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Posts tagged ‘Organisation development’

A Humanistic Approach to Change

Organization Development has developed from a mixture of human resource and organizational behaviour research and theory.  For many OD may appear to be a new trend, but it has been around since the early part of the 20th Century when the Hawthorne experiments began in 1927 which took a scientific approach to restructuring the organizational environment to improve organizational efficiency.


Despite efforts to improve work performance through systems, processes and technology there was a failure to improve efficiency and effectiveness, and this led to research into the socio-psychological factors of work processes or rather the human factors.  WWII furthered the research into social sciences and the impact of behaviour on organizational workings.  Focus areas included leadership and team work and the importance of these on morale, which was an early development in the field of motivation, group dynamics and leadership.

Applied social science began to focus on harmonizing the individual and organizational factors from the perspective of human needs and behavioural sciences developed as a new discipline in social science.  Through the development of Action Research, T-groups, Force Field Analysis, and collaborative approaches to effective change OD as we know it today emerged.

OD begins with diagnosis of the problems at individual, group and organizational level.  Interventions are developed, using a number of specific OD tools and techniques which have been developed on the back of core theories relating to planned change methodologies and complexity, which acknowledges that although interventions can be designed and developed as part of a linear process, change is complex, iterative and unfolds over a period of time.

Central to all OD interventions, is the belief that people have a unique ability to creatively employ their capabilities to develop new outcomes in regards to organizational performance, and that they are the most important element of the organizational system.  Utilizing systems thinking, behavourial research and Human Resource Theory OD is dedicated to humanistic principles in managing organizational change.



Organization Development – The Humanistic Approach to Change

Human resource theory, which is the foundation of organization development and behaviour dates back to the 1927 Hawthorne experiments.  The experiments set out to investigate methods in which organizational efficiency could be improved through the use of scientific principles to redesign the organizational environment.

Using a mixture of technology, work flow rational, and work performance applications the experiments developed an early foray into open-systems theory and organization design, but also led to further work in the area of socio-psychological factors that contribute to effectiveness in performance.  As the social sciences became more sophisticated a greater understanding of factors such as leadership style, attitudes, situational and group dynamics and motivational relationships contributed to a growing body of work regarding the alignment of individual and organizational needs and the impact on resulting performance.

OD emerged from the 1950s as a distinctive discipline of change management which focused on the human elements of the planned change process that progress from problem identification, intervention and evaluation.  The process demands the application of a variety of techniques designed to deal with the organizational problem through utilising the power of the individual employee.

Profoundly research exposed that it was not enough for organizational leaders to give orders, and assume that change starts from a place of stability and consensus.  Rather, that people are active agents within an organizational environment which is characterized by conflict, fluidity and change.  Therefore the capturing creativity through social means is a key to driving organizational change.

The unique ability of the human mind to create new out of old, through dialogue, interaction and activity is central to the concept of creativity.  The characterisation of a great idea being the result of a light bulb moment, dismisses the level of interaction and subsequent ruminating that leads to the connections being made.

Making assumptions that any change is as a result of a neat linear set of processes and interactions, dominated by a strategic plan managed by senior leadership cleanses the truly holistic and messy nature of change as a social phenomenon.

OD therefore can be summarised as a synthesis of systems thinking, founded and entrenched in behavioural research and dedicated to humanistic principles.  The OD process is informed and enlivened by a number of methods, including; Organizational Diagnosis, Action Research, Group Dynamics, Process Consultation and Change Theory. Central to the OD intervention is the idea of planned change through people, focusing on consensus building and participative methods of management.


Systems Thinking – Organization Development

It is very easy when embarking on the subject of systems thinking to begin the discussing with a metaphor about ecology or the human body.  We are familiar with the requirement to keep ecologies in balance to ensure that life is sustained.  But how often do we really think about the wider impact of our actions?

Certainly in most households in the UK, citizens now recycle because local councils have been set targets in regards to the percentage of waste that is recycles.  So we dutifully sort our waste into paper, plastics, metals, garden waste, food waste and finally general waste and hope that we have sorted it correctly so that we don’t end up with our refuse sitting on the pavement outside our house when we return from work.  But do we ever think about what happens to the recycling once it is collected?  When choosing an energy company we might opt to choose a provider who generates green electricity, and over the last ten years, with rising energy prices we have bought into energy saving devices, and yet we still put the heating on to warm the whole house, even though we are occupying only one room, possibly for the whole day.  When we eat, we may choose organic foods and even be aware of the country of origin but do we consider the lives of the people who produced the food we eat.

In reality, we know about systems, and we do change behaviours where it suits our self-interest and lifestyle to do so, but we rarely think deeply about the system in which we live.  Organizations are no different.  They may recycle their paper, and have energy saving systems throughout the building, they may even be aware of their carbon footprint, but they rarely act in a manner that shows true awareness of the holistic nature of their dealings, including the impact the organization is having on the lives of those who are employed by the organization.

Though there may be policies in place in regards to stress and absence management, very few executives will be aware of the lives of the people who work for them, they may recycle paper, and print double sided for environmental (cost saving) reasons, but they probably wouldn’t have a clue who ordered the paper for the office building in which they work.  Leadership development programmes may have coached them in regards to the personal impact of their behaviours on their peers, manager and line reports, but it is an awareness sought only in the context of increasing the performance of those around them.

In management schools, future organizational leaders are taught about PESTLE and SWOT analysis, they learn about the importance of ‘envrionmental scanning’ and being aware of future trends; but their thinking is limited to the immediate impact on the internal environment – an outside/inside perspective rather than an inside/outside perspective of considering the impact of the organization on the external environment.

It is natural to use a ecology metaphor, but the issue is, human beings only ever consider balance in respect to the impact of change on themselves.  How the stuff that happens ‘outside there’ will force us to change the way we do things, rather than the impact of our actions on the balance of the eco-system as a whole.  The singularity of our thought process, and the centring of balance on our world perspective is a direct result of the individualism and self-interest expressions of the Capitalist marketplace.

Systems are a cyclical process with many players, and a large number of contingencies.  Systems are greater than the simple reciprocal two way relationship that much of organizational efforts are focused on.  The impact of our actions are greater than that of cause and effect.  Like a stone skimmed on water, each touch point we have sends out ripples that disturb the balance of the wider environment.  It is impossible for us to know the true external cost of each and every one of our actions, but being aware that what we do has greater consequences than a simple linear effect is important if we are to successfully manage organizations in a holistic way.

What if organizations conducted a PESTLE and SWOT analysis not from an internal, but an external perspective?  What if the opportunities and threats we pose to the wider environment, both in regards to the natural environment but also politics and society were explored?  How would our analysis differ from the outside/insider perspective.

To be thinking in a systemic way, a different perspective is needed.  We must not concentrate just on the things that effect us, but what effect we have on other people, communities and the environment at large.  It means that we do become interested in more than dealing with the output of our processes but also in how our processes themselves impact the wider environment.  It is more than worrying about keeping customers happy, but ensuring that our suppliers, employees, and the community in which we reside is well cared for, and properly understood.

During the second world war, many Germans who were living in walking distance of the concentration camps had no idea what the regime was doing in their name or the suffering that occurred in the camps – they were blindly ignorant.  Following the ceasefire, the allies made German citizens walk to the concentration camps to see what was being done in their name.  We don’t have the mechanisms to force CEOs or politicians to walk among the fields of despair and destruction that their actions have caused, but we should do everything in our power to ensure that they are mindful of the consequences of their decisions.

A new perspective is required if we are to successfully adopt systems thinking, it is one that relegates self-interest to a secondary place in the priority list and instead provides an outsiders view of our actions.  We can’t always make pure decisions, since we live in a world where compromise and the lesser of two evils might be the only choice available, but there is always room for better and pursuing Doing Good.  Systems thinking forces us to raise our game, and our awareness in regards to the external costs of our actions.  It forces us to think about and confront what happens to our waste further than our street collections and consider the true impact of our actions on others.

Too often business process engineering concentrates on the efficiency of processes and systems in regards to technology and efficiency ratios whilst ignoring the most important part of any system, people.  Sometimes, the right way to do something won’t be the most lean or efficient way in regards to the internal system, but will have the least negative impact in regards to the system as a whole.  If we are to Change for Good, we need to boldly approach our lives, the organizational operations and our political decision with a new perspective, and a different agenda.


The Development of Culture Change

It’s interesting working in the arena of organization development. All to often managers are confounded by the fact that the employees resist any form of change whether the changes are better for the organization, will secure their jobs, and will most probably make the employees lives better.

Organizations spend thousands of pounds and many hours putting together information packs and communication plans to explain the changes, but no amount of information, no matter how rational, will seeming move those who chose not to be moved. What is more frustrating is that those who refuse to toe and line, and who engage in acts of corporate terrorism will be able to justify their bad behaviour with a perfectly rational and logic line of reasoning– even if the rational remains unreasonable. Further investigation will also unveil the truth, which is that the most reluctant will invent fabrications about the real motives of those trying to push for change, even if those reasons are nothing more than lying to ourselves.

Human behaviour, the mind and each individual’s personality are nothing if not curious and fascinating.

You see we don’t like to consider ourselves as being irrational. We need to deceive ourselves into believing that our bad behaviour is rational. If we are unable to cope with a current situation we may begin to regress, acting out like a petulant teenager, or we might use a displacement defence where we know we have to be strong, so we take out our frustration on a process of change that makes us feel fearful. Finally we might take hide from, and refuse to acknowledge the change that we are experiencing by repressing that which we are finding intolerable from our conscious mind and continuing as if nothing has changed at all.

Social Psychologist Leon Festinger described the discomfort we feel when we modify our beliefs so that we can make two contradictory ideas compatible as ‘cognitive dissonance.’ The more we believe that we are right in our belief that the change is bad, the more effort we will put into proving that we are right – and any information is used to confirm the rightness of our beliefs. If we are lying to ourselves we must in someway justify our lie to continue believing that we are a good person. (Rosenburg, 2011)

Culture or rather ‘the way we do things around here’ exacerbates the cognitive dissonance that individuals develop during a change programme.  The effectiveness of an organization can be seriously compromised if efforts to make changes conflicts with an organization’s norms, standards, working practices and values, potential creating conflict and toxicity around the change efforts.

Take for example the current context of the environmental peril that our planet is in. If we don’t change the way we do things then our grandchildren will quite possible face extinction. The problem is that we have accepted the truth of ‘plenty’ and of not having to count the external costs of our actions for such a long time that the rules and expectations of 21st Century human culture, especially in the Western World is currently stopping us from acting rationally in the best interests of our long term survival.  Organization’s can face similar problems in areas that are in obvious need of change, possibly where the way things are done around here is causing the organization to lose business or damage its reputation and yet still change efforts are met with resistance.

Since we are social creatures, doing things differently, changing to such an extent means that we have to go outside group norms. For example the terms Tree Hugger, eco-warrior and nature loving hippy have for a long time been used as insults and denote that the person acting with a belief structure that puts the environment first is in someway uncivilised. Even those organizations that are pursuing green and environmentally friendly agendas wrap their actions up in more acceptable business language of sustainability, Plan A and corporate social responsibility, it goes against our culture that these organizations should say that they care about the planet.

If you are trying to implement a change programme, it is important to consider how people are acting as a group, not just individually. When individuals are unsure how to behave they will look to the community of which they are part to understand what the norms are, which are usually driven by their peers. If there is someone who strongly represents the group displaying signs of cognitive dissonance, then that will determine what reaction the group will have as a whole to the change situation.

Individuals who have a lot lose and in the current hierarchy are in a privileged position will seek to maintain the traditions that keep them in a position of privilege, regardless of the expense to others. Destructive behaviour in a change situation will always be strongest where individuals who fear change the most are in a position of influence within the wider community.

To make the change your organization seeks, it is essential that you first understand those who are key stakeholders, and help them to transition their thinking prior to any change programme happening. That way the individuals who have most impact on cultural norms can help the group express their reaction to change, which in turn will help make the change journey smooth.

Organization Development offers an alternative to the ‘information centric’ approach to change management.  Rather than a top down change that tells people how to think and act, organization development takes the organization on a journey of discovery.  Leaders are taught to role model, coach and teach so they can reflect the change that is being asked for.  For individual employees, OD interventions create safe places for them to consider the areas of thinking and belief structures that might need to change, and provides the tools for the individual to make that change themselves.  For groups it helps transition the change through careful facilitation of groups dynamics to help the group help each other make the transition.  Finally, OD considers the reinforcement mechanisms within the organization, processes and systems which will support the culture change going forward, and removing barriers to the successful change.

OD Practitioner considerations for Culture Change

  1. Know the business beyond an organization chart and what the leaders tell you.  Investigate, question and discover;  How are things done? What makes the organization tick?  What is the underlying rhythm of the business?
  2. If you don’t know find out, and use the right OD tools for the situation.
  3. BE the change, coach, mentor and position yourself as a conduit of change.
  4. Ensure Change goals are relevant, and focused on people relationships and behaviour especially in regards to how processes and systems within the organization reinforce or inhibit people processes.
  5. Support leaders to create the climate for change
  6. Develop plans that reward behaviours that reinforce the desired culture change but also manage areas where there is reversion to old behaviours.
  7. Handle uncertainty and ambiguity with confidence.
  8. Use methods that work on both the mind, in regards to intellectual stimulation but also the heart, in regards to emotion.
  9. Create experiences and opportunities for people to explore new behaviours within a positive framework
  10. Always develop methods that reinforce new ways of working.

The Theorists – Kurt Lewin

There are a number of individuals who throughout the history and emergence of Organisation Development have made a significant contribution to both the academic theory and practice of the field of OD.

Kurt Lewin 1890 – 1947


Kurt Lewin – In Brief

Kurt Lewin, author of over 80 articles and eight books on a wide range of issues in psychology is recognised as the founding father of modern social psychology.  He was a seminal theorist who deepened the understanding of groups, experiential learning, and action research.   Through his pioneering use of

of theory and using experimentation to test hypothesis he contributed an everlasting significance on an entire discipline–group dynamics and action research.

Lewin is well known for his term “life space” and was committed to applying psychology to the problems of society led to the development of the M.I.T. Research Center for Group Dynamics where six major program areas were developed;

  • Group productivity: why was it that groups are so ineffective in getting things done?
  • Communication: how influence is spread throughout a group.
  • Social perception: how a person’s group affected the way they perceived social events.
  • Intergroup relations.
  • Group membership: how individuals adjust to these conditions.
  • training leaders: improving the functioning of groups (T-groups).

Believing in the field approach, Lewin proposed that for change to take place, the total situation has to be taken into account arguing that if only isolated facts are used, a misrepresented picture could develop.

Kurt Lewin – Life and Times

  • 1890 – Born  in the village of Moglino in the Prussian province of Posen
  • 1909 – Entered University of Frieberg to Study Medicine, transferring to the University of Munich to study biology
  • 1914 – Completed his requirements for a Ph.D.
  • 1916 – Conferred his degree from the University of Berlin
  • 1921 – Joined the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin – where he was to lecture and offer seminars in both philosophy and psychology
  • 1930 – Spent six months as a visiting professor at Stanford
  • 1933 – Emigrated to the United States  working at the Cornell School of Home Economics
  • 1935 – Moved to University of Iowa published his first collection of papers in English – A Dynamic Theory of Personality and developed his interest in social processes
  • 1940 – Became a US citizen and became involved in various applied research initiatives linked to the war effort
  • 1944 – Founded he Research Center for Group Dynamics at MIT.
  • 1946 – Notion of T-groups emerged
  • 1947 – Set up the National Training Laboratories in Bethel, Maine.  However, Lewin died of a heart attack in Newtonville, Mass. on February 11, 1947, before the Laboratories were established.

Key Contributions

  1. Action Research Theory
  2. Change Theories – Planned Change
  3. Group Dynamics
  4. Field Theory
  5. Experiential Learning
  6. T-Groups

Lewin made defining contributions to a number of fields. He had a major impact on group theory and how to work with groups.  A pioneer of action research he demonstrated the use of controlled experimentation to explore complex social phenomenon and he helped to move social psychology into a more rounded understanding of behaviour.

The consistent theme in all Kurt Lewin’s work was the integration of theory and practice.  65 years after his death it is a lesson that Lewin can still teach Organisation Development Practitioners.