I wanna know what OD is…….

When I had my first OD job in 1997, I had never heard of Organisational Development.  I was given the opportunity to design my “ideal” job and – had a new boss at the same time.  The ideal job was given the thumbs up by the Exec.    I started to get nervous. And the new boss said of my new job “that’s organisational development”. I said “what’s organisational development?”.  She said “it’s about growing the capability of the whole organisation”.  Gulp.  I was about to find out more.

Another beautiful convergence; around the same time,  I met a previous boss for lunch and during our conversation she slid a piece of paper across the table towards me with a sort of secret smile. It was an application for a Msc in organisational Consulting, one she had studied herself and I had seen her transformation. “It’s time”. She said. “Who me?” I said.  “Yes, you” she said.

And so my life with OD began.

The MSc was experiential; glorious, messy and life affirming.  The first educational experience I was involved in where all the thinking was done by me.  Academic reading was left to me to undertake at my own pace.   We were the T-Group, the lab, the subject of our enquiry, the sense makers.  We were often left to our own devices.  One time, I was working with a group where in our trio, two others, cleverer than me (who said that?) were locking horns on a magnificent scale. I shrugged away my opportunity to “help” my pissed offness, and I went off for a fag break.  I sighed.    I bumped into the tutor. I told him what I was experiencing. He said “whatever you would normally do, – do the opposite”.  So I watched and said nothing.  I swallowed the urge to facilitate, to intervene, to hurry up and I watched and trusted the process. Through that,  they were able to witness themselves.  I began the life long journey of learning that what belongs to me is mine, and what belongs to others is theirs, and how much power the systemic forces around us contain.

I learned what counterintuitive meant, we explored chaos and complexity thinking, Melanie Klein, self as instrument, covert processes, Gestalt “you go your way, I go mine”.  I believe that the thinking behind the design of this programme was both before it’s time, of it’s time, and drew on the wisdoms and knowledge of the most ancient of times.   I learned about “going native” – getting drawn into the culture, the system, which I now see is also collusion to maintain the system.   I learned to see myself as both a participant, and an observer,  inviting others to a shared enquiry to make sense of organisations.

In answer to my own question “what is organisational development” I learned it is very much like personal development – where a person can bring what is outside their awareness into their awareness, understand the stimulus driving responses and thinking, and be aware of and connect to their own potency.  Developing organisations is about working within the system with the people within it to discover the connections, to open walkways between the silos, to equip people to do the long walk, and to see the possibilities. To be intentional about how we want it to be, in this place.

A foundation of OD is an assumption that there can be a more humanistic way to be in organisations –  and that being humanistic creates more sustainable profit, more healthy humans, more thoughtful business.

Doing OD has required me to have courage, be vulnerable, show and learn humility.  Discussing the undiscussable requires me to be in the space. My work has shown me the equality of us all within our diversity.

I’m curious that it can be difficult to describe/understand.   I suppose – simple doesn’t make it easy.

If you’re an OD practitioner and you find it hard sometimes to describe, I think that’s OK. You may be in a system who’s anxiety is contained by what is seen as rational, to the extent that nternal knowing and wisdom is discounted, avoided, ignored.    Stay with it.  There’s room for evidence and there’s space too for not knowing and discovering.

OD is a discovery process so of course we’re into the unknown.  OD is an enquiry so keep thinking, keep asking, keep noticing, keep sharing, keep enquiring, keep with it.  Ask the asker what meaning they make of it; that’s OD.

The OD practitioner shares the enquiry and invites meaning making.



I‘ve written this blog with thanks to Paul Taylor from the NHS Do OD team, and to the CIPD who curated an inspiring set of OD stories last week at their CIPDOD15 conference.   Both have inspired me at a time when it seems that OD has the potential to be diluted through absorption into other functions.   I’m feeling that there is light shining from the NHS with their deep enquiry into OD and systems  – hugely challenging work and it’s a beacon.

Updated in 2019 where NHS are leading the way on OD.