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.


  1. Ian Perry · February 2, 2015

    Neil, you blog has made me reflect on my journey with OD and your point resonates really well especially the point about the link to L&D.

    My first exposure to OD was while I was working at Glaxo in the 90’s. We were doing great things and we appointed four senior managers to become internal OD consultants. Only one of them was from HR, the others were from functional disciplines. Their task was to improve what we did as a world class organisation – at the time we topped every poll so I guess we were looking to keep top of our game!

    There was a lot of fog and ambiguity, but the conversations I had were around how I improved the performance of engineering for which I was the Engineering Director of a large tablet manufacturing centre. That involved our processes, our structure, our KPI’s, our relationships with our internal customers and suppliers, and perhaps most telling what work we were going to do and what work we were not going to do as a service department.
    I don’t remember any explicit agenda around leadership development, but it was part of the mix as we moved to something called a “coaching” style of leadership!!!!

    I then carried on my career working on projects around supply chain and business reengineering. At the time I considered my work to be OD. We were making the organisation work better. Sometimes there was an appetite to consider leadership and the behavioural stuff, other times there was not. However, there was a lot of data, and questions about what was value adding as we started to play with the lean agenda.

    So I entered the world I am in now, wanting to do OD. Out of the bubble I came out of I saw what you describe. OD meant L&D, and I fell into doing L&D and talent work as that at the time was what paid.

    So I have a frustration, and that is OD is more than L&D. I yearn for my Glaxo days when we were focussed on improvement, making work better in terms of quality, customer service, cost, safety and for our people.

    The levers we pulled?

    task re design
    reward and recognition

    I agree with you, OD is about support. The drive has to come from the functional manager, the OD person just brings a set of tools, a network of other experts and some challenge to the mix. I guess what I have learnt is that its people who decide whether stuff changes so you have to come with that mindset to bring about change rather than just the process driven approach which I have found never gets properly embedded.

    Thanks Neil

  2. Meg Peppin · February 2, 2015

    I don’t think OD is overhead heavy – when it’s done well, not much resource is needed and is/ought to be almost invisible. So shouldn’t need any justification….. interesting point.

    There appear to be a lot of blurred lines in organisations right now in my experience – OD is being used to describe lots of activity, when actually at the heart of OD is a mindset, an understanding that organisations are complex systems where different elements act on each other and that human behaviour can’t be predicted or controlled, much as we try. OD is also based on beliefs in humanistic values, of the potential for growth – and – conversation as a core business process. Then there is the practice; OD is a form of research – a shared inquiry, and offers growth and increased insights for those in the system. There are tools, techniques, programmes – but doing those things doesn’t mean doing OD.

    In a world where certainty, measurement and prediction are the holy grails more than ever, I see the contamination you describe; I also see that the L&D solutions are easier to buy and describe. I am asked for OD/cultural work, but people want to buy a management training workshop. Box ticking?

  3. Steve Hearsum (@stevehearsum) · February 2, 2015

    I echo Meg’s comments, and like the way she has framed OD. At Roffey, which is steeped in OD and where it permeates the walls (to be expected given our history, practice and stance), one of the other conversations I hear frequently, often by those wrestling with the ‘what is OD?’ question, is how it differs as a field of practice from HR, L&D, and change and org design for that matter. Many of the practitioners seen as core to the field of, say, change can equally be seen as OD thinkers e.g. Marshak, Stacey, Eoyang. Also there is the question of whether OD is part of HR, or indeed whether ‘OD’ stand for Organisational Development or Organisational Design (at the recent European Org Design Forum conference, it was clear that OD meant the latter).

    These distinctions can be unhelpful to us as practitioners, let alone our clients. It can descend into willy waving and quibbling that may have more to do with our own insecurities than anything to do with what a client needs.

    So what is useful? Maybe to move away from a preoccupation with practitioner boxes, address client needs/questions first, chew on possible interventions/approaches, and inquire then into the values, stance and approach of the people you want to work with when it comes to developing your human system aka organisation.

  4. Pete Burden · February 5, 2015

    Good that you are challenging this.

    But I think that putting OD ‘within the sphere’ of HR (or as I have head business people call it ‘Human Remains’? 🙂 ) is dangerous.

    I think context is very important in most human endeavour. And HR brings with it a lot of assumptions. (As do many practitioners of OD I suspect).

    Have you perhaps read Linda Holbeche and ee-Yan Cheung-Judge’s pretty thorough go at understanding the relationship between the two arts?

    But I say beware the assumptions we make. Maybe it all seems foggy because it’s a fog (not a ‘system’ in the sense some might assume)?

  5. Cherish · February 8, 2015

    I’ve always thought of OD as the evolved version of HR – we know what we want it to be but we haven’t quite mastered the art. It’s the strategic holistic approach to getting results through people while working accross all departments. OD get’s thrown around as a fancy title these days. I know Learning Designers called OD Designers and HR Advisors called OD Consultants.

    It’s a bit confused at the moment….

Comments are closed.