Where organisational development thrives

Efforts led by a single leader are far less successful than those led by the people implementing the change


For the past few decades organisational development (OD) has been advertised as being about change, but that is not quite right; OD is about creating great teams and organisations. It thrives under specific change conditions and is particularly well-suited to certain kinds of issues. OD helps leaders address complex issues while developing a great organisation. However, there is no one valid, generalised model of a great organisation because any solution to a problem of organising inevitably creates another problem. Organising is a never-ending process of managing polarities, paradoxes and competing values to meet local contingencies and constraints. We can, however, identify general characteristics of a more developed organisation, assume that developmental issues are always present, and use those as criteria for planning and assessing the success of OD efforts.

What’s new

The estimate that about 75% of change efforts fail has become a cliché. But hidden by that cliché is a different story about the kinds of change processes that almost always succeed. If you look under the hood at what makes the difference it has to do with two things: what leaders do and what stakeholders do.

In traditional change models (the ones that often fail) the leader’s job is to have a vision, identify the change, and clarify who is supposed to do what (quadrants one and two in the table, right). When the stakeholders (employees, managers, customers, suppliers, sometimes government and community groups) who will have to implement any changes are the ones identifying what should change, change efforts are almost always successful if leaders are personally engaged in managing the process (quadrant four in the table below).

OD thrives when the change process is engaging and emergent. For example, Stensaker, Falkenberg and Grønhaug (2008) studied what happened in three different business units (BU) implementing a corporately-mandated change programme. Top-down planning and implementation failed while the most success occurred in the BU that “…used a different approach. They relied on extensive participation and negotiations with employees during planning and decision-making. The result was a unified account of change in the form of a customised change plan that was implemented in a stepwise and cumulative process through consistent action.” My recent study of changes in the mindsets of individuals during an OD effort found they were due to the engaging and emergent nature of the change process (Maxton and Bushe, 2017).

A really convincing study asked senior managers in a variety of large companies about their stories of change (Rowland and Higgs, 2008). When leaders decided the content and directed the process of change they failed. When leaders directed the process, engaging and focusing employees on the challenges they face, while supporting emergent ideas about what to change they succeeded.

There are no valid, universal models of a great organisation

In Bushe and Marshak (2018) we show that somewhere in the 1980s the idea that OD is about change took hold in HR and has led to a number of unfortunate results. The primary one is that leaders who want to create great organisations don’t know to utilise the skills and perspectives of OD. I propose that ‘OD is about great organisations’ is a more generative and more accurate image. In the past 50 years many models of effective organising have emerged that include widespread engagement and continuous inquiry that support reliable execution and adaptation.

While models can help people see old things anew, inspire, and point in useful directions, no model of organising will ever finally solve the problem of how we divide up work and then co-ordinate to achieve collective outcomes. That’s because effective collective action rests on a set of paradoxes, polarities, and competing values. Organisational effectiveness requires stability and flexibility, adapting to external demands and standardising internal operations, working through people and relationships and working through impersonal processes and routines. Any solution to a specific problem of organising today will inevitably create a new set of problems to solve tomorrow. We centralise, then decentralise, then centralise in a never-ending search for effectiveness. We loosen up until we are too loose, and then tighten until we are too tight. We rely on rules until they become stifling, and then rely on relationships until they become too inefficient, in a continuous search for how to best meet the variety of challenges the world keeps throwing at us.

Does that mean that there are no useful models, no right answers, no places where a top-down approach works? No, it doesn’t. A useful perspective is Heifetz’s (1998) distinction between technical problems and adaptive challenges. Technical problems can be solved in a top-down process through the application of analytical models and expertise. Adaptive challenges cannot, and the single greatest failure of leadership (to paraphrase Heifetz) is to treat adaptive challenges like technical problems. Adaptive challenges are complex issues without a single right answer. They require the engagement of those with a stake in the challenge if they are to be managed. They require inquiry, experimentation and learning. Typically they are never completely ‘solved’. They are the sorts of issues that OD is uniquely qualified to work on.

When leaders understand that any solution to an adaptive challenge will eventually create a new problem we are freed from trying to find ‘the answer’. Instead we can help leaders to work with their stakeholders and search for any answers that stakeholders will own and execute, secure in the knowledge that OD is a never-ending process of small wins. The purpose of the work is as much to increase the adaptive capacity of the organisation as it is to solve whatever problem is currently being attended to. We are creating a great team/organisation at the same time as we are solving a complex issue.

Criteria for successful organisational development

A variety of emergent change methods are described in many different books, and the processes that make them successful were recently summarised in Dialogic Organization Development:

The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change (Bushe and Marshak, 2015). While we can’t say what a great organisation looks like in the abstract, we can find guidance in research on development in people and groups. In the concept of development we are not interested in simply what happens over time, but rather in the idea of progress, improvement and growth. There is no expectation that a person, group or organisation will ever fully develop. It does not naturally happen, it requires effort and intention. Our models of development derive primarily from Freud, Erikson, Piaget, and Maslow and there are three common threads found in all of them.

1. The more developed a system, the more aware it is of itself; it can talk to itself about itself.

Are people in this team or organisation more able to talk to each other about what they really think, feel and want about their work together? If so the organisation has developed. A great organisation is one where people speak out and listen, engage meaningfully, bring up difficult issues, reflect on what has taken place and learn from it, question and challenge visions and plans, collect data and learn from their own performance and the performance of others, and are able to see below the particular instance to the underlying pattern. To create a small or large group where such talking is possible requires skilful and respectful discourse, an acknowledgement and appreciation of differences, an ability to make those differences a source of learning and innovation, and so on. But we can’t specify in advance any of those traits because much of it depends on so many other things: national cultures, the particular challenges facing the organisation and their urgency, the shifting contingencies that affect whose voices must be influential, and on and on. While we can identify in very broad terms what a great organisation looks like, it must always be nuanced by situational constraints and opportunities.

2. The more developed a system, the less it is driven by reactive, unconscious emotions, motivations and cognitive frameworks.

Are the decisions and actions of people in this team or organisation less driven by unspoken feelings and motivations than before? Are they able to deal with the pertinent issues in a calmer, more rational, deliberate and mindful manner than before? If so the organisation has developed. A great organisation is one where emotions that can drive irrational behaviour are described and acknowledged and so lose their potency to unconsciously influence people. Clearly this, and the first criteria of development, are mutually reinforcing – the less we are driven by unspoken fears the more we are able to talk to ourselves about ourselves. How to do that in any particular instance, with a particular group of people facing specific challenges, can’t be boiled down to a recipe. Perhaps it is enough to ask ‘have we increased the team or organisation’s capacity to acknowledge and move past difficult feelings and motives in the service of making better, wiser decisions?’

3. The more developed the system, the more it is able to actualise its potential.

Are people in this team or organisation more aware of what they are capable of, more motivated to bring the best of themselves to their work together, more able to create synergy from collective efforts, more able to manage the adaptive challenges facing them, than they were before? If so then the organisation has developed. From this point of view a great organisation is consistently able to achieve outcomes that it could not in the past, is able to grow its capacities, competencies and core strengths, is able to achieve synergies that were previously unknown. To some extent this is about organisational learning but it’s about more than learning. It’s about creativity, generativity and innovation. It’s about the ability to perform and learn simultaneously. Again, each of these elements of development can be self-reinforcing.

From research to reality

There are many leaders out there, in the C-suite and in middle management, who want to create great teams and organisations. Does it occur to them that OD is what they are looking for? Somewhere along the way in our quest for relevance and influence OD subsumed the core values of its founders – the spirit of inquiry, free and informed choice, authenticity and collaborative decision-making – for the siren song of change. Change is hard. Change is something managers grapple with. Change is something we can promote as our core competence. And for sure, our work does involve change. But not just any change.

OD thrives when it works with leaders who want to create great organisations and are willing to lead an emergent process that engages stakeholders in proposing and acting on solutions to adaptive challenges. To be successful, leaders must be just as interested in improving the organisation’s adaptive capacity as they are in any specific change. This, however, violates a widely held but problematic belief – that leaders must have a ‘vision’ (Bushe and Marshak, 2016). We need a new narrative of leadership that acknowledges the courage required of leaders who say ‘I don’t know the answer but I know what the problem is, and I will engage those who will have to solve the problem in an adaptive, emergent process of change’.

This essay is the winner of the 2017 Roffey Park and HR magazine academic research competition. To read the full award-winning research paper please visit www.roffeypark.com

Gervase Bushe is professor of leadership and organisation development at the Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver