Organizational Development (OD) – a Systems View

The traditional view or organizational development is a linear approach: (1) symptom analysis (identification of one or more dysfunctions that inhibit effectiveness); (2) diagnose the dysfunction(s) (determine the cause(s) of the dysfunction(s)); (3) intervene to correct the dysfunction(s); and (4) check to see that the dysfunction(s) are gone and effectiveness enhanced. This is, of course, a simplistic condensation of a rather complex process derived from the traditional standard definition of OD developed by Richard Beckhard in his 1969 book, Organizational Development Strategies and Models, wherein he states, “Organization Development is an effort (1) planned, (2) organization-wide, and (3) managed from the top, to (4) increase organization effectiveness and health through (5) planned interventions in the organization’s “processes,” using behavioral-science knowledge”. In other words the objective was to find and fix non-productive issues.

In the years preceding 1969 and probably well into the 1970s, most organizations were relatively static. Systems were fairly well-defined—hierarchical structures established, roles enumerated, employment/union contracts agreed upon; processes and procedures published, controls in place—it was a tidy world. The OD practitioner/stakeholder team’s objective was to find the dysfunctions negatively affecting effectiveness and eliminate them through implementation of change with minimum operational disruption, management discomfort and employee dissatisfaction.

Despite recognition that modern dynamic organizations are of ambiguous structure; competing in a volatile world-wide market subject to various and numerous often conflicting and changing laws and regulations; made up of self-defining, self-regulating and diverse employee teams whose members may be physically separated; chasing ever-changing technologies; training and retraining employees at an exponential rate caused by dysfunction turnovers; dealing with greater community consciousness; and dealing less with unionization and rigidly defined job descriptions, OD practitioners have yet to settle on a new coherent definition of OD. Rapid and frequent change in modern organizations is their defining nature. However, the nature of change itself has not changed. Change continues to be rife with stress and anxieties and in this environment the linear approach to OD will only result in greater frustration. As the initial dysfunctions are in the process of being corrected a plethora of old symptoms will come to light and new ones identified. Obviously, dissecting and fixing piecemeal “ain’t gonna git it.” It is generally agreed within the field that a system-wide or holistic approach need be taken and a few new definitions have been offered:

“Organization Development is the attempt to influence the members of an organization to expand their candidness with each other about their views of the organization and their experience in it, and to take greater responsibility for their own actions as organization members. The assumption behind OD is that when people pursue both of these objectives simultaneously, they are likely to discover new ways of working together that they experience as more effective for achieving their own and their shared (organizational) goals. And that when this does not happen, such activity helps them to understand why and to make meaningful choices about what to do in light of this understanding.”
— Neilsen, “Becoming an OD Practitioner”, Englewood Cliffs, CA: Prentice-Hall, 1984, pp. 2-3.

“Organization development is a system-wide application of behavioral science knowledge to the planned development and reinforcement of organizational strategies, structures, and processes for improving an organization’s effectiveness.”
— Cummings and Worley, “Organization Development and Change”, Sixth Edition, South-Western Publishing, 1997, p.2.

“Organization Development is a body of knowledge and practice that enhances organizational performance and individual development, viewing the organization as a complex system of systems that exist within a larger system, each of which has its own attributes and degrees of alignment. OD interventions in these systems are inclusive methodologies and approaches to strategic planning, organization design, leadership development, change management, performance management, coaching, diversity, and work/life balance.”
— Matt Minahan, MM & Associates, Silver Spring, Maryland

Explicit in all three definitions are that the goal is enhanced performance/effectiveness and that organizations must be viewed in the whole as organic systems. Implicit in the definitions is the absolute need for authentic and candid collaboration by all team members throughout the entire process. It seems that most practitioners agree, probably more by default than by studied experimentation, research and deliberation that the same in-practice processes apply to a systems approach as they did under older OD theories.

  1. Contract with and gain commitment from key personnel
  2. Establish the change team
  3. Analyze systems to identify dysfunctions and/or unmet goals/objects of the systems
  4. Determine likely causes of systems dysfunctions
  5. Identify all the parts of the system that are negatively and positively affected by the dysfunctions
  6. Organize additional change teams as needed; establish inter-team collaboration
  7. Identify methodologies (as much as I detest the term, “interventions” if you will) designed to improve effectiveness of the organization and performance of its employees
  8. Apply consensually selected multi-team methodologies to improve effectiveness while building internal ability to create sustainable change
  9. Evaluate the effectiveness of the changes on the entire system, reinforce, recycle as needed

The primary difference is the recognition that any change to any one part of a system affects the other parts: people; culture; cliques; emotions; performance; structures (formal and informal); norms; values; attitudes; lines of communication; goals; objectives; standards; processes; products; structure; training; roles; other teams; etc. Such recognition will perforce engender system wide effectiveness and performance evaluations which will likely identify additional dysfunctions, dysfunctions even brought about by previous or ongoing changes.