenue.

They not only didn't respond to it, they didn't even recognize it was happening. What we had to do there was change the thinking - get them to the point where they could both recognize & respond to market changes. & that takes time, especially for an organization that size (34 sites, and 5,000+ employees). We had to facilitate a long, complex process that enabled them to see just how out of sync their perception was with reality. & we had to facilitate changing a mindset that was created by 20 years of running in the red which had put them into pure "putting out the next fire" mode.

As a result of this work, the Y received the 1998 George Land World Class Innovator Award. The organization’s budget doubled, and its numbers of people served more than tripled.

I also co-designed and facilitated innovation, creativity, and visioning workshops at that time, which led to the establishment of a permanent "Imagineering" function within the Y.

Q - Robin, As this new year is getting underway, I'm wondering what OD resolutions you are thinking about?

I don't really believe in resolutions, Terry. I strive constantly, every day, to be the best me I'm capable of being, to grow, learn, & evolve. That said, there are 3 things I might wish for:

First, for leaders to begin to understand that the biggest piece of OD is about changing thinking. That's not something that is empirically measurable, but clearly has an impact on the bottom line.

Second, for leaders to understand that times like these, when organizations & markets are undergoing massive dislocation, are when OD is needed most (& when we can generate the greatest opportunities) even if it may be difficult to justify the expense.

And third, for someone with influence to convince organizations that changing an HR or training job title to OD does nothing but degrade the reputation & effectiveness of OD. It does not make the HR or training person into an OD practitioner or an effective change agent.

To contact Robin and learn more about what he can do to help your organization reach a new level of performance, he can be reached at OrgDevGuy@comcast.net

Posted by Terrence Seamon on Sunday January 27, 2013


Abigail Cooper said…
Thanks for sharing this. Robin has real insight concerning OD and I totally agree that a company re-naming HR as OD has missed the point totally. And yes, NOW is exactly the time for positive change while businesses are under considerable financial stress, if only the leaders would empower people to use their innovative thinking. When seas are calm, no one wants to change (even if it's needed) so now is the time! Well said Robin!

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