Rethinking the world of work: The Impact and Value of OD

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April 3rd, 2020

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If there was ever a time for organisation development to demonstrate its value and impact, that time is now. And there is so much value to be had. Organisations and individuals, dispersed and de-centred by a seismic shift in the global external landscape of health, work and economy, today face an existential challenge to adapt and survive in the here-and-now, and to thrive in the world to come. Greater engagement, better quality thinking, stronger implementation; this is the core OD offer. It has never been more relevant, urgent, and (on paper at least) obvious that OD holds the key to those adaptive behaviours that will deliver the improved performance that’s going to be demanded by our new context.

But the choices that translate or waste that value can turn on a pinhead. For example, let’s consider the approach OD would often take to staff engagement and participation, which tends towards the bottom-up and participative. This of course sits in a tension, at least in the minds of leaders and other stakeholders, who need to make progress and deliver results quickly. How much involvement? Of who? When? Involvement costs time and money. But then marching on and leaving staff to simply obey orders and keep up (I exaggerate, but only a little..), costs far, far more in both the short and long run. In that dynamic of disconnection arises misunderstanding, distrust and potentially disrespect, from which less and less value is created and less valuable work is done. This is just one example of where the value of OD stands or falls.

Done well, OD challenges accepted notions of value. Rather than accepting whatever cultural norms are in place, OD seeks to actively surface them, to make them visible, and to destabilise them. For example, a scientific research organisation I have worked with has a deep and genuine drive for excellence. Senior leaders there are now having productive conversations about how a legacy of coercive leadership has created a set of norms about how the organisational hierarchy is viewed and expected to behave. The value of this intervention is coming through the organisation’s leaders understanding their own part in reproducing those patterns of behaviour, unlearning them and then learning different ways to lead. In this example the excellence sought by the organisation is now starting to be re-imagined as something more fluidly generated between staff and collaborators more than as a thing that can be extracted and directed from above.

A second example comes from an NHS trust where the pressures have been so great that the lived organisational culture has in part been characterised by blame from the top – that goes well beyond the Trust itself – all the way down to frontline staff. This is fundamentally incompatible with the espoused view of compassionate, collaborative leadership in the Trust. The tension between the two cultural narratives is entirely understandable and palpable given the wider health service context, but the value and impact OD offers in this setting is to help people at all levels recognise their part in reproducing that pattern, so that they can begin to think and behave differently.

These kinds of intervention hit every concrete metric imaginable from engagement, to productivity and quality. They clearly have transformative potential and value, but measuring and demonstrating this value has often been part of the challenge for the field of OD. But this needn’t be the case. If appropriate contracting is undertaken at the right levels early on in any piece of work, there are any number of metrics that can be connected to the work being commissioned. A key point however is that timescales for change (outcomes, not just outputs) must be taken into account and in the process of agreeing those metrics the assumptions that sit beneath them must be clearly understood. To fail to do this risks trapping the work of OD in an unrealistic structure of expectations and performance created by the very norms OD can constructively challenge. The interpersonal relationship(s) between client and OD practitioner mirrors the wider work and risks being coded with the same unhelpful cultural norms, so if we want to deliver on the promise of OD we must start creating impact and value well upstream of the formal interventions we design, in the way we relate and connect to those who might invite us in.

 

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