What kind of Organisational Development (OD)? (And a book recommendation)

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Mind slightly blown, I discover that organisation development (OD) divides into two schools of thought. Or more accurately, that a crucial aspect of organisation development may have been hiding in plain sight for decades. The two ‘schools’ (if for the moment I can refer to them that way) are diagnostic OD and dialogic ODThey are not in fact mutually exclusive – it’s this that allowed one to hide with the other – but for the purposes of explanation let me begin by describing two ends of an OD spectrum.

Diagnostic OD

At the “extreme diagnostic” end of the spectrum, the OD practitioner (here very much playing the role of the expert consultant) thinks and works like this:

  • According to the practitioner and in all likelihood the sponsor (the latter chooses the former after all), your organisation is best understood by some dominant metaphor: as a machine, an organism, an ecosystem, or a system of autonomous agents (the ‘agents’ being ‘people’ and groups thereof)
  • Accordingly, the task is to diagnose a problem and to prescribe (and perhaps implement) a fix, a cure, a conservation measure, or some reprogramming

Only a short distance beyond that extreme lies dysfunction:

  • Ivory tower diagnosis – lacking in empathy and respect, characterised by dismissiveness and judgementalism – or fake diagnosis whose main purpose is to establish the absence of some fashionable solution (see also snake oil merchants) and perhaps induce an inauthentic sense of urgency (burning platforms and the like)
  • Inviting failure by approaching adaptive challenges as though they are mere technical problems, fixable through linear, step-by-step processes (hey, 20th century change management frameworks, I’m looking at you)

Drawing a safe distance back from that precipitous edge, we have whole systems approaches, in which the diagnosis part and increasingly the implementation part involve meaningful levels of staff participation. As much facilitator as consultant, the practitioner consciously dials down their judgemental side and dials up their curious and conversational sides instead.

What if this begins to describe what successful OD has looked like all along? Would an alternative to the diagnostic model be helpful? Enter dialogic OD.

Dialogic OD

Again for the sake of explanation, let’s put those organisational metaphors to one side and start with something more philosophical:

  • The organisation is socially constructed and the creator of meaning – brought to life, sustaining itself, and continuing to evolve through its discourse, both with itself and with the outside world
  • Change is an ongoing (ever-present) process that is never entirely under anyone’s control; the practitioner’s job is to spark and facilitate new conversations, uncover fresh expressions of meaning, and help set loose new kinds of dialogue

The idea that culture is the product of a process that no-one fully controls is an important one. No wonder that change management is hard! I first saw it spelt out that way by Edgar H. Schein [1], and referenced it in Agendashift [2]. Schein is without doubt one on the greats of OD and it seems to me a little ironic that he is so strongly identified with the diagnostic model. In fairness to him, social constructionism [3] is younger than OD; moreover he contributes a superb foreword to Bushe & Marshak’s Dialogic Organization Development [4] – an excellent book that might easily have escaped my notice without his endorsement.

Before reading Bushe & Marhak’s book and as I began to read Schein’s foreword, I couldn’t help imagining for myself what diagnostic and dialogic OD might mean. Quite naturally I wondered what Agendashift would look like in the light of those two imagined models. I jumped to the conclusion that Agendashift had elements of both: diagnostic wherever it is concerned with the present (in particular the assessment and anything concerned with current obstacles), and dialogic wherever it is concerned with the future (which it does most of the rest of the time).

My instincts weren’t completely wrong, but nevertheless as I read the book I was surprised just how strongly the dialogic model resonated with me. It turns out that Agendashift is much further along the spectrum towards fully dialogic than I anticipated. Some of the more obvious parallels:

  1. Even Agendashift’s more diagnostic tools are there not to measure or judge but to stimulate conversations whose destinations – outcomes – the facilitator can’t even guess at (certainly I don’t try). As the Solutions Focus [5] guys will tell you, the point of scaling  – which they mean in the sense of giving something a numeric score – isn’t the number, but they way that it encourages you to think.
  2. Agendashift makes extensive use of generative images, things – typically terms or phrases – that help to conjure up a diverse range of naturally-aligned responses. Our de-jargonised Lean-Agile True North statement (below) is Agendashift’s most obvious example (quite a chunky one by normal standards), but even the prompts of the assessment tool are used in that way.
  3. And of course there’s the Clean Language, mainly via our 15-minute FOTO coaching game [6], though its influence runs deeper. It’s not just that the game gives participants the opportunity to ‘model’ the organisation’s obstacles and outcomes – conversations that probably haven’t happened before – it also creates the experience of a new kind of conversation.

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With the benefit of a few days of reflection, I am over that initial surprise. Agendashift was designed as a positive response to the prescriptive approaches to Agile adoption that at their worst seem to actively embrace all the diagnostic dysfunctions I identified above. Instead of prescriptive and linear, generative. And what do we generate? Outcomes around which people can self-organise, and ideas for action and experimentation that will point the organisation in the direction of those outcomes – hence outcome-oriented change – and all of it done in a coherent way that helps to develop Lean, Agile, and Lean-Agile sensibilities rather than work against them.

That said, I am not yet over my enjoyment of this book. In fact, I’m still wondering if Agendashift could and should move even further towards the dialogic end of the spectrum. Even in the Agendashift book there are hints of what might be possible – helping organisations create their own True North statements or their own non-prescriptive assessment tools, for example. And without creating any new tools, we practitioners should perhaps be keeping a closer watch for powerful new generative images amongst the many outcomes generated by participants, using their “thematic outcomes” (a phrase that is already part of the Agendashift lexicon) not just for organising plans but as seeds for wider dialogue.

I’m even challenged (in a good way) by two alternative visions of the workshop (a large part of my work). Is an Agendashift workshop:

  1. A planning event (diagnostic), or
  2. A “container for disruption” (dialogic)?

Yes!

One thing is for sure: if ever there’s a 2nd edition of Agendashift, Bushe & Marshak’s Dialogic Organization Development will certainly be among its key references. I’ll be adding it to our recommended reading list [7] very soon.

References

[1] Organizational Culture and Leadership, Edgar H. Schein (5th edition, 2016, Wiley)
[2] Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation, Mike Burrows (2018, New Generation Publishing)
[3] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_constructionism
[4] Dialogic Organization Development: The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change, Gervase R. Bushe & Robert J. Marshak (2015, Berrett-Koehler Publishers)
[5] The Solutions Focus: Making Coaching and Change SIMPLE , Mark McKergow and Paul Z. Jackson (2011, Nicholas Brealey International)
[6] 15-minute FOTO: agendashift.com/15-minute-foto
[7] Recommended reading: agendashift.com/recommended-reading

Acknowledgements

Thank you Mike Haber and Parag Gogate for feedback on earlier drafts of this post.


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We are champions and enablers of outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation. Building from agreement on outcomes, Agendashift facilitates rapid, experiment-based emergence of process, practice, and organisation. Instead of Lean and Agile by imposition – contradictory and ultimately self-defeating – we help you keep your business vision and transformation strategy aligned with and energised by a culture of meaningful participation. More…

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