Over lunch recently, I was rather enthusiastically explaining some work I led on. My lunch partner suggested this was “a Proper piece of OD work”. Which gave me pause…. I was once again struck by the fact that I don’t think I wholly know what that means….
Here is the CIPD Factsheet Definition:
we define organisation development (OD) as ‘planned and systematic approach to enabling sustained organisation performance through the involvement of its people’. Behind this definition lies a depth of research and practice, but also confusion.
No wonder I’m left with questions. This way of working – not having all the answers, working to invigorate and catalyse change through people and systems… it feels very odd. Very nebulous…..yet very important.
So here’s what I think working as an OD consultant (with a L&D flavour) is about
I have been consulting in to one part of a large organisation. The part I work with has an organisational structure of 6 Functions; these in turn make up a larger Division. Each Function is historically and culturally very different – some work more to deliver linear, project-based, planned work; others are working with complex, shifting projects that involve multi-stakeholder contact.
As you can imagine, different types of people are drawn to work in the different Functions. A preference for meticulous detail, the ability to understand rules, regulations and enforce procedures? – Step over here and flourish. A preference to work within guidelines, but also work in an ambiguous, rapidly-changing environment, where building trusted relationships and a good reputation will give you easier access to information and traction? – We’ll have one of you, please.
The original brief was to start running some dialogue sessions to see if we (the client and fuchsiablue – I work in partnership where I can) could get conversation and debate moving across the whole Division. Each Function has been though fairly hefty changes in the last 2 years – redundancy, restructure, loss of experience and expertise – and the residual feel in the Division was one of disjointedness and disconnect.
Middle managers were offered networking opportunities to meet and talk, but these reportedly lacked purpose and spark, so seemed to be fizzling out. Staff surveys suggested good levels of job satisfaction, but Senior Staff in at least 4 Functions reported that they experienced a lack of energy, as sort of holding back and cautiousness, within the management team… this was inhibiting stuff getting done, creative solutions being found and stifling the joy of action.
In the other 2 Functions, however, the story was slightly different – there was a sense of renewal, of purpose and action.
Whilst I could see space for working with some dialogue methods (i.e. Strengthening the systemic capacity to listen, to speak authentically, to be more respectful and thoughtful, to question the status quo a little more) to bring about some short-term awareness and change across the whole Division; I suggested to the client that we work up to that in a slightly different way – that we honoured and worked with the diversity and difference in each Function. If the purpose of involving fuchsiablue was to bring everyone up to a shared high level of vigour, interest, participation and action (HR/OD/ L&D Professionals take note: I am NOT using the engagement word), then specific interventions in functions would be better placed than blanket solutions.
Having established some sense of a baseline, it was clear that different parts of the system were in very different places psychologically, energetically and relationally. We could take some steps to work from there.
For example: where Functions were feeling adrift and seemed to be mourning the loss of colleagues and resource, there was work to be done to repair and refocus. Where Functions were good to go – already working well and encouraging shared learning – there was work to be done to enable them to do so AND to get them to inspire and share their readiness with their colleagues.
I spent time asking questions like “What would it take for you to love what you do here?” “What would help you get fired up?” “What would make you want to applaud your team?” I’m not asking these questions in a happy-clappy “let’s brush over the issues and get cheerful” way – in fact, in the circumstances, the questions seemed provocative and categorically brought the issues to the fore that were previously off-limits to discuss with management.
Yet my sense, having spent time with various parts of the system, was that it was absolutely time to ask those questions. Much of the organisational uncertainty was gone. People did not need to fear for their jobs. There had been a whole bunch of hurt and pressure – but this was the new normal….the new world…..Time to start thinking differently.
I also asked the 2 Functions that seem to be moving forward “How are you doing this?” “What can be learned from how you are working?” “What do you want to share with your peers and colleagues that would be helpful?” At the same time, I invited the Function Heads to pay attention to the importance of talking to each other again – after months of looking into their own areas, tending to restructures and wholesale change, could they begin to look back upward and outward? Could they share ideas, tips, learning with each other to spark the ignition of change and new conversations? Could they reconnect?
Part of my point is this: the actual consultancy intervention (in terms of hours spent in the client organisation) would appear to be really rather light. I didn’t ask Teams to go on away days or need a big outlay to start training folk. I spent time with each Senior Manager, asking questions and sharing ideas. I spent a couple of hours with each Team in focused, semi-structured conversations designed to get the system thinking and acting for itself. I then spent more time with the Senior Managers, both individually and as a collective to establish how to keep the momentum, the sharing, the learning moving. I’m interested is in ensuring the client group gets results which leave a long-term positive legacy.
Later, there may well be more visible interventions – sessions showing teams and Leaders how to effectively set up and use dialogue practices; working to embed relevant leadership approaches, peer learning sets….. these are the tools, the stuff where we develop and embed learning more deeply. But that first part ? I see this as subtle work – plaiting and connecting bits of the existing, slightly bruised, system back together with care and consideration. I also see this as disruptive work – holding up mirrors, asking questions that arrest and demand some thought. Know thyself, system and you will be better in how you are known by others.
If OD is a ‘planned and systematic approach to enabling sustained organisation performance through the involvement of its people’. Then this is what fuchsia blue (and all who work with it) does.
I don’t believe I’m changing a system. I believe I’m starting conversations to challenge the system to change itself.
If this is the type of work you are looking for in your organisation in 2014, please get in touch