Some say OD is prone to the latest management fads. As such, it is fickle and cannot be trusted. At times, it does seem that whatever OD practitioners happen to be doing defines OD. But what if OD is merely reflecting the times in which it is practised? What if the spirit of the age – the Zeitgeist – defines OD practice?
In this final post in the A to Z of OD, I will canter through the history of OD and show how it captured the Zeitgeist. And consider what this might mean for OD in the 2020s…
From founding ideas to becoming discredited– 1950s to the 1980s
OD emerged after the Second World War in the US (Lewin et al) and the UK (Tavistock Institute). From its initial ideas in the 1950s of open systems theory coupled with psychoanalytic understanding of group dynamics, through the social change of the 1960s and 1970s, OD mirrored the times.
The 1960s represents a time of technological advancement, individual freedoms and the birth of popular culture. OD focused on deeper understanding of individuals and their contribution to the systems in which they worked and lived.
The 1970s was a decade of huge change. OD reflected this through a deepening of its understanding of itself as a planned approach to change. It also focused on self-development reflecting the growing sense of self within society, particularly within burgeoning youth cultures, and on team development, reflecting perhaps the growth in union power.
This all came to a head in the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher crushed the unions; In OD, the concept of a leader’s vision rose to prominence. New electronic gadgetry flooded our homes – from kitchen appliances to personal computers – aimed at making life more efficient. OD focused on efficiency too, by adopting total quality management and other approaches to business process re-engineering.
During the eighties, quite probably because of focusing too narrowly on process efficiency, comentators discredited OD. They saw the focus on individual enlightenment and teamwork of the 60s and 70s as naïve and so OD practice began to focus more on process and less on humanising workplaces. This tore away at OD’s founding ideals. It was time to grow up…
A pivotal moment in time – the 1990s
The 1990s represents a growing up of society – taking all that had gone before and melding it in a postmodernist way to create something new and vibrant. This decade gave birth to the internet and mobile phones took off. People began to understand how they could access what they needed 24/7. They understood their own values more deeply and began to be choosier about where they worked. What had been radical in the 1980s in our culture became mainstream and the mainstream had to downsize.
Organisations reflected this too: they embraced what is meant to be a learning organisation and became more values-driven. They also downsized, on an enormous scale. OD began to polarise – some practitioners worked on enabling the gnarly, corporatist change of cutting jobs, while others focused on enabling individuals to thrive through learning and living their values.
This left OD practice in a dilemma. How can OD be both these extremes of practice?
Current OD practice – 2000s to present
The past 20 years or so has seen OD attempt to reconcile itself to these two positions. In society in the 2000s, the technology explosion intensified – from mobile tech to YouTube – and anyone could become a star through reality TV. OD encouraged distributed leadership (we’re all TV stars now … we’re all leaders now!) and focused on employee engagement, collaboration skills and the behaviours that demonstrate corporate values. OD practitioners justified their approach of developing people and laying them off: if everyone can embrace the ‘new’ culture, become a ‘designer’ employee, then it’s okay to cope with less people…right?
In the 2010s, the world tilted again. Digital tech and social media has taken over our lives and has helped to promote social change and individuals’ rights (#metoo, Arab Spring, LGBT,…). The global economic crisis of the late noughties has refused to go away. Against this backdrop, OD coined the term VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) to reflect the complexity of the world and adopted Agile Change methods to effect organisational change incrementally, collaboratively and speedily.
It seems in the past 20 years, OD has ‘modernised’ by accepting its role to be both an emancipation for individuals and a corporatist tool.
What will OD in the Twenty-Twenties look like? Well, your guess is as good as mine in terms of what the spirit of the age will be.
If you want a few predictions: populism will finally break politics and new forms of governance will emerge, with a significant emphasis on decentralisation. The global economic crisis will be less significant than the global environmental crisis we face, and these new forms of government will finally invest in climate change reversal. Individuals will outpace governments and organisations in which they work by taking more personal responsibility for their actions and make more active choices in how they live their lives.
OD can reflect this imminent Zeitgeist by focusing on creativity, empowerment and flexibility. I foresee a return to OD fundamentals – whole systems and psychodynamics – and techniques such as large scale event facilitation, and individual and group coaching. I see OD as being less overtly corporatist and more focused on individuals. We will help the individual choose wisely. They then choose how (or even if) they show up at work. This will require organisations to be more attuned to the needs of their workers in order to survive and thrive.
In many ways, this goes right back to the approach of the 1950s and 1960s, but with a postmodern twist that recognises more power within individuals to effect change at work and in society. I still believe that OD has a role to play in the emancipation of human beings within society.
OD thought leader: Zappos
Zappos is a company (now owned by Amazon), rather than an individual. However, it demonstrates a key principle of OD thinking: embedding your core values into everything you do.
Formed in 1999 by a few entrepreneurs – notably Tony Hsieh – who started the organisation as “a service company that happens to sell shoes”, Zappos puts customer experience at the heart of everything it does. This core value is embedded in every part of the organisation – from hiring primarily for fit with the service culture, skills and team building, recognition and the role of the manager as enabler of people. Most importantly, staff are unambiguously empowered to serve the customer. For example, if they do not have the size of a shoe a customer wants in stock, they will direct them to a competitor who does. Compare that to a call centre measured on efficiency rather than service!
This empowerment extends to being creative and having fun and writing the “Culture Book” that is published annually, sharing stories of their staff’s experience of the Zappos culture.
In 2013, Zappos formally removed its traditional hierarchies and embraced a management system based on the principles of holacracy with self-organising teams. This move has helped to embed the culture even more firmly.
Recommended reading: check out some of the Zappos employee stories on https://www.zappos.com/about/culture.