Is this an OD(D) way of working?


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 Continue reading

Working with What Works.


I’m in America. The MSc studies have moved for a week to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where I, along with my AMOC15 ( Ashridge Masters in Organisational Change) classmates/ cohort are learning more about Appreciative Inquiry and about Complex Adaptive Systems. It is, frankly, an amazing opportunity and experience….and I’m determined to make the most of it.

We started working with Appreciative Inquiry yesterday (Monday) Part of what immediately piqued my interest is recognising a tendency to be asked to work in the “deficit” – to focus on what isn’t working, paying most attention to the Department that has the lowest engagement scores; coaching people’s performance based on assumption that “development” is about growing what we don’t have.

It’s raised some good questions in me about the areas I work on with my clients. How often, for instance, have I been drawn into conversations about lack, deficiency or shortage-of –competency/will/ capacity ( add your own words here)? How often have I worked (colluded?) to attempt to help “solve” a departmental or organisational “problem”? It’s a little disquieting.

What is intriguing me about Appreciative Inquiry is the invitation by Caryn Vanstone & Kevin Power at Ashridge Business School and Ron Fry at CWRU to work with what works already. To look at the very best in ourselves, in our businesses and arrangements ; to pay attention to how these can be grown and perpetuated. What I’m loving is this is NOT an invitation to be relentlessly, steadfastly positive. No one is suggesting we facilitate an away day or pick up the aftermath of a staff engagement survey and work with a fixed grin and a neat clap of the hands to only hang out with positive messages and dismiss the stories that aren’t “happy”. This AI stuff isn’t about the pink and the fluffy.

Far from it.

What’s emerging for me is that, in the face of a powerful, deep narrative of “We must be careful, let’s identify the risks” or “We need to bring this up-to-speed” or “We must get to the root of the problem”; asking ourselves to pay attention to the areas where we’ve already overcome risk or are relentlessly innovative is actually bloody challenging. Organisations dismiss good stories with frightening ease. We disappear the stuff we do well… literally vanish it “Yeah, Yeah – that bit is already fixed & done. We have already successfully implemented that, it’s in place…but what we REALLY need is to focus on the bits that aren’t done.” We fragment and focus on broken bits, rather than looking at the whole, bigger picture. Curious.

My questions yesterday were largely around “how can you ask a client to work in an appreciative way, without being seen to be a bit ( a lot?) Happy Clappy or having the term hippy/ dreamer/ not understanding the “real” problem bandied at you?” (for the record – NOT an appreciative inquiry. I have much to learn). What does appreciative dialogue in ourselves/ our organisations look like/ feel like/ sound like? ( better question from an AI perspective.. Quick learner?).

It feeds strongly into my wish to support different/ more productive discussions and stories in organisations….and that was just day one.

The image is an art installation outside the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh – I’ve been slightly slack on photo taking in the US so far.

How do you do….?

My much beloved big brother sits opposite me in his house near Brighton, glass of shiraz close to hand and he’s in full flow:

“..I mean, you’re my sister and people ask me what you do and….[hands waving vaguely in the air].. I don’t know. I don’t know what you do.”

To which I say “I know” and then try to explain what I do… and trip over myself horribly in tangled, wretched sentences that involve consultancy and organisations and dialogue and teams and people and conversations.

He says HR. I say – no – I don’t do that. It’s more L&D….well… OD really…

He is a dental surgeon in a small, successful practice – they don’t have HR or OD. We’re getting nowhere.

As the conversation continues, we move to what would be my “elevator pitch” (my response “I live in the Scottish Borders. There ARE no elevators. Think I’m safe on that front.” – not that I’m being a smart arse or anything.) .

My job title is Director. Managing Director when I’m feeling grandiose – no clues there about what I really do. Coach? Yes. I will lay claim to the coach title, that’s in there. Facilitator? Yes. That too. I do that. Organisational Consultant? Yes. I work with individuals and teams, typically to generate better conversations. Yes. I encourage potential and performance…but most of the very good people I know working in this field (and some of the not-so-great, if I’m being honest) can lay claim to these things too… Are we all saying the same things in elevators, I wonder?

And here’s the thing for me. The paradox. The crux-y stuff. I resist putting myself ( and others) in a 30 second box…. (think of trying to get a cat in a bath……’s THAT response) … yet I move in a world that would have me believe this box is (partly) where I need to be and promises to reward me for it…. How curious.

And I get it. I get that it’s only fair to others if I can distill my work and fuchsiablue to an essence. On some level I understand that is a legitimate thing to ask. And yet I still want to push back against that request…. Partly my response is inner teenager: “why should I conform?” and partly it’s a very real, live inquiry for me “Well, now… what happens if I don’t do as expected? What happens if I refuse to label or distill? Where does that take me? Where does that take the business?”

It’s just… well it strikes me that what we DO as a job is kind of less important, less interesting, potentially, than HOW we do it – how we are being? acting? showing up in between the lines of the job description?… and I can barely work out how anyone’s DOING can be shunted into a 30 second conversation in a fast-moving tin box; never-mind their marvellous Being….. Nope. Sorry. That’s not working for me as a concept.

I don’t see myself as particularly rebellious or provocative, just really rather questioning about the organisational world where something as messy as change or as complex as coaching a person is asked for in the same breath as a tidy, short elevator pitch. Really? You want me to do this?

Four weeks after a conversation with my big brother: should we be in an elevator and you ask me what I do… (after I’ve looked at you strangely for a second for striking up a conversation in a lift) I may say that my job is to get people to say things they feel they can’t easily say… or then again… I might not….


Another Place….

When I started inquiring into “The Nature of my Practice” for the Ashridge MSc, I was invited by our Peer Group tutor, Kevin, to think about non-verbal/non-word ways of expressing my work….and he kind of flummoxed me. I LOVE words. What else would POSSIBLY express how consulting work is for me? So I kind of rejected his invitation…. OK… so actually I wholly rejected it, with a flat, stubborn “nope. Not possible. I want to use words to express myself all the way.”

And so of course within 10 days of the rejection, I came across an image that seemed to show the nature of my work fairly perfectly…. Of course that happened. How else could it be?

The image above is of Antony Gormley’s incredible instillation/ sculptures on Crosby Beach, north of Liverpool. 100 figures are scattered over 3km across the beach, each one facing out into the Irish Sea. The tide sweeps in and the figures are wholly or partially submerged; part of a constantly shifting landscape, part of an ever-changing environment.

There are many images available of the sculptures, but this one shows a single figure, perhaps wading or perhaps waiting, connected-yet-apart from the other figures around.. something that resonates in how I feel when I coach, facilitate, consult…. Pah! Words ain’t going to work here….

The image speaks to me of deep rooted-ness in the face of ever changing circumstance. Stoicism and resilience in the face of oncoming tides. Industriousness and connectedness to nature. Quiet grace. It speaks of being alone-yet-connected in organisations. About being one part of a bigger whole.

After finding this image, I started playing with a tidal metaphor for my Practice. A slow start, way out on the horizon, a few tentative waves heading toward shore (it might look a little half-assed to the uninitiated, in all fairness) Then there’s a gathering of pace, purpose and certainty. …More power and energy as the waves sweep in. (If I’m really going for it, clients can get a little lost in my enthusiasm and energy, others surf it with glee).

What I love next is the notion of the slack tide (hideous words, but great notion) – the turning point where the tide is deeper, stiller and ready to move off, revealing what is left on the beach – this, for me is the point where I’m reflecting and learning, or where I work with the client to make sense of all that the incoming tide has brought.

My smart & wise friend and colleague Sarah told me about Spring tides (high waters, destructive, often) and neap tides (less energy, softer impact) and here I was given a way to think about calibrating my impact and energy (is this all a bit too Spring tide?).

The metaphor works for me on many levels – big organisations as oceans (containing sharks?) and smaller organisations as seas or even estuaries….all having tidal pulls. Racing, fast-paced tides which can overwhelm, or slow-creep tides whose impact you barely notice…

And in this, I see the Gormley statues in this image and think of how they interact with and interrupt the tides….and how, perhaps, I might just do the same….