On practice, agency, and impact

When you do OD, how do you envisage yourself?

In so many instances, we end up considering the context in which we work to be a thing on which we work; this is the danger of reification, which means that – in our heads – we can hold what we do, how we do it, and (most importantly) how people experience us doing it, at arm’s length.

Moreover, this conceptual sleight of hand affords us the opportunity to efface our implication in the space and time into which we inveigle ourselves to work…and, more worryingly, to recuse ourselves from a process in which we are completely immersed and immediately impactful.

The problem seems to be that OD practitioners tend to accord themselves a special status that seems to be independent from the context in which they work. In some instances, that notionally privileged position derived from a faulty belief in the special presence that we bring to the space and time in which we find ourselves doing our work. We allow ourselves to indulge the sheer fiction that we are tourists visiting- rather than residents as part of – those circumstances.

In real terms, we are simply human agents in the organisational situations in which we work, no better, different, advantaged or insightful than any other individual alongside we find ourselves therein. If we indulge the frayed scientism that haunts the business world (and, to a large extent, the world at large), then it becomes easy for us to assume a privilege of understanding organisational dynamics better than others or using arcane techniques to get the most out of those with whom we are working. And that is a tragic mistake – for us as individuals and for OD as a practice.

There is a deep question ticking away at the heart of this exposition, of course, which is: what does OD as a domain of practice bring to the organisational contexts into which we are invited? Not anything like what it imagines, to be honest: we offer no richer understanding of the way in which a group of people have come together to work, as they themselves are best placed to know that; our interventions distort the fabric of their social existence in the workplace and cannot be meaningfully shown to make any sort of difference for them; our work is ultimately driven exclusively by the managerial agenda (we are commissioned by “managers” to fix what they unhelpfully label “dysfunctional teams”, whilst they also carefully edit themselves out of the discussions that we then engineer…despite the sense that they themselves must be making a contribution to this dynamic.)

We need, then, to embrace humility to ensure that our intentions are respectful and visible: first, the least we might do is immerse ourselves in a context carrying with us the heartfelt hope that this insertion into the system to which we are seeking to attend might refashion the kaleidoscopic pattern that is generated by the relational interconnectivity of a group of human agents.

Second, we need to embrace the idea of reflexivity, a reflective practice wherein we place our subjectivity very forcefully into our thinking about the realm of our work. Our reflection is not undertaken as a spectator – placing an experience under an intellectual microscope in order to apply some constraining and cyclical model to it in order to draw “learning” from it – but hinges on the simple recognition that we are an integral element of the scene. We are not standing back to look at the picture from a distance; we are instead inside the picture, an integral part of the mise-en-scene.

Our implicit nature in this respect should serve to remind us constantly that we alter the space and time that we land in unwittingly. Our agency is felt alongside the agencies of all of those with whom we find ourselves…and our agency does not carry a greater importance or significance to it – other than that we might carry with us a particular power relationship. This arises out of our status as a so-called “intervening expert” (a term challengeable in both regards) but it is also likely that we will be seen to be carrying the imprint of the wider relations of power in that specific context.

An OD practitioner who does not take time in the moment to consider how their work and presence is part of the wider and ever-changing picture in which they have been “thrown” (to use a term coined by the philosopher Heidegger) is neglecting the simple fact of human relations and the contexts that they generate. This is a reminder that this work is not about solely about recollection and (re)presentation, although this sort of reflection has its place; it is instead about an intense awareness in the specious present of where one finds oneself and with whom – and how that presence contributes to the overall context.

Conversation in our recent practice workshop on this topic underscored the important observation that an impactful presence does not necessarily imply explicit visibility; impact – particularly from within the mesh of power in which we exist when we impress our agency into a new organisational context – exists outwith practical appearance. It also importantly highlighted cultural attitudes towards this type of work, especially where we are working in a global economy.

The following came out of the exchanges that participants had during this event – and reflect the vital significance that reflexivity plays in understanding how our being and actions are part of the place where we work and not simply something separate to it…

Alongside these insightful stipulations, participants also opened up the topic to consider what implications might flow from it…and what practicalities need to be considered…

Ultimately, a solid commitment to reflexivity in the work we do articulates with other ethical orientations in the overall picture of a truly radical OD practice, namely that: first, we place power (including our power as a practitioner and the power that attaches to us in our privileged role in relation to commissioners of our services and those in significant positions promoting us in that context) at the forefront of our thinking about our work; and, second, that we assume a personal responsibility for truth-telling, in light of our immersion in the warp and weft of those places where we end up working.

A deep and questioning awareness of our human agency and interrelatedness with others is demanded in order that we are able to engage meaningfully with workplace power as OD practitioners – and that is precisely what we call reflexivity in this context.

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