The A to Z of OD (Part I)

This is the first part in a series of articles that will set out the A to Z of organisation development.  The series will consider the principles and practices, the tools and techniques and the past and present thought leaders that have shaped the field.  I don’t know exactly what will be included under each letter of the alphabet.  That will emerge.  If you have any thoughts on what you think should be included, get in touch and we’ll discover together where this goes!

But first, we must discover what is OD.  And to do that, we must first decide what is an organisation.

What is an organisation?

An organisation is a group of people who come together to achieve a common purpose.  They establish a collection of systems and processes that produces more together than the sum of their parts.  These components continually impact on each other, depend on each other to thrive and collectively contribute as a ‘whole system’ towards achieving the organisation’s purpose.

Different parts of any organisation perform different functions and can become highly specialised.  This specialisation creates a need for coordination at a ‘whole system’ level, i.e. the need for more and more sophisticated leadership and organisation.

What is organisation development?

Organisation development is an ongoing, systematic process of implementing sustainable change that recognises and draws on this ‘whole system’ thinking.  It also uses applied behavioural science to understand organisational and team dynamics.  After all, organisations are human systems – they only exist as a collection of people coming together to achieve a common purpose.

The goal of organisation development is to maximise the organisation’s effectiveness at serving its purpose.

A is for Action Learning

Action learning is a process whereby participants study their own actions and experiences to improve their performance.  You do it in conjunction with others in small groups called action learning sets, typically using the services of a facilitator.

Action learning propels your personal development further and faster in the real world.  This is because your peers are helping you reflect on your interactions with other people and the learning points arising.  This guides future action and develops real-world wisdom rather than traditional educational processes that focus purely on knowledge.  It is particularly suited to leadership development in organisations, where participants are working on real problems in the real world that affect real people.

OD thought leader: Chris Argyris

Chris Argyris (1923-2013) was a founding father of organisation development.  He is known for seminal work on developing learning organisations.  He pioneered Action Science – the study of how people choose their actions in difficult situations.

Action Learning and Action Science are related.  There is a risk the former may inadvertently encourage ‘single-loop’ learning: you act, you reflect on the outcome of that action and then make practical adjustments so that you revise the action you take next time.

Argyris argued that humans are overwhelmingly programmed to act based of defensive thinking.  Organisations reinforce this defensive behaviour through institutionalised routines.  Such routines prevent individuals expressing concerns, encourage avoiding behaviour and promote a lack of authenticity.  It is hard to break this vicious cycle.

Argyris proposed a double-loop of learning.  Double-loop learning means to be reflective in-the-moment, to continuously pay attention to the present to make your positive future intention a reality.  We must continue to learn, and we must continually relearn how to learn.  For me, reflective double-loop learning is one of the cornerstones of organisation development.

Recommended reading: Argyris, C. (2000). Flawed Advice and The Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They’re Getting Good Advice and When They’re Not. New York, Oxford.

Next time: B is for Behaviours

I am both absolutely essential and totally irrelevant

First posted on LinkedIn May 19, 2016

Tomorrow I am facilitating an Action Learning Set for a group of managers and senior managers who are in the middle of a partnering skills developmental programme.  They will have been practising partnering techniques they have learned.  They are coming to share their progress and blockers, and help each other build confidence in their new skills.

What is action learning?

Action learning is a process by which participants study their own actions and experiences in order to improve their skills and performance.  This is done in conjunction with others in small groups called Action Learning Sets.

Research has shown that action learning develops real-world wisdom rather than traditional educational processes that tend to focus purely on knowledge.  It is particularly suited to leadership and management development in organisations.  This is because participants are working on real problems in the real world that affect real people, rather than solving individual puzzles (such as developing budgets on spreadsheets).

Both learning approaches require taking action, reflecting on that action and making practical changes to the actions to be taken next time to improve performance.  However, action learning in groups propels the individual further and faster in the real world.  This is because their peers are helping them see the results of their actions on other people.

The role of the facilitator

And as facilitator of this process, my role is to intervene as little as possible, so that the participants do as much of the work as possible.  I will hold the space on behalf of the group so they can focus on helping each other.  I will ensure ground rules are observed and I will manage the process of the session.

Arguably, I am totally irrelevant to the group, who are quite capable of running this for themselves.  Equally I am absolutely essential… my presence will create the right conditions for the group to maximise their learning.

If I do my job well, they will hardly notice me, they will feel confident they can run the next session themselves, and then my continued presence will be totally irrelevant…

I will know my presence was absolutely essential.


Jeremy J Lewis