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Garin Rouch

Distinction Consulting

Organisation Development Consultant

Read more about Garin Rouch

Prevention over cure: How OD can save you from failure

Why today’s complex environment needs a more proactive approach.

Many managers and their organisations are caught off guard, reacting to external events or focusing on dealing with internal issues and problems that seem to emerge from all corners.

Our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world has evolved into a BANI one (brittle, anxious, non-linear, incomprehensible), according to Jamais Cascio, an American anthropologist and futurist.

There has never been a more compelling need for organisations to regain control and shift their centre of mass from a reactive stance to a proactive one.

The misuse of OD

We all know that prevention is better than cure. Addressing issues before they occur saves resources that would otherwise be spent on fixing problems, such as downtime, reputational damage, or legal costs.

Preventive measures ensure smooth operations by proactively identifying and mitigating potential obstacles. This allows teams to work without interruptions, enhancing overall productivity and efficiency.

OD can play a critical role in initiating the necessary steps to foster a workplace where employees feel free to express themselves.

A key factor in adopting this new proactive approach is organisation development (OD). Often, organisations misuse their OD resources by relying on them to fix problems instead of preventing them.

OD practitioners are typically called in to fix various problems, such as transformation programmes that have fallen behind schedule, big bet strategies that have failed at the implementation stage, or optimising organisational structures constrained by siloed working.

Using OD proactively, however, to prevent these problems from happening in the first place can yield much greater dividends.

In this article, we will explore three ways in which you can deploy your OD resources more effectively.

Ignoring the warning signs

Most man-made disasters are generally preceded by early warning signs of an impending issue (e.g., Deep Horizons oil spill, Challenger Space Shuttle). If the opinions of less senior employees had been listened to and acted upon earlier, catastrophes could have been averted.

Research by Sydney Dekker in his book Drift Into Failure found that airlines with the most incidents had the fewest accidents. Airlines where employees felt safe and respected enough to report smaller incidents led to a reduction in catastrophic accidents.

Surprisingly, many airlines that experienced significant accidents often had exemplary safety records prior to their disasters.

It is crucial for employees to feel safe enough to speak out when they observe ethical issues, opportunities for improvement, or unsafe practices.

Creating tripwires by building psychological safety

Gallup’s research in 2023 found that a significant number of employees avoid discussing unethical situations they’ve witnessed at work. While nine out of ten employees claim they would report such behaviour if they had first-hand knowledge, only four in ten actually follow through.

OD can create greater engagement allowing decision-makers to really understand the complexity of their organisations.

Lack of trust in employers’ commitment to doing what’s right is one of the main reasons behind this reluctance. Interestingly, when employees have confidence in their employers’ integrity, they become 24 percentage points more likely to report issues.

Establishing a regular space for listening to marginalised groups can serve as a tripwire that is activated at the first signs of risk. This involves actively seeking and valuing employees’ opinions.

Only when you have developed a consistent history of responsive leadership will your employees feel comfortable sharing their thoughts. OD can play a critical role in initiating the necessary steps to foster a workplace where employees feel free to express themselves.

Stack the odds in your favour when it comes to strategy

Too many senior leaders assume that designing a strategy and then broadcasting it via a town hall meeting is an end in itself: the reality is very different.

Research in 2018 by Donald and Charles Sull and colleagues on 124 organisations found that only 28% of senior and middle managers responsible for executing the strategy could name at least three of the organisation’s priorities.

In Paul C Nutt’s 2002 book, Why Decisions Fail: Avoiding the Blunders and Traps That Lead to Debacles, he provided compelling evidence that participative decision making consistently surpasses top-down decision making in effectiveness. OD can bring more diversity of thought into decision making to reduce the impact of groupthink and add more creativity and increased capacity for adaptation.

OD can create greater engagement allowing decision-makers to really understand the complexity of their organisations and how their proposals will disrupt the people responsible for implementing it.

Assessing and building change readiness

Change is inevitable for organisations. They must adapt to keep up with external changes and ensure their survival.

Unfortunately, leaders rarely assess whether it is the right time for a major change. They rarely consider if they would be better placed to focus on smaller changes while building the organisation’s readiness for a bigger shift.

Organisations must shift from reactive to proactive approaches to address the complex challenges of the BANI world.

Countless changes are launched without this groundwork, leading to change fatigue, frustration, and frequent failure.

OD practitioners can assess the readiness of the organisation and the individuals within it. To be ready for change, individuals need to:

  1. Understand and support the need for change
  2. See the benefits of the change as outweighing any potential downsides
  3. Have confidence in the organisation’s ability to successfully implement the changes
  4. Believe in their own ability to effectively participate in and adapt to the change

If any of these four criteria are missing, then the probability of success is diminished.

This means building the ability and resilience to handle and survive change as we go through the process. Readiness will fluctuate throughout the lifetime of the change initiative.
Often, organisations don’t build any slack into their plans to allow people to respond when things go wrong, this usually leads to small events snowballing into large failures.

Three questions to maximise potential

In conclusion, organisations must shift from reactive to proactive approaches to address the complex challenges of the BANI world.

It is time for organisations to prioritise OD as a proactive and strategic approach for maximising their potential and thriving in the face of complexity and uncertainty.

Start by asking three questions:

  1. How can we create a culture of psychological safety that encourages employees to speak up about ethical issues, improvement opportunities, and unsafe practices?
  2. Are we involving a diverse range of perspectives and practicing participative decision-making to ensure strategic alignment and effective implementation?
  3. Are we assessing the readiness of our organisation and individuals for change before taking the leap?

By reflecting on these questions, organisations can proactively prevent problems, ultimately positioning themselves for success in the ever-evolving landscape.

If you liked this, read: A comprehensive report on the State of OD in 2023


Author Profile Picture
Garin Rouch

Organisation Development Consultant

Read more from Garin Rouch

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