OD in a collaborative and disruptive world is no longer planned project management. The principle of cosmogenesis is that everything in the universe is constantly evolving into something more complex. If we understand organisations as living systems, how does this principle of cosmogenesis inform OD practice in the domains of change management and organisation design?
OD as planned change
My earliest introduction to Organisation Development was through the lens of French and Bell: “Organisational development is a long range effort to improve an organisation’s problem-solving and renewal processes, particularly, through a more effective and collaborative management of organisation culture with special emphasis on the culture of formal work teams with the assistance of a change agent or catalyst and the use of the theory and technology of applied behaviour science, including action research” Burke defined OD as ‘planned change’. Most of the traditional approaches to OD viewed the organisation as a stable and closed system seeking equilibrium in an input-change-output model. Based on a lab model, OD drawing from behavioural science brought a new understanding to human behaviour and organisational change in controlled environments. The realities of organisations are far removed from this clinical model.
Change today is less planned, more disruptive and happening largely outside the OD organisational lab. The relevance of OD practice today is in our understanding of the complex system dynamics arising in the socio-political, environmental and economic domains. Change inside organisations is related to change outside organisations. Only managing change internally plays into the Newtonian paradigm of command and control – the OD lab approach. This is no more than effective project management. Change in social movements, who appear to be less organised and chaotic is possibly the new ‘lab’ for OD learning. These are much more adaptive, agile, purpose driven ‘organisations’. The traditional ‘planned change’ approaches of OD cannot work for these organisations coming morphing together in mission-led movements. What can corporates learn from social movements about responding to disruptive change?
Leadership expert, Margaret Wheatley, drawing from new physics and chaos theory challenges us to think of organisations as continuously changing and self-organising systems (cosmogenesis). “In a self-organising world, we see change as a power, a presence, a capacity that is available. It’s part of the way the world works – a spontaneous movement toward new forms of order, new patterns of creativity. We live in a world that is self-organising. Life is capable of creating patterns and structures and organisation all the time, without conscious rational direction, planning, or control.”
Our models of OD need to change to embrace a new form (or forms) of organisation that moves from a surety of planned predictability in change management and organisational development most of which is plain project management. A new OD requires us to be humble in our recognition that we do not control the world or people in our organisations; we take seriously people’s agency for change; we recognise that behavioural science is not the sole domain of knowledge of human change; that resistance to change might need to be worked with instead of managed out. OD is perhaps less about planned change interventions and more about facilitating spaces for consciousness raising through respectful dialogue, meaningful diagnostics, and equality in co-creation, radical experimentation; inclusive and collective action to a meaningful purpose and a shared vision for the organisation, its people and society at large.
Organisation Design Thinking
Most restructures and organisational designs include the ambition of collaboration. “New ways of working” becomes the mantra of modern organisations. Sadly, another restructure later and consultants are saying what organisational leaders already know. Why can’t we move from the rhetoric of collaboration to the practice of collaboration? What can we learn from the principle of cosmogenesis?
Organising for collaboration
Most restructures and redesigns paradoxically design for silo working. We follow the mantra ‘Structure follows strategy’. This suggests that organisation design thinking has to be embedded in strategy and not come as an afterthought. Unless organisational strategy is intentionally collaborative – the design of the structure tends to default to ‘old ways’ prescribed by the design rules of hierarchical organisations. Structures that have collaboration in their DNA are more like living organisms rather than architectural masterpieces. The structure of the cell, in its simplicity demonstrates organic collaboration. Cells do not survive on their own. Interestingly, liberation, terrorist and church groups organise in ‘cells’. Their survival and growth is genetically embedded in their collaborative design. Matrix organisations, self-directed teams and swarms are examples of collaborative design. The thing that drives their effectiveness is common purpose.
The Bible says, “Where there is no vision (shared) the people perish.” Unless the organisation as a whole, through its composition of teams shares a clear compelling common purpose, the temptation and reward for independent, ego driven agendas becomes a challenge. Teams do not automatically come together in a collaborative spirit of common
purpose. They are often driven by functional/departmental/unit/directorate/divisional/regional interest and purpose. Organisations have to be intentional in aligning team and organisational purpose at all levels. This is not done by quick fix OD interventions but through intentional design.
Organisations want collaborative behaviour and paradoxically design systems and processes that reward unitary capability and competence. Business process mapping should show strong cross functional webs where organisational talent and resources come together ‘just in time’ to respond to new challenges. Agile organisations also ensure that their metasystems are fit for purpose: HR, Finance, IT, Safety etc. These metasystems are not an end in themselves but serve the mission objectives of the organisation. Unless these systems are interdependent, the unintended functional silos becomes the system default. Agile organisations need more general managers, facilitators and systems thought leaders and less dependence on Taylorist management roles and functions.
Senior leaders role model collaboration
Even the smartest design stands and falls by the extent to which the senior team models collaboration. They become the design champions for the rest of the organisation and it starts with them having a common team purpose. This is further manifested in formal practices such as common agendas, shared performance goals and interdependent team performance assessment. The team is as strong as its weakest member. Informal practices in the symbolic space shows how the team works together, loves one another and is genuinely interested in common success. How power is manifested and managed is also a potent expression of team collaboration signalling the desired organisational ethos.
Dr Stanley Arumugam focuses on leadership development and coaching.
Margaret Wheatley (1996). The Unplanned Organization: Learning From Nature’s Emergent Creativity http://www.margaretwheatley.com/articles/unplannedorganization.html
French, W.L. & Bell, C.H. (1995). Organization Development: Behavioral Science Interventions for Organization Improvement. Pearson
This article appeared in the October 2017 issue of HR Future magazine.