“Kumbaya” – or practicing traditional organizational development
About a year ago I told a friend of mine that my new project was in organizational development. He congratulated me and then asked, “so you are sitting in a circle around a bonfire and sing Kumbaya?” and smiled. He continued to explain that organizational development (OD) is often considered a theoretical, abstract, academic and sometimes even esoteric activity with no immediate, tangible or sustainable results. Nothing people and even less organizations can relate to. He claimed that that traditional OD often focused too much on processes and procedures. It didn’t adequately address the potential of people innovation in addition to product and process innovation. Furthermore, traditional OD activities often added administrative effort absorbing already scarce resources – without generating value for clients, people in the organization or the business. – Wow, that was a statement! And it kept me thinking for awhile. What if he was right?! What was I up against?!
The futility of organizational development
Today, a year later, I admit that my friend was (for the most part) right. What do you need organizational development for in a company that has been successfully in business for several years? To me it seems arrogant and ignorant approaching a business stating that you will help it develop its organization. I mean, what has this company been doing the last couple of years?
And yet, just because a company has been successfully been in business it doesn’t mean that it cannot improve its organizational performance and excel to the next level (see my previous post on organizational excellence here). The question is how to get there.
You are great already!
In my experience it is best to invite a company to first appreciate its existing performance. Where does it perform, how and why? What makes it so special? By focusing on the positive, on past accomplishments and present performance you create an environment that invites people to think of additional ways and means to improve their performance, taking it to the next level. The cool thing is that it is not rocket science. Just the opposite! All you need to do is find people who can talk about their experience and are willing to share stories. And this shouldn’t be too difficult! Putting this into the context of organizational excellence, the following questions serve as a guideline:
- What is your understanding of client delight, a happy workplace, business value and continuous self-improvement? What story can you or do you want people to tell about your group / division with respect to client delight, a happy workplace, business value and continuous self-improvement?
- What are the critical success factors for client delight, a happy workplace, business value and continuous self-improvement?
- How do you secure client delight, a happy workplace, business value and continuous self-improvement ? E.g., through what products (portfolio, innovation, customer, etc.), people (individuals, leadership development, org. structure, etc.) or processes (strategies, policies, tools, etc.)?
- How do you measure client delight, a happy workplace, business value and continuous self-improvement?
- What do you invest to achieve client delight, a happy workplace, business value and continuous self-improvement?
- What benefits do you get or expect from investing in client delight, a happy workplace, business value and continuous self-improvement?
- What do you value most? Client delight, a happy workplace, business value or continuous self-improvement?
I have posed these questions in both workshop settings as well as online questionnaires. Workshop settings are more productive because they are more interactive and you get feedback immediately and this in return can generate new input, ideas and inspiration.
Appreciating your performance is setting the stage for continuous improvement
What I have found out is that once you have a group of people talk about their past accomplishments and present performance people can easily point out areas they want (or need) to improve. Hence, in a second question round, using the same questions as before, I am asking the group what they would like to improve and what possibly holds them back from doing so.
The third step is to plan concrete activities to overcome the impediments, draft a plan for any improvement activities, prioritize them (this is one reason why we asked the question, “What do you value most?”), identify owners and agree on an action plan and schedule.
Note that this process is not pre-determined or defined top-down. It comes from the people present. They identify their areas of improvements. And it is set in the context of past and present performance which fills them with pride and a sense of accomplishments. These are ingredients for motivation and the drive to excel.
The role of mindful leadership in unfolding organizational potential
What is my role in this process? I am not creating or defining activities for organizational improvements. The people do this by themselves. All I do is to facilitate. I help set the stage, invite people to this workshop or exchange of stories and kick off the dialogue and then let go. My role is more that of a conductor, you can say. But once the orchestra starts playing and has built momentum I step back, offer help only if needed or asked for. This is what help for unfolding organizational potential is all about. It is not an active, pushy part. It is an act of generative listening. Sounds simple; and it actually is.
Generative listening helps unfold organizational potential
And yet, listening, from all leadership capacities, probably is the one that’s most underrated. Everyone talks about vision, project objectives, project management technical skills, etc. But listening is really at the source of all great leadership. Listening ensures that leaders connect with the situation at hand. Any lack of listening skills therefore leads to a disconnection between leaders on the on the one hand and reality on the other. This can be fatal in a project setting that aims to improve the performance of an organization.
MIT senior lecturer Otto Scharmer distinguishes between 4 levels of listening (see Scharmer, C. O., & Kaufer, K. (2013). Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers.). Level 1 is superficial listening. It basically serves the function that the listener wants his or her opinions or judgments to be reconfirmed. In level 2 the listener notices and acknowledges differences and captures new information from the other side. Scharmer calls this level ‘factual listening’. In level 3 the listener is not only aware of the other person but actually sees things from the other perspectives, walks in the shoes of the other person. The deepest level of listening, ‘generative listening’ as Scharmer calls it, allows the people connect with each other.
It is this generative listening what you need to practice if you want to help unfold organizational potential and performance.
Hence, forget traditional organizational development!
My friend and colleague I mentioned at the beginning of this post was right: Traditional organizational development is a dead end street.