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Rob Robson

The People Experience Hub

Director of People Science,

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Organisation development: opportunities and challenges for OD in 2021

How can OD professionals contribute to meaningful change in 2021?

In 2020, most organisations faced one or more forms of crisis brought on by Covid-19 – the existential threat of sudden losses in demand; rapid repurposing to deal with surges or shifts in demand; or the relatively simpler challenge of scrambling to enable mass virtual working.

The opportunity to build more future-ready and sustainable organisations, perhaps with new ways of defining value, is a challenge that most OD practitioners would readily accept. 

While there’s light at the end of that tunnel, the lack of clarity over Brexit means that there is still much uncertainty ahead. I therefore believe that 2021 will be a year both of great opportunity and great challenge for organisational development and HR professionals.


1. To ‘build back better’ (sorry)

We still don’t really know how Covid-19 will impact our long-term future, but there is an opportunity to help our organisations not only to recover but also to re-evaluate their purpose and the values and capabilities needed to be better equipped for a VUCA world. For years now, organisational agility has been identified as a key driver of sustainability, but meaningful progress has been harder to find – even though economic shocks are becoming more frequent and there were warnings of prolonged volatility well before the pandemic struck.

2. Use the momentum created by Covid-19 to keep building change

The way that many organisations responded and adapted to Covid-19 highlights a latent ability to make change happen – at least when faced with an existential crisis. It also represents a huge opportunity for OD, while it’s still fresh in people’s minds.

Taking momentum from your organisation’s response to Covid-19 means finding ways to create conversations that lead to learning. What did we do well? How did we do it? What does that tell us about our culture? What do we need to continue, do more of, do better or leave behind?

3. To build on the rising status of HR and OD

The pandemic has shone a light on people issues and people professionals as they dealt with furlough and (unfortunately) redundancies, enabled the shift to remote working, and supported wellbeing and engagement. This represents a visibility and influence that OD and HR have long desired. It may open up opportunities to get involved earlier in defining and solving problems, where we’re sometimes brought in too late to have the impact that we otherwise could.

4. To play a vital role in leading through complexity

Many organisations find themselves in unchartered, complex territory that they need to make sense of and deal with creatively. That means involving a broader and more diverse range of voices in the process. Our stakeholders often demonstrate a bias for action and value ‘getting stuff done’ over the collaborative inquiry that’s needed when faced with complexity. OD practitioners are well placed to facilitate that.

5. To establish OD and HR as creators of business value

While it’s implicit that we’ll be driving business value if we take our opportunities, I think it’s worth saying anyway. The opportunity to build more future-ready and sustainable organisations, perhaps with new ways of defining value, is a challenge that most OD practitioners would readily accept.


Now that you’re ready to step up, let’s just take a moment to consider some of the challenges that come with these opportunities.

1. Balancing operational and strategic demands

Between Covid-19 and Brexit, there are still many immediate, operational issues for most businesses to work through. This may prevent stakeholders from thinking ahead. Many OD professionals either hold some operational HR responsibilities or will have them on during the pandemic. These demands won’t just disappear, creating a tension that you and your colleagues will need to manage carefully.

2. Dealing with inertia

It might seem a strange thing to say when so many people responded well to the immediate challenge of Covid-19, but I believe that there is a real risk of inertia. Initially, people may find it difficult to engage with the uncertainty that lies ahead and be more comfortable ‘fixing problems’ in the present. Later, when there’s less of an obvious existential threat, there may be a new risk, as tired and frayed people want to relax.

The point at which things seem to be calming down could be when your organisation will benefit most from re-evaluating and renewing its sense of purpose.

3. Embracing healthy conflict

You’ll already appreciate that a healthy conflict is essential for creativity and progress. We may need to challenge our stakeholders, raising unaddressed issues or barriers to making things ‘better’.  For example, where work and home lives have become blurred this needs to be addressed. Bringing issues to the surface and creating necessary conflict can be uncomfortable for (internal) service providers in large organisations that value conformity.

4. Engaging carefully but confidently

Given the above, OD practitioners may have to tread lightly to avoid being perceived as pushing an agenda or diverging from short-term priorities, but must step up with confidence when needed. This means investing in relationships and building trust with stakeholders, taking confidence from OD skills and processes, and being well prepared when opportunity knocks.

5. Gathering quality evidence

It goes without saying that as OD professionals, we’re evidence-based practitioners. During the pandemic we can’t help but have become a little detached and less able to get a feel for what people are thinking or feeling through direct contact with people.

While people are working remotely or more stretched than usual, you may have to step up the amount of formal data that you collect from employees, using surveys or other technologies, or make greater use of external research findings.

Stepping up to the challenge

I genuinely believe that OD professionals have a unique opportunity step up and use their skills and contribute to fundamental, meaningful change post-Covid-19 (and Brexit). That doesn’t mean, however, that 2021 will be without its challenges, and of course the world won’t suddenly change on 1 January 1! We must make careful choices, engage skillfully, and be seen to be focused on solving the problems that matter most.

Interested in this topic? Read The human-focused workplace: how to redesign your organisation to achieve people-centricity.

Author Profile Picture
Rob Robson

Director of People Science,

Read more from Rob Robson
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