Organisation Development

by Rosie Stevens

In a nutshell

1. So what’s it all about?

Organisation Development is a long-range, long-term, holistic and multi-faceted approach to achieving transformational change and to developing the potential, capacity and capability of an organisation, its culture, its systems and the people within it.

  • It is often linked with transformational change, including the development (or review and revision) of the organisation’s purpose and vision
  • It also involves strategic business planning and leadership and people development
  • The OD strategy is normally developed by a specialist OD consultant, who draws on their specialist knowledge of behavioural and social sciences, such as sociology and psychology.


2. Organisation Development – a brief history

Organisation Development (OD) is a subject and approach that has emerged in its own right over the last 40 or so years. As it emerged as a discipline in the late 1960s, Richard Beckhard defined its key characteristics as being

  • Planned
  • Organisation-wide
  • Managed from the top

in order to

  • Increase organisational effectiveness and health through interventions in the organisation’s processes, using behavioural science knowledge.

OD today is often characterised by system-wide, transformational interventions and strategies, with a clear focus on empowerment, inclusion, participation, values and ethics and on developing leaders and people in order to develop the organisation and deliver high levels of customer and stakeholder satisfaction.


3. Some definitions

Most of what has been written about OD has been researched and written in an academic context, so prevailing definitions tend to have an academic flavour, but the most common definitions imply that

  • OD is long-term and long-range – it is not a quick fix which can be satisfied by immediate implementation of a new process or a knee-jerk training course
  • OD is and should be linked to strategic business planning
  • It needs to be supported by senior leaders and understood by all leaders and managers in the organisation
  • It effects change through education and learning, although not exclusively, and it is inextricably linked with organisational learning
  • Empowerment, inclusion, collaboration and extensive participation are crucial, as is the need to explore and understand a wide range of perspectives about the organisation, both from within and from other stakeholders and partners.


4. OD versus HR

Some believe that HR and OD are gradually merging, while others see them as necessarily distinct and different disciplines and believe that merging them is positively unhelpful and can lead to conflicts of interest. For the purposes of this topic, I have attempted to provide a traditional explanation of difference, based on historical research and writing.

  • HR management is associated primarily with the more traditional personnel-type functions, generally characterised by specific and sometimes very detailed processes, legislation and regulation.
  • These processes include recruitment and selection, employment legislation, the development and management of the employment contract, pay strategies and mechanisms, appraisal, performance management, HR systems and databases, compensation and benefits, appraisal procedures, talent management and so on.
  • Organisation Development is, at its very core, rooted in behavioural science – psychology, sociology and anthropology – and is concerned with applying that knowledge to help organisations develop and improve.
  • There are few OD ‘processes’ that are bound by legislation or set in stone, because the majority of the processes are custom-designed to meet the aims of the OD strategy, and the starting point for development of an OD strategy is always a system-wide diagnosis.


5. Developing an OD strategy

The development of an OD strategy should always start first and foremost with the appointment of an expert in OD – either someone appointed internally, normally as Head or Director of OD, or an external OD consultant.

  • The Organisation Development Strategy should then begin with a very thorough organisational diagnosis. This should not be rushed, and it must be followed through.
  • The OD strategy should focus primarily on helping the organisation to meet and deliver its stated purpose, vision and values, so these are the starting point of the diagnosis.
  • You should involve as many people as you can in the diagnostic phase, through conducting individual sessions, collective sessions (including time with the top team and various management and staff groups throughout the organisation) and through large-scale conferences and/or large group interventions.
  • Once you or the person conducting the diagnosis has all the information, it should be pulled together and analysed, and key themes highlighted.
  • If what transpires from the diagnosis is that there is no clear organisational vision, mission and purpose or values, then these must be the starting point, as any interventions developed without this clarity will not work in the long run.


6. Key elements of an OD strategy

The key elements of the strategy will vary from one organisation to another and will depend on the outcomes and information gleaned from the diagnosis, but, essentially, there is a suggested ‘checklist’ of work, as laid out below:

  • Diagnosis
  • Development/refinement of the organisational purpose (if not already very clear)
  • Development of a robust vision
  • Development of organisational values
  • Identification of the type of organisational culture needed to deliver the above
  • Identification of the structures that may need to be put in place or changed to deliver the organisation’s purpose, vision, goals and projected outcomes
  • Detailed consideration of how the capability/potential of both the organisation and the people within it may be developed.

The key thing is that, as well as having an organisational, planned and supported change effort in the form of a formal OD strategy, people should be actively and continuously involved and empowered to develop their own ideas and ways of working within the system. They should feel that they have had the opportunity to contribute fully, both to the diagnosis and to the emerging strategy development.


7. Large Group Interventions

Large Group Interventions have been extensively used since the 1980s.All LGI approaches share certain principles:

  • Get as much of a whole system into the room as possible
  • If people are given all the information they need, they are able to be innovative and creative
  • Really listening to and taking account of as wide a range of perspectives as possible is most likely to ensure that the change is a success
  • Getting everyone involved, even if it initially takes more time to plan and conduct change, is more efficient than trying to implement change quickly using a small planning group
  • The people who are closest to the problem or issues being discussed often have the critical information that will significantly enrich the strategy and plans for implementation and delivery.
  • The diversity that comprises the whole system often creates a synergy that leads to a more innovative and creative change and future way of working.


8. Appreciative Inquiry

This is an inquiry-based change process and applies the learning from what works. This is more effective and sustainable than learning from breakdowns and pathologies – in other words, what hasn’t worked/current problems. AI emphasises collaboration, the harnessing of positive human energy and participation of all voices in the system. It is based on five principles:

  • Understanding the constructionist stance – in other words, that we co-create our reality through conversations and inquiry, which leads to our agreements about what we believe to be true, how we see the world and how we will behave
  • Understanding and valuing storytelling as a way of gathering data, information and facts as well as the feelings that affected people’s experiences
  • Believing that a positive approach is a very valid basis for learning and is just as – if not more – contagious and certainly more energising than a negative approach, which is energy-draining
  • The realisation that inquiry is change and that the first question we ask is absolutely critical, given that the organisation will turn its attention and energy in the direction of that first question
  • The impact of anticipatory images – understanding that our images of the future directly impact and create our behaviours and actions as much as our learnings from experience and life.


9. Employing OD consultants

Find someone or an organisation who actually offers OD as a specialism or has a background and/or a qualification in Organisation Development.

  • Even if someone appears to have held an OD post, it is wise to check out exactly what this meant in practice and investigate thoroughly the extent of their involvement in diagnosis and strategy development and implementation.
  • If you are appointing someone internal, as a career development move, you will need to ensure that they are adequately prepared and trained for such a demanding role
  • If you are employing an external consultant, you might appoint someone in the organisation to work alongside them if you want to develop internal capability.
  • Be very clear about defining expectations and roles. The absence of this can often derail a project and can lead to a whole set of inaccurate assumptions on either side.