Organisation development (OD) is enjoying a renaissance and becoming an aspirational career for many people frustrated with the way their organisations manage change.
Few roles give you the opportunity to drive meaningful change across an organisation and play a vital role in shaping the culture.
So, what does it take to become an OD practitioner and how do you start your career?
What is organisation development?
First, let’s look at what organisation development is. Since its inception over 70 years ago, the field of OD has garnered the nickname ‘the magpie profession’ because it incorporates practices and tools from a wide variety of different fields.
It draws from disciplines as diverse as social psychology, systems theory, anthropology, management theory, complexity theory, biology and cybernetics.
The one thing that all OD practitioners agree on is that there is no one definition of what OD is.
Extensive research by Brendel identified over 40 definitions of organisation development.
In its simplest form, an OD practitioner applies behavioural science to address issues within organisations. The aim is to align capabilities and strategy, facilitating collaboration and empowering individuals to achieve their personal and business goals more effectively.
OD encompasses a spectrum of methodologies, ranging from diagnostic and dialogical practices to ‘hard’ OD centred around organisation design, structures, systems, and processes
Organisation development in practice
Many people discover organisation development mid-career, after becoming frustrated with the limitations of creating change using the traditional methods. In fact, the impact is often so profound that many practitioners describe it as a ‘calling’.
Given the multitude of schools of thought within organisation development, there isn’t a singular approach to practising it. OD encompasses a spectrum of methodologies, ranging from diagnostic and dialogical practices to ‘hard’ OD centred around organisation design, structures, systems, and processes.
Conversely, ‘soft’ OD focuses on people, behaviour, and culture.
Equally there are practitioners who skilfully blend elements from both families, offering a flexible and customised approach to OD implementation.
Self as instrument
Creating change goes beyond merely following a Gantt chart and requires deep self-discovery.
This exploration, including confronting uncomfortable truths about yourself, is essential for organisational development practitioners.
The concept of ‘self-as-instrument’ means using oneself as a diagnostic tool to understand what’s happening in the organisational system.
This involves recognising and managing transference, where people may project strong feelings onto you and others, and countertransference, where you feel something on behalf of others affected by the change.
The ability to differentiate between your emotions and those of others is crucial, as it provides valuable diagnostic data for working with organisation change.
The concept of ‘self-as-instrument’ means using oneself as a diagnostic tool to understand what’s happening in the organisational system
How to assess your OD skills
If you are interested in evaluating your skills and competencies as an OD practitioner, you can refer to one of the 11 different competency frameworks provided by different professional bodies such as the OD Network.
I personally had my experience evaluated against the competency framework of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) to become a Chartered Fellow. This process provided valuable insights into my capabilities as an OD professional.
How to get an OD role
There is no registration or regulation in the organisation development field.
On the positive side, this means barriers to entry are low enabling a greater diversity of practitioners with different backgrounds to enter. Conversely, the lack of structure in career pathways can be seen as a challenge.
If you’re looking for the definitive entry level OD role, then this isn’t straightforward. Recent research found over 500 different job descriptions for OD roles.
It is common to come across hybrid roles that combine multiple elements. For instance, Director of Global Talent & OD.
When it comes to finding a suitable OD course, the extensive range of options can be overwhelming. At last count, there were 144 undergraduate OD programmes available so it can be a challenge to know where to begin. However, there are a few well-established centres of excellence that you can consider, such as Roffey Park, Ashridge, and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).
When it comes to finding a suitable OD course, the extensive range of options can be overwhelming
Practical steps to help you get started with organisation development and design
To gather insights on getting started in the field of OD we spoke with various practitioners.
Among them is Liz Childs, an organisation design and development consultant at the House of Commons. Liz’s journey began in HR. She gained valuable experience in her first HR manager role in the NHS where she saw the link between the big strategic picture and what was happening on the front line. Liz observed how personalities, relationships, and unintended consequences of decisions impacted change programmes. She discovered OD when her HR Director told her she was intuitively doing it already!
Here are some practical steps that can help you get started with organisation development and design:
1. Find an OD mentor
The OD community is known for its generosity. Look for someone within the community who can mentor you or simply share their experiences with you.
2. Volunteer on change projects
Look for opportunities to take a leading role in change projects or anything that gives you more exposure to OD.
Consider taking the lead on engaging with stakeholders who are affected by the change.
3. Connect with strategists in your organisation
Try to connect with people who are responsible for making strategic decisions in your organisation. Be curious about how they operate and make decisions.
4. Remain curious and open minded
Remember that OD principles can be applied anywhere, not just in designated OD roles.
Be open to opportunities that may not seem to be explicitly labelled as OD.
Look for someone within the community who can mentor you or simply share their experiences with you
5. Develop an OD mindset
Even if your current role is not in OD, you can still practise developing an OD mindset.
By viewing your role as part of a broader system, you can better understand how it works and identify opportunities for change.
Starting a career in OD requires a multifaceted approach. It is important to understand the diverse nature of OD and develop a strong OD mindset.
Remain curious and open to continuously learning and growing and can embark on a fulfilling journey in the field of organisation development.
If you enjoyed this, read: Prevention over cure: How OD can save you from failure