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.