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OD Matters

Celebrating ODiN at 20

Chris Rodgers

On 21 June 2019, the OD Innovation Network (ODiN) will be 20 years old. With this in mind, ODiN Member, Bob MacKenzie suggested that it would be fitting to put together this special edition of AMED’s journal e-Organisations & People (e-O&P), for which he serves as commissioning editor. In acknowledging and celebrating this milestone, the aim was that this would develop as a creative collaboration between ODiN and AMED, in a spirit of critical friendship (MacKenzie, 2015). Excited by the prospect, I invited members to submit proposals for potential articles, based on the broad topic of “OD Matters”. This reprised the theme that had been explored more informally by members on the occasion of the network’s tenth anniversary in 2009.

As before, I suggested that the word “matters” might be interpreted in a number of ways. That is, matter as "substance" – covering the nature and scope of OD; matter as "subject" – relating to issues and questions in OD; matter as "trouble" – addressing concerns or difficulties with OD; and matter as "being of importance" – dealing with why OD is important and how it can make a difference.

Thirteen ODiN members responded to the challenge, by submitting the articles that form the core of this publication. A number of them, together with other members of the network, also answered my later request for them to send me details of any books that they have published. The extensive list of titles that resulted adds further richness to this celebratory edition of e-O&P which will form the centrepiece of the 20th Anniversary meeting of ODiN on 9 July.

Introduction

In my initial invitation for members to submit articles, I suggested that the acronym “OD” can itself be translated in three different ways. Most commonly, it is used to mean either Organisation Design or Organisation Development, dependent upon context and/or local precedent. Most current members of ODiN would – I believe – think of their practice primarily in terms of the latter. Some practitioners go so far as to combine the two, referring to their practice as “OD&D”. Underlying each of the above, though, are the underlying dynamics of organisation. In short, how whatever happens, happens. The third ‘OD’ of the trio, therefore, refers to organisational dynamics.

In this editorial, I have begun by providing an overview of each of the articles and drawn out a number of common themes. I have then put this celebratory issue in the context of ODiN, outlining the origins and formative years of the network, setting out the full 20 years of meetings in a sidebar and noting one or two significant events in its history. I hope that you will find this compilation interesting and - especially as regards the articles - informative and thought-provoking.

Overview of the articles

The items in this edition can usefully be grouped under five general themes. The first of these sets out some of the difficulties that can arise in giving voice to one’s concerns and aspirations in the midst of the power-related dynamics of organisation. In the context of OD, this underlines the importance of finding one’s voice, as well as enabling others to find theirs. The second theme relates to two strands of thinking about organisation and management that arose during the second quarter of the 20th Century.

The authors here argue that these have contributed significantly to the foundations of OD. The third group of articles offers some diverse perspectives on OD practice; embracing all three of the ‘ODs’ that I mentioned earlier. Following these considerations of what constitutes leading-edge OD practice today, are three equally diverse offerings under the theme of facing the future. These consider how OD practice might need to change (and/or how it ought to change) to deal with a different future – whether dominated by shifts in technology, or intensely human in its approach. Our final author issues a call to arms for OD practitioners, making the case for them to apply their skills in the service of those who are seeking to address some of the major challenges that are emerging in the world at large.

Giving voice and enabling others to find theirs

The journal begins with a powerful reflection by Ajoy Datta on the challenges that he faced in trying to shift the patterns of management practice within an agency working within the field of international development. In Complexity, contradictions and struggle: facilitating OD for international development, he charts both the barriers he came up against and the new insights he gained. In particular, he recounts how he sought to highlight the differences between the approaches that managers advocated for clients to use and the ways in which they behaved internally. Ajoy’s story underlines the centrality of voice in bringing about change and in building coalitions of support for new ways of working and new ways of being.

With this in mind, Alison Donaldson gives voice to her own experience of seeking to be heard – and of helping the voices of others to be heard. In Voice Matters: a personal story about learning to speak and listen in groups, she charts her path towards the finding of her own voice and the development of what she calls “conversational practice”. She argues that it’s in seeking to enhance the quality of one’s own and others’ participation in the everyday conversational life of organisation that the route to more meaningful – and potentially more successful – organisational performance can be found. Both Alison’s and Ajoy’s stories highlight the impact that power relations have on the nature and functioning of organisation, and on the outcomes that emerge.

Foundations of OD

The next two articles carry forward this important theme of seeking to enable the voices and choices of everyone to be heard and acted upon. The authors explore the important contributions to OD thinking and practice that have been provided by, on the one hand, Mary (Parker) Follett and, on the other, the early advocates of humanistic management. In the first of these, My friend Mary: getting to know Mary Follett, development pioneer, Jonathan Wilson explores the life and work of a truly great advocate of progressive management (and, by inference, OD) practice. In doing so, he draws lessons from these that are as resonant today as they were in the 1930s and ‘40s.

In a similar vein, Gary Pass asks us to join him on his inquiry into the extent to which modern OD, and organisational practice more generally, is rooted in the principles of humanistic psychology and the management practices that are derived from these. In The humanistic roots of OD: a reclamation? he offers his emerging thoughts on this ‘hidden history’. His aim in doing so is to provoke wider engagement in the challenge of creating what he calls, “healthy human conditions for success and wellbeing at work”.

Perspectives on OD practice

Drawing on these and other foundations of OD, the subsequent five articles offer different perspectives on how the principles of OD might be realised in practice. Bill Critchley, in his exposition of The new practice of organisation consulting, introduces us to what he terms, “living inquiry”. This is based on a complex social process view of organisational dynamics, in which organisation emerges in the ongoing process of conversational interaction.

Sharon Varney also adopts a complexity-based view of organisation and OD practice. However, in her explanation of an OD-based framework for advancing change practice, she roots her understanding in the notion of organisation as a complex adaptive system. She goes on to explore three strands of OD in the context of organisational change - strands which she refers to as diagnostic, dialogic and dynamic.

In his article entitled Digital Transformation: costly distraction or Holy Grail? Mark Anfilogoff questions the means by which technology is used in the service of organisational change and performance. In particular, he contrasts the rapid advancement and willing adoption of physical technologies with the limited ways in which technology and related practices have been embraced by those using project management disciplines to effect change. He also stresses the centrality of human interaction, and the importance of promoting agile thinking and practices, to the effective delivery of change and performance.

On a related theme, Daniel Thornton critiques the widespread advocacy and adoption of so-called “best practice”, as a supposed route to superior organisational performance. As an approach that bears the stamp of scientific rationality, it seemingly offers universal, context-free truths and assured success. In What’s wrong with best practice in organisations? he argues that this smacks more of bad practice than best practice. Instead, he offers a way forward that he sees as being much more congruent with the complex reality of organisation.

To complete this section, Tony Page extols the virtue of using writing as a means of unlocking people’s creative resources for personal and organisational benefit. In We can all be Writers … with a capital ‘W’, he shows how writing can be used – by OD practitioners and clients alike – as a means of gaining greater self- and other-awareness; as a basis for generating more imaginative ways forward; and, echoing our opening theme, as another way of ‘giving voice’ to our thoughts and feelings.

Facing the future

Armed with these insights into various strands of OD practice, what challenges might managers and OD practitioners face in the future? And how might these perspectives and methodologies best be deployed? In an article that draws on his November 2018 ODiN session, Paul Levy challenges us to consider the possible implications of rapidly advancing technologies on OD practice. Using a scenario-based approach, he transports us forwards 10, 20 and 30 years. As he does so, he exposes and explores an organisational world that is infused with so-called artificial intelligence, as well as with ever-advancing forms of virtual and augmented reality. In Facilitating robots: how will OD facilitation change in the emerging digital future? he takes us on a fascinating journey into the might-be world of potential organisational futures; challenging us along the way to consider how we might anticipate and respond - both practically and ethically - to the issues that emerge.

By way of complete contrast, Louise Redmond sets out the case for OD specialists to help corporate clients look beyond the various means that they might use in pursuit of maximising shareholder value. She argues that they should use their knowledge and skills to help managers address The purpose of the corporation – that is, attending to the ‘Why?’ as well as the ‘How?’ of organisational performance. In particular, she maintains that there is a need for practitioners to help managers shift the fundamental reason for being of their corporations to ones which better serve the interests of all of those involved and which seek to enhance the quality of human being.

Finally here, in our consideration of a potentially different future for OD practice, Nick Wright provides a beautiful account of time he spent in the Philippines, in the company of a local woman called Jasmin. Under the evocative title, A radical heart: lessons in love and leadership from Jasmin in the Philippines, his story provides a glimpse of true leadership. He sees this as an outcome that emerges from the day-to-day actions and interactions of ordinary people (that is to say, people like us) who, through their in-the-moment actions, achieve extra-ordinary things. Leadership is not – as it is so often portrayed in mainstream OD - an elite practice confined to a few, high-profile and formally appointed individuals. Future OD practice needs to reflect this reality, emphasising the essentially human and relational nature of organisation and the ever-present possibility of acts of leadership.

A call to arms

To complete the collection of articles, Pete Burden addresses, head-on, the question of the importance of OD in today’s world. He argues that OD Matters – a lot! Against the backcloth of recent developments in OD practice, as well as what he describes as “threats to the well-being of humanity, and indeed even to our very existence”, he maintains that OD practitioners have knowledge and skills that might usefully be deployed in addressing some of these issues. His contribution provides a fitting close to this suite of articles, in the form of a call to arms for OD practitioners. He argues that, as OD professionals, we should use our talents to help mobilise the collective action of people beyond the conventional ‘boundaries’ of OD practice. In doing so, we can help others in the wider community to become better equipped to meet current and emerging challenges – whatever they happen to be.

Common threads

In reflecting on this tapestry of views on ‘matters OD’, it seems to me that there are a number of common threads woven throughout the various articles. These provide some useful provocations to stimulate further thinking and practice, including:

  • The centrality of human being and human interaction to leadership, performance and change.
  • The importance of enabling the voices and choices of everyone to emerge and be taken seriously, both in spoken and written form.
  • The challenge of recognising, valuing and seeking to integrate difference, without losing the challenge and creativity that difference brings.
  • The value of drawing insights from early thinkers and practitioners in the broad field of organisation and management practice, and translating these into the current context.
  • The significance of purpose – both individual and collective, espoused and actual – in shaping what happens.
  • The increasingly ubiquitous nature of technology and its potential effect on people’s participation, practice and performance – both positive and negative.
  • The continuing need to enable and exploit organisational ‘agility’, in the broadest sense of the word
  • The need for an ethical grounding to OD practice.
  • Recognition of the power-related nature of human interaction – and, hence, of organisation.
  • The need to take complexity seriously.

In their own write … a catalogue of books written by ODiN members

In further celebration of ODiN’s 20th anniversary, the articles in this edition are followed by a list of books that have been written by current members of the network. This showcases another of the ways in which members have sought to influence people’s understanding and practice of organisation and management (as well as recognising a few examples in which they have ventured into other genres).

Books, of course, are not the only ways in which members have used the written word to disseminate their ideas. Many more have published articles in this and other journals, as well as producing research papers and so on. So, we also acknowledge those in the ODiN network whose offerings – like those in this journal – will have been no less influential in helping to shape people’s knowledge and skills in the broad field of OD. However, for reasons of space and time, we have not been able to include the details of these publications here.

Twenty years of ODiN: 1999-2019

To complete this editorial, I have set out below a pen picture of the first 20 years of the OD Innovation Network itself.

Pre-History

The origins of ODiN can be traced back to the early 1990s. In a previous life, it existed as a peer-network of senior managers from large-scale organisations in both the public and private sectors. The group was run by Price Waterhouse’s Global Leader of Change, Colin Price. When he moved to the USA in 1997, the meetings continued briefly but soon fell into abeyance.

Thankfully, in February 1999, Unigate’s Terry Mills moved to close the gap. He wrote to former members of the network, to see if there was an appetite for meetings to continue without PW’s sponsorship and facilitation. In response, a dozen of us attended the inaugural meeting of what is now ODiN, at BA’s Waterside headquarters on 21 June 1999 (see the list of attendees, below).

ATTENDEES AT THE INAUGURAL MEETING – 2 JUNE 1999

Terry Mills, Unigate

Naomi Stanford, British Airways*

Derek Brimley, British Airways*

Neil Robertson, British Airways

Geoff Merchant, Cabinet Office

Christine Larson, Express Ltd

Louise Redmond, SmithKline Beecham*

Andrew Ironside, Salomons

Jack Fallow, Gasforce Ltd

Terry Bowden, Barclays

Alan Saunders, BIOSS

and me*, the biggest of big cheeses from Chris Rodgers Consulting Ltd.

(* Current members – MAR 2019)

Taking off at British Airways

In the period between my first, informal conversation with Terry and the BA launch meeting, I had left the generating company, National Power, and started life as an independent consultant. As a result, I was the only person in the room who was not employed by a large organisation. And a couple of those at the meeting were not too keen on having a consultant in their midst! After a brief exchange on the subject, I offered to withdraw from the yet-to-be-formed network. Luckily (for me at least) Naomi Stanford had just agreed to facilitate a discussion on the new network’s aims and ways of working. She suggested that leaving at that stage might be a little precipitate and that it would probably be better for the group to take stock of how things were working after six months or so.

This was eventually agreed – with one caveat. One of those present was (quite rightly) adamant that the network should not become a forum for selling consultancy services. I readily agreed to that principle, which remains central to ODiN’s ethos to this day. And, thanks to Naomi’s timely intervention, I’m also still here! An extract from Terry Mills’s notes of that first meeting are reproduced in the Appendix.

The ODiN name

At the end of our initial discussions on the proposed name for the new network, I suggested (half-jokingly) that we should consider calling it “ODiN” (the OD Innovation Network). Since Odin was a god in Norse mythology, I also agreed to check if there was a ‘fit’ between the mythological characteristics of Odin and those of our proposed network. I set out the results of my very brief search in a note to members, an extract from which is included below. As I said at the time, “there are some definite links, if we wish to make them.”

ODiN

OD INNOVATION NETWORK

According to Norse mythology, Odin was the greatest of the gods: the supreme creator and god of everything from wisdom to war - including culture! He possessed great magical powers, which he gained by drinking from the wellspring of knowledge. His desire for learning was so great that he gave up his right eye to drink from this well of knowledge.

Wisdom, the desire for knowledge, culture and war (strategy /winning/ defeating the competition) all fit very well. I’m not sure that we would agree to give up our right eyes to drink from the well of (our collective) knowledge, but six days a year ought to be a reasonable substitute!

14 September 1999

And so, on 14 September 1999, the ODiN name was adopted. A couple of years later, I pointed out that Odin’s warriors were known as Berserks! Highly appropriate, I think! And this seemed to fit very well with one of the original ideas, that ODiN might be used to test out “Barking Mad” thinking (see Appendix below). Several years later, a member drew attention to the less appealing nature of ODiN’s attributes. By then, though, the name was well established and comfortingly familiar to members.

Ups, downs and ups again

A schedule of the ODiN meetings that have taken place over the past 20 years is included in the sidebar. There are a few gaps at the beginning, when meetings were convened by ‘snail mail’ and most of the records – and people’s recollections - are now long gone.   In the early years, meetings were held on members’ premises; and finding these became an increasingly difficult task for Terry Mills, who continued to organise the sessions at that time.  

Attendance was also an issue from time to time. I recall that there were only about half-a-dozen people at the meeting that I led on the shadow side of organisations in January 2001. And the network nearly folded altogether in March 2004, when current members Fiona Anderson and Ken Wright ran an excellent session on cultural transformation. Their efforts were rewarded by the attendance of just three of us at the Royal Mail headquarters in Old Street.

As a result of this, the remaining meetings in 2004 were cancelled and Fiona volunteered to carry out an ad hoc survey of members to see if there was still any interest in continuing with the network. Despite the poor attendance in March, people were generally enthusiastic to continue – provided that the logistical problems could be sorted out. And so, towards the end of 2004, Rowena Davis and I decided that we would try to resurrect the network.

Jack Fallow, the third attendee at the March session, reminded us that Cass Business School’s David Sims had previously offered to ‘house’ the meetings. When I contacted him, he enthusiastically agreed; and the first re-launched meeting was held in January 2005, led – appropriately – by Fiona Anderson.

Thanks to David Sims’s successor, Cliff Oswick, we continue to meet at Cass whenever they are able to accommodate us.

ODiN at Cass

Terry’s legacy

The rest, as they say, is history! However, it would be remiss of me not to highlight the vital part played by Terry Mills in picking up the baton from PW in 1998 and organising the meetings in the early years.

Sadly, he died suddenly and unexpectedly on 27 December 2005, but his legacy lives on in what is now a vibrant and thriving network of external consultants and in-house practitioners.

Appendix

Set out below is an extract from the notes that Terry Mills produced after the first meeting.

This gives a flavour of some of the expectations and principles that were agreed at the start of the group. I took away an action to turn these into a formal outline of the network, and the latest version of this is only marginally changed from the original.

(The journal and the download of this editorial, include a list of the topics and session leaders for nearly all our meetings for the past 20 years.)

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Bob MacKenzie for his initial offer to produce this celebratory issue of e-O&P and for his tireless work as ‘editor-in-chief’ in bringing it to fruition. In that regard, I would also like to acknowledge the vital contribution made by David McAra in taking charge of the formatting and layout arrangements, and for hosting the secure editorial page where all final drafts are stored prior to publication. Like Bob, David is a member of ODiN, and both are AMED Trustees. I would also like to offer my gratitude to those members of the network who have contributed articles to this edition and/or submitted details of the books that they have written.

As regards the running of ODiN itself, Cliff Oswick’s sponsorship over recent years has been invaluable, as has the contribution of staff at Cass in ensuring that the logistics of meetings held at the business school run smoothly. Over recent years, these arrangements have been expertly managed by Alexandra Brookes. As mentioned earlier, Rowena Davis played an important part in ensuring that the network continued through the difficulties experienced in 2004. She remains a regular attendee and oft-time session leader. Most importantly, she holds a back-up list of members’ email addresses, in case I end up under the proverbial bus! Finally, here, I would like to thank Jonathan Wilson for the occasions on which he has hosted the meetings in my absence, and for managing to secure alternative venues, when rooms have been unavailable at Cass. On the one occasion that my daughter was able to attend a meeting, I was otherwise engaged with a client. When we later spoke about the session, she said “the person who was me [i.e. Jonathan] was very good”. Enough said!

Reference

MacKenzie, B. (2015). ‘Critical friendships for coaching and mentoring in writing’. In: e-Organisations and People, Vol 22, No 1, pp: 42-51. The future of coaching and mentoring: evolution, revolution of extinction, Part 2. (Guest Editor: Pauline Willis).

About Chris

Chris Rodgers has been an independent consultant for the past 20 years; having previously worked as an engineer, and later senior manager, in the UK electricity supply industry. He is author of Informal Coalitions (2006, Palgrave), a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute and Honorary Senior Visiting Fellow in the Faculty of Management at Cass Business School. Contact details can be found on his company’s website at https://www.chrisrodgers.com.

 

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