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Tony Nicholls


Management Thinker & Change Authority

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Organisational development practitioners: beware the silver bullets


Delegates of my facilitated interventions sometimes express a view that what I do is some kind of 'magic'. They reflect on their experience of me not having said much, asking a few questions, getting them talking and, as a result, them experiencing moments of clarity and deepened relationships.

I see these observations as a sign I am managing a paradox central to effective facilitation: "the less I am in the room, the greater the impact I have in the room."

The first 'I' refers to my ego, the 'I' that wants to teach, be noticed, flattered and even deified.

The second 'I' is the one that has impact through the presence a facilitator develops when the ego-based 'I' is diminished.

Occasionally this more present 'I' might impart wisdom or even be directive, but only in service of the process in play and the individuals in the room, never in service of the facilitator's ego.

Who’s in the room?

Another side to this paradox is that despite diminishing the ego, the present 'I' is not without personality. Tony is still very much in the room.

In this paradox we see a central tenet of OD, this being the 'self as instrument of change.' This self is ego-reduced and presence-enhanced, but is still an intact, fully recognisable human being.

It follows that each self is a unique instrument of change and will therefore deliver subtly or significantly different types and levels of impact. 

This leads us to conclude that the value of OD is not solely about the process being deployed. It is also very much about the practitioner. OD practitioners are not soulless automatons, dispensing a particular model or process for change with unerring repetition.

In essence, there is no such thing as neutrality and objectivity. The OD practitioner accepts this, is alert to the need to diminish the impact of their ego, but is not naive enough to think they are delivering the 'best' or ‘only' possible intervention.

They are delivering 'an' intervention, the value of which is in part down to their unique sensing of the client's context and their preferred approach to their craft.

New thinking, new practices

The field of OD has long recognised the unique impact each OD practitioner might have and more recently has been exploring how exactly this impact comes about.

More traditional OD tends to focus on process and aims to reduce the impact of the practitioner's self through process-oriented, sequential interventions.

Traditional OD therefore lends itself to being 'packaged' or codified for deployment by non-OD practitioners. Typically involving an initial current state diagnosis, this approach has become known as Diagnostic OD.

More contemporary thinking in the field is now focusing on how change is actually achieved. The focus is on complex webs of relationships that have an inherent messiness.

Relationships are at the centre of contemporary thinking and is referenced as Dialogic OD.

Two sides of the same coin

Some say these are mutually exclusive areas of practice and that Diagnostic OD has had its day in our more complex, rapidly changing organisations.

I don't subscribe to this. I believe Dialogic OD is articulating a clearer picture of what we believe is actually happening in any change process.

Diagnostic OD is still needed for good governance, but alone it cannot deliver success. Any successful change structured through Diagnostic OD will have an intrinsic element of Dialogic OD contributing to the processes of change.

This symbiotic relationship simply hasn't been recognised and articulated before.

Recognising this is good news. However, there is a challenge in this story.

Instead of being treated as two sides of the same coin, Diagnostic and Dialogic OD are being treated as separate areas of practice.

Dialogic OD practitioners are distancing themselves from Diagnostic OD and starting to ‘package’ their interventions. In this packaging process the essence of the intervention can be lost.

Hazardous to health?

Referring to the dependency seen between the two areas of practice and the earlier exploration of the 'self as instrument of change', it follows that codified Dialogic OD products should have very visible 'Caveat Emptor' warnings on their packaging.

These would go along the lines "May cause confusion if utilised as a stand-alone product" and "Value-add from the enclosed will vary greatly depending on the practitioner using it."

Herein lies a critical issue for 'purchasers' of such services. Many practitioners are identifying themselves as in one camp or another.

Those favouring Diagnostic OD may not be sufficiently schooled in Dialogic OD, which we have seen is an intrinsic part of successful change.

Very few practitioners favouring Dialogic OD will have an understanding of the theories underpinning the practice.

They will simply 'buy' the packaged product for on-sale to clients. The need to practice continuing self-exploration and ego-diminishing restraint may not be forefront in their minds.

What results is the presence of ego that, even with the best of intentions, allows the spotlight to fall on the aforementioned 'I' that wants to “teach, be noticed, flattered and even deified.”

Buyer beware

This brings challenges for CEOs and HRDs looking to deploy the support of OD practitioners. How can they assess the very individualised 'instrument of change' they have sat before them?

I would suggest first assessing whether they are schooled in both Diagnostic and Dialogic OD. I would also be suspicious if they are claiming to be selling anything that promises 'the' answer.

Finally, assess the individual's presence. Is there an ego in the room or an inquiring, humble, interesting and learned individual? Do you feel comfortable with the person, but in equal measure, uncomfortable and inspired by some of the questions they are asking?      

It is good news that the field of OD is developing its thinking. However, as this thinking is packaged by those wanting to sell shiny new silver bullets, remember the warning "Caveat Emptor”, because packaged OD interventions can indeed carry risks for the unwary.

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Tony Nicholls

Management Thinker & Change Authority

Read more from Tony Nicholls

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