So what the hell is OD?

One of the first posts that I wrote when I moved to this blog was called, “The real definition of Organisational Development”. To this day it remains one of the most visited posts with the vast majority of visitors coming from a Google search. This, of course, is in no way related to the insight or expertise that I share more to do with the fact that it is a question that people are still asking.

I’ve had cause to talk about this subject again over the past few weeks and it started me reflecting on how my thinking had changed since 2011.

I start with a belief that organisations are systems and that our job as practitioners is to improve organisational performance through an understanding of that system, the tensions, the areas of friction, the opposing forces and, through this, take a cohesive approach to interventions to drive better performance.

That’s the easy part.

The hard part is that the reality is like knitting fog. The role of OD professional is to survive the necessary ambiguity that is inherent in the profession long enough to support the delivery of the interventions that provide the organisation with enough reassurance that they know what they’re doing. I use “support” here on purpose, because the truth is they probably won’t own the areas of intervention themselves. They can’t.

For me, warning signals flag when I hear of OD being associated with other specialisms, “I’m responsible for L&D and OD” tends to fill me with dread. I understand why it’s done, because the L&D becomes a crutch for the ambiguity. An ability to hang your “overhead heavy” hat on something that can be measured or defined. But OD isn’t L&D at all, it’s far bigger than that.

Enough of what I think, let’s look at an example. I’ve picked the definition from the CIPD, which seems as good as any, of OD being the ’planned and systematic approach to enabling sustained organisation performance through the involvement of its people’. In which case the interventions have to range across the organisation, to use all the levers available to us. Including compensation.

And I rarely hear “OD people” talk about reward, data or analytics, preferring instead to focus on “leadership development”, “team solutions” or “engagement”.

Four years later, I’m even more convinced of OD as one of the most important areas of practice within the sphere of HR. In some ways, I think it is another way of defining strategic HR management. But I don’t think we’ve progressed much further as a profession in making it a reality, mainly because we’ve positioned it in many cases as “super sexy learning and development”. Just look at the jobs that are advertised.

It would be a shame if we took an opportunity to play in a different space and reduced it to something comfortable, reassuring and known. If we missed the chance to refocus our efforts, our thinking and our profession. We need to accept that with higher thinking, with pioneering, with genuine strategic thinking comes a level of fogginess or risk of seeming “woolly at the start. But that the potential outcomes and benefits to the organisational system are far greater than anything else that we have ever done.

7 deadly workplace sins

1)  You put up posters – I’m not talking about that dodgy Christmas present that you’re trying to sell. Or the fact that you run a Pilates class. I’m talking about the mysterious posters that arrive over night when everyone else is sleeping. They’re always written in the tone that either replicates a cyclist talking to car drivers, or your mum after she found you having a crafty fag out of the window. “Please make sure you only print what you need, trees died to bring you this paper”. Yeah, and you just wasted a complete sheet on a pointless message I’m now going to ignore. Get a life.

2)  You smell – Ok. Now I know BO is a serious issue. I work in HR, I’ve dealt with smelly people all my life. I mean, instead, the people who have a Chinese or an Indian meal (other cuisines are equally culpable, this is a non-discriminating rant) the night before and think, “I know, I’ll take this in to work tomorrow and really improve the environment for all my co-workers by heating it up and eating it at my desk. They will really appreciate the way that the smell lingers all afternoon like some sort of weird olfactory fog.

3)  You organise “fun” – No-one comes to work to have organised fun. There is no such thing as organised fun. Fun happens or it doesn’t. That’s just the way that it is. It’s like love. It can’t be created by a cheerleading fool with invisible pom poms. Let people have their fun at home, in the park, behind the bike sheds. Wherever they choose. They can even have it at work if they really want, but please for the love of Buddha never start a sentence with, “Why don’t we all dress up as xxxxxx this Friday”.

4)  You leave your s**t around – Not literally. Although buy me a drink and I’ll tell you a darker story about this one. This is work, this is the workplace. It is not your very own personal Big Yellow. All that c**p you’ve got under your desk, on your desk and by your desk. Find it a place to live or burn it. Nobody needs to see the pair of trainers that you thought you’d run in, languishing under your desk 8 months later. Including you, lard arse.

5)  You diet – I’m not against diets – I’d personally rather you did that than eat yourself in to oblivion, God knows, square footage is tight enough as it is. But frankly, I don’t need to know about it. Or how it differs from the one that you were doing the month before, but failed to stick to, or the one just before Christmas that was fine until it played havoc with your bowel habits. I really don’t care if you want to eat lightly fried angel’s buttocks for the rest of your life. That’s your choice, keep it to yourself.

6)  You have pets. Or children – Ok. I realise that this “may” appear to push me slightly towards the fascist demographic. I don’t actually have an issue with you having pets or kids. I just don’t want to know every detail about your parrot Ernie who was named after your late Uncle who once nearly played for Manchester United Reserves. Nor do I want to see a million badly taken pictures of them displayed throughout the office. I’m glad you see Ernie every evening and get to share precious moments. Let’s keep it between the two of you, m’kay?*

7)  You steal stuff – Wait. I’m not talking about bullion or the Crown Jewels. I’m talking about the important stuff in life, like calculators and rulers and the only pens that write properly. These are organisational gold dust and you are undermining the very balance of workplace karma when you move one from its rightful home. Take a moment and reflect on your actions. I’m not cross, I’m just disappointed.

* This also applies to weird crushes. Like the ginger kid out of Harry Potter. Which is just strange.

That’s not talent, that’s process

Sometimes there is an unassailable truth that needs to be told. A guilty secret that needs to be revealed. A lie that needs to be challenged.

Because, in your organisation, you’re not managing talent, you’re managing process.

Well, if you work in 99% of organisation you aren’t. And if you work in the other 1%, you’re lying.

The thing is, the language that we use around “talent management”, the behaviours that we all display, the way in which we approach it has as much to do with managing talent as chocolate has to do with teapot formation.

Most of us don’t know how to measure talent. And where we do measure, we’re not really measuring talent at all.

HiPo? Is the definition of talent someone who is capable of being more senior?

Because Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Sylvia Plath. They were all destined for management?

And if they weren’t then they clearly weren’t talent.

Our organisations are based on a myth of hierarchy that assumes that power and value is added as one progresses, rather than understanding the true mechanisms that drive organisational performance and rewarding the people who truly add value.

As a result we reward a politically charged, single focussed, rise to the top. A game that is suited, not to the most talented, but the most politically adroit. We promote the people who impress by playing the game, and we neutralise the people who don’t fit the mould.

You’ll argue that you don’t do this, that you’re different. But you’re not.

And that’s because our organisations, our businesses, the western world is geared up to systemically ignore true talent. Your reward systems, your recruitment processes, your learning and development programmes. Not a single one of them really recognises talent.

And the funny thing is, the hours we spend on “talent management” the grids we fill in, the conversations we have, the investment we place in systems that effectively wipe the lipstick off the pig are a complete and utter waste of everyone’s time.

You would still make the same promotion and development decisions without doing it.

Until we are willing to re-engineer the way in which our organisations operate, to refocus our energy on the right argument, rather than the incessant and dogmatic pursuit of a rather badly dressed up false promise.

Until then, we will always be managing process.

And that has nothing to do with talent.

It’s not you, it’s me

I’ve never met a CEO who didn’t want a world class HR service.

I’ve met a number who didn’t know how to articulate it, who described HR but called it something else, who talked about the importance of talent management, skills development, workforce planning, incentivisation and organisational performance.

But I’ve never met one who has said, “people are not important and I don’t care what I get out of them”.

On the other hand, I have met a lot of CEOs who are fed up with their HR functions, with their HR teams. Who see HR as a barrier to all the things that they want to achieve and who focus on areas that they don’t see as important.

If you look at any survey of CEO priorities or concerns, you will see time and time again “people” concerns in the top five check it out, year on year on year. There is no shortage of opportunity for us, to be involved, to influence, to be central to the development of our organisations.

So what’s the point of this? The point is simple.

Where we fail. WE fail. It isn’t our organisation, it isn’t our company, it isn’t our CEO. It is our inability to win the debate, to drive the agenda, to create the opportunity. And the bitter sweet thing about this, is that we have total control.

I’m fed up of hearing about the organisation that didn’t want this, or the CEO that didn’t like that. We need to focus the debate on our own performance and the standards within our profession. If you talk to any headhunter working within HR, they will tell you of the dearth of talent. If you ask them about their experience working with HR as a client, they’ll tell you of their despair.

This isn’t about rebranding, or “having a dialogue”. This isn’t about changing our name or shiny new logos. This is about a fundamental shift in the standards that we accept in our profession and being relentless in challenging ourselves to do more.

And I understand that there will be people saying, “Morrison is banging on again” and yes I am, and I will continue to do so. Because I’m passionate about the work I do and the work that my team does. I see organisations that are demonstrating real commitment and value. But they are the few and the far.

Too often, I see sub standard HR professionals and HR teams. That are failing to embrace the opportunity that is right in front of them. Don’t listen to me, read all the articles and the stories about them. Go speak to “normal” people and ask them their experiences with HR.

The HR agenda is being hijacked by a tree hugging, granola munching minority, that talk about creating something new. These are the same people who left corporate life because they couldn’t make change happen and couldn’t stand the pace. Otherwise they’d be doing exactly what they were talking about inside their previous organisations.

And whilst they will tell you that they can make change happen from outside, the truth is they can’t, because the agenda they espouse and the mistruths they propagate are exactly the things that frustrate the CEOs. They are the weak and sickly branches of our profession that need to be clinically lopped off in order to allow us to grow and flourish.

I’d love this to be the year that we really wake up, but I don’t think that’s going to happen just yet. But if we are to move forward, we need to embrace the undeniable truth…..

It’s not them, it’s us.