The A to Z of OD: X is for eXistential; Y is for Ybema

OK, I cheated. But if iNtuition can begin with an N in Myers-Briggs terminology, then eXistential can begin with a X, ok? Also, thanks go to the inimitable Perry Timms for suggesting eXistential for the A to Z of Organisation Development.

eXistential philosohpy

Existentialism is a philosophy of thinking and being that puts the experience of human beings as individuals as its primary consideration. As conscious beings, independently acting, individuals have freedom to choose how to be. Rather than following some doctrine (e.g. religious) or prescribed, pre-determined path (e.g. parental injunction, “you should become a doctor”), people have the freedom to exist how they choose. This reveals their true essence, which they can codify for themselves as they go along as their own set of beliefs and values.

It follows that people are defined by their past and how they choose to be in the present. The future is unwritten. This tension between the past/present and the unknown future creates anxiety (aka ‘existential angst’). Imagine you are standing at the edge of a cliff. There is nothing to stop you throwing yourself off. You could just lean forward, and let go …

Existentialism suggest this anxiety is due to the world being absurd – anything might happen to anyone at any time. It follows there is no deeper meaning to life and as such existentialism is somewhat anti-religious, perhaps even anti-science (it is certainly anti-deterministic and anti-positivist). The tension between freedom to act and anxiety that anything might happen is what defines the existential being. It follows that people are not rational beings. You might just choose to throw yourself off that cliff, metaphorically at least.

For example, if you are working somewhere you don’t like because you need the money, you might choose to do something career-limiting and get yourself fired, or walk out. Rationally, you need the money. You’ve metaphorically thrown yourself off the cliff. Why? Because you are acting authentically. You have freedom to choose, to act as yourself, to create your own values. Your freedom to choose takes precedence over the anxiety it might cause. You are responsible for your own actions. Living life authentically is a core theme of existentialism.

Implications for OD

Organisations are human systems – people coming together to achieve some defined purpose. They are just like individuals, in that they exist first and define their essence later, they act authentically according to that emerging essence (in theory at least), and they are responsible for their actions and are anxious about achieving their future vision.

  1. OD is neither a science nor a religion

If individuals have freedom to act, then the organisations they form do too. Do not try to make OD a science or a religion. It is a process to help organisations become more effective at authentically pursuing their purpose. The organisations must choose their own path through that process.

  1. Align values

People exist by living their lives and in so doing, reveal their own values. Organisations exist through their actions and by so doing, reveal their values. As we saw in V is for Vision and Values, this means organisational values are real, not designed. It also means the OD practitioner can help individuals and organisations by helping people see the alignment between their personal values with those of their organisation. If people are not aligned with their organisations, they might as well throw themselves of that metaphorical cliff; arguably, it would be better for the individual and the organisation.

  1. The past is unwritten

Look to the past to get a deeper understanding of the present, before defining the future. Until everyone has a common understanding of why things are the way they are today, then defining any future vision is only half the story. This approach balances past, present and future. Not only is the future unwritten, but until it has been explored and understood, the past is unwritten too. Use it to help define the essence of the organisation through how it has chosen to be and what it has learnt about itself along the way. See also OD thought leader Sierk Ybema below.

  1. Organisations are anxious too

If people are battling with freedom in the face of an absurd world, then so are organisations. Anything might happen at any time – competitor response to a commercial organisation, Government regulation, economic meltdown, political unrest, etc. The OD practitioner’s goal is to help organisations first survive and then thrive in an uncertain world.

  1. Organisations are not rational human systems

If people are not rational beings, it follows organisations (as human systems) are not rational either. You will already know this if you’ve ever come up against a highly-charged political atmosphere in an organisation with personal agendas, for example. Organisations are well-advised to allow emotions into their everyday routines. The OD practitioner must be able to work with power and politics and allow emotions in. One OD goal is to improve the emotional capability of organisations.

  1. Let people be responsible

As OD practitioners, we cannot impose decisions onto our clients. We are there to allow others to take responsibility, to define their own path and to live it authentically. We must allow managers to manage, leaders to lead and people to be responsible.


OD practitioners are existential beings. We act authentically, according to our self-defined values. These values have emerged through our practice. We are responsible for our actions (not our clients’ actions) and we too are anxious about the future.

We face that cliff edge every time we are with a client. Anything might happen at any time. We must be prepared to risk the relationship so we can take our client to the edge of their best thinking about who they are, where they have come from, what they have learnt, where they are going and how to get there.

OD thought leader: Sierk Ybema

Sierk Ybema is Associate Professor for Organisation Sciences at Vrije University, Amsterdam. He researches and authors articles on citizenship, organisational change and cultural identity.

One particular aspect of his thinking surrounds past, present and future and aligns very closely with my philosophy of OD: to espouse a brighter future, I believe the OD practitioner must have a good understanding of the present situation. Inherently this involves understanding the past, how the organisation got to where it is today and what is has learnt about itself along the way.

One aspect of the (cultural) past is to consider organisational nostalgia. Ybema suggests organisational nostalgia is both psychologically and politically motivated to oppose change. This is in stark contrast to what he terms managerial ‘postalgia’, a “burning desire … to go forward, inspired by discomfort with the present”, typically espoused by managers proposing change.

“Nostalgia is mythmaking aimed at romantically reconstructing the past, edited with hindsight.” Conversely managerial postalgia is typically expressed rationally; emotions are hidden, the implication being that emotions are bad, hence nostalgia must be bad. The ‘nostalgics’ and ‘postalgics’ are both attempting to “appropriate the present”.

By recognising both these opposing positions, the OD practitioner can build a case for change by taking a different perspective; revealing rather than denying the nostalgics’ emotions, and hence managerial postalgia can be transformed into mythmaking that portrays change as a “heroic adventure”.

Rather than taking the postalgics view that the present is bad and we must only look forwards, I believe the best approach to OD is to link past, present and future. By reviewing the past to get a better understanding of the present before envisioning a future vision and facilitating organisations to make the journey towards achieving it.

Recommended reading: Ybema, S. B. (2004). Managerial postalgia: projecting a golden future. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 19(8), 825-841.

Next time in the A to Z of OD: Z is for Zeitgeist

The A to Z of OD: V is for Vision & Values; W is for Weisbord

In 1994, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras published Built to Last, an enduring business text – it was in its day the best-selling business book of all time – based on a long-running study of successful businesses. This book set out a framework that kickstarted a revolution for OD practitioners, CEOs, COOs, and HR folks in particular to attempt to emulate within their own workplaces what Collins and Porras called the ‘visionary organisation’.

And so we now have the all-pervading organisational culture of having ‘vision and values’. If your organisation doesn’t have a snappy vision and a set of three or five values plastered on posters in the staff canteen and on the back of toilet cubicle doors, then it’s really behind the times, right?


The problem has been – as is so often the case with management theory – the solutions pedalled by OD consultants et al have been watered down, over-simplified and reduced to exactly what I describe above: snappy vision statements and a set of three or five values plastered on posters in the staff canteen and the back of toilet cubicle doors.

They have been forcibly created. They are not real. The organisational values are not necessarily the values shared by staff in their personal lives. Cynicism is rife.

Let’s go back to some of Collins and Porras’s ideas, which (when implemented well) do stand the test of time:

Core ideology

Core ideology defines a company’s timeless character. It’s the glue that holds the enterprise together even when everything else is up for grabs … a consistent identity that transcends product or market life cycles, technological breakthroughs, management fads, and individual leaders.”

Core ideology comprises core values and core purpose.

Core values are the handful of beliefs, guiding principles or tenets that are absolutely non-negotiable within an organisation. Crucially, they must be discovered, not created. They are not aspirational, they are real; they are lived day-to-day. This is where many organisations have failed by implementing the idea of core values poorly because they created an aspirational list.

Core purpose is “like a guiding star on the horizon – forever pursued but never reached.” It is the deeply-held and unchanging raison d’être of an organisation. Like core values, it must be discovered, not formulated. It is likely (but not necessarily) the reason the organisation was formed in the first place. What is an organisation if not a group of people coming together to pursue an aim? It is that aim. Do you share your organisation’s core purpose? Ask yourself, “When telling your children and/or other loved ones what you do for a living, would you feel proud in describing your work in terms of this purpose?”

Envisioned future (aka “vision”)

A core ideology “resides in the background, ever-present and ‘in the woodwork’”. To bring it to the forefront of people’s minds, an envisioned future is “in the foreground, focusing people’s attention on a specific goal … [it] is bold, exciting and emotionally charged.”

There are two elements: the BHAG and a vivid description.

The BHAG (“Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal”) is the 10-30 year ambition, which should be tangible, and yet stretching and challenging. The ambition should be almost unreasonable, and yet inspiring. It should be punchy – no more than a phrase or sentence, and “… so exciting in its own right that it would continue to keep the organisation motivated even if the leaders who set the goal disappeared.”

A vivid description is a variety of ways to describe what achieving the BHAG would feel like. A common approach is to write a press release or news article that tells the story of how the BHAG was reached as if it had already been achieved. It inherently accesses the emotional connection to the vision as well as the rational connection. As such, it is aspirational: an exercise in storytelling, a rich description of a possible future, and inspiring and engaging link to the core purpose and values. Notice, it engages the heart as well as the head.

People within the organisation must truly believe that by pursuing the core purpose, living the core values and stretching their aim and performance to achieve the BHAG, then that vivid description is attainable. If the only statement of your envisioned future is your vision statement (i.e. BHAG) and your values are aspirational rather than real, then you’ve missed the point.

How can OD practitioners breathe some life back into these ideas and move on from the posters on the back of toilet cubicle doors? Joint diagnostic work can uncover the core purpose and values, as can other OD techniques such as the noble art of organisational loitering[1]. The BHAG is an exercise in vision and strategy formulation. The vivid description is an excellent opportunity to adopt some of the ideas within Future Search (read on…).

OD thought leader: Marvin Weisbord

Weisbord was an early OD consultant, heavily influenced by Kurt Lewin, working in partnership with Peter Block. He is most famous for basing his consultancy practice on action research, his ‘six-box’ approach to organisational diagnosis and the Future Search methodology and global practitioner network. I have discussed action research and joint diagnosis elsewhere in this series of articles, so I will focus here on Future Search.

Future Search is an approach to helping large groups of diverse people come together to envision a future and plan the changes needed to achieve it. It is based on achieving a common understanding of the issues and making a personal commitment to action. Future Search is run by Weisbord and his partner Sandra Janoff with a global network of volunteer facilitators, although the techniques are available to anyone who seeks to effect change.

“Future Search … has become a global learning laboratory to refine techniques, strategies, group methods, and theories of action responsive to the extreme speed-up of life nearly everywhere. It evolved as a means for getting everybody improving whole systems and grew from our conviction that people have widely shared values for mutual respect, dignity, community, cooperation, and effective action.”

There are two key components: principle-based meeting design and a facilitation philosophy.

Meeting design is all about getting the ‘whole system’ in the room, exploring all the different perspectives present before seeking common ground, focusing on the future rather than arguing over the past, and utilising self-managing subgroups.

The facilitation philosophy surrounds doing as little as possible so that the participants do more! The facilitator’s job is to manage the process and create the conditions for people to participate. I also outlined some of the future search facilitation philosophy here.

The results of Future Search have been spectacular with ripple effects throughout the world: “Work on water quality in Bangladesh, for example, inspires conferences to improve the lot of battered women and street children in Iran, and leads eventually to the demobilization of child soldiers in the Southern Sudan. A participant in a future search on the strategic direction for the Women’s Sector in Northern Ireland follows by sponsoring one on integrated economic development in County Fermanagh. This leads to a future search for Northern Ireland’s Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure that stimulates work in other government departments and in arts communities in other countries. Reports of future searches in communities such as the Helmholtzplatz Neighborhood in Inner City Berlin sparks community conferences in Nobosibirsk, Siberia and the Altai Region and the Russian Far East. Future searches have been run with the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, Native Americans in the US and the Inuit in Canada. They have been run in business firms, cities, towns and provinces, schools and hospitals. From each future search flows a stream of actions once thought unattainable, such as widely-supported strategic plans, cooperation between public and private sectors, creating new avenues for funding, community health initiatives, parental involvement in schools, and so on.” (source:

Future Search principle-based meeting design and facilitation philosophy can be implemented in any meeting in any organisation and help make that meeting matter. The recommended reading below is an indispensable reference for the required facilitation skills and change approach for OD practitioners and, alongside Block’s Flawless Consulting, is the most thumbed book on my business bookshelf.

Recommended reading: Weisbord M and Janoff S, 2007, Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!: Ten Principles for Leading Meetings that Matter, San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler.

Next time in the A to Z of OD: X is for eXistential; Y is for Ybema

[1] I’m not sure where this phrase came from. It refers to the practice of hanging around organisations to understand their culture, and is indeed a noble art for OD practitioners.