The “mysteriousness” of OD

I had the pleasure this week to spend time in a virtual space with 25 practitioners who work in and around the field that might broadly be defined as “organisation development”. We undertook an inquiry into these practices – and explored how we might refresh the field in which we all work.

Taking my conversational lead, as I spoke about the critique of OD that I outlined in Radical Organisation Development (Routledge, 2020) and the seven ways in which I hoped to reorient my work in light of those critical observations, we soon landed amongst the tensions that exist for people who work under this general rubric such as,

  1. The values that we hold deeply at the core of our being; the values that we espouse, and the values that are apparent in our day to day work.
  2. The nascent (or perhaps deeply hidden) radicalism that is argued to exist at the heart of the OD – and the way in which what we do is experienced by those with whom we end up working as merely affirming the managerial imperative.
  3. The way in which OD assumes the mantle of scientism – shrouding itself oftentimes in language that discursively intimates some form of valorised “rigour” (e.g., the use of the term “practice”, the leap into a medicalised metaphor, where we speak of a “diagnostic”, the suggestion that we ply a craft or trade, when we speak about the use of “instruments” and the possession of “toolkits”) – and the contrary position that argues that it is an art. In the latter respect, we might cast ourselves as detectives, working to solve cases. Indeed, not just any old detective: our conversation made explicit reference to Sherlock Holmes, no less…

Early on, we collectively generated a word cloud of the words that sprang into our minds when we paused to think about OD, which offered the following insight, in respect to our shared terms as an occupational group at that particular time and in this specific space:


This leads me to the following thought: we carry with us an assumption of the overall ethical goodness of what we do by retreating behind the discursive notion that our work takes the human being as the measure of all things; beneath that, we carry suppositions of the practical manner of our work, which can be seen to be built on applied psychology and which offers a means by which to engender change; but in the sub-surface realm, which we rarely visit but of which we are somewhat aware, we recognise that power and politics in organisational settings shapes how we think and what we do – and, in turn, thereby affects how we are experienced by those amongst whom we endeavour to do our work.

Deconstructing OD

To contest these cosy nostrums for a moment, we might entertain the following notions: first, our humanism does not stand up to close scrutiny because the “team” is oftentimes our fundamental unit of analysis, a political construct in organisational life that subjectifies the human agent and effaces their capacity for independent action. After all, few people would be content to be thought of as anything but a “good team player” – and the action of this imposed collective might actually be said to inhibit individual presence in a workplace context.

Perhaps more importantly, the “humanism” that seems to be ideologically implicit in our approach and in what we do with people in the workplace can be seen to be in tension with the imperatives that we are ordinarily following, as and when we enter into contracts with those in organisations to do what we do – who are rarely those people with whom we are dispatched to do that work, of course.

Second, the fact that OD invariably falls back on the idea that it offers a practice that is founded on applied psychology requires us to absorb that social science as acceptable, when – in fact – it can be seen (particularly through a Foucauldian lens) as a decisive strut in the apparatus that supports the emergence of a new form of power that is more in keeping with a liberal democratic society, namely disciplinary power.

This is a modality that turns its back on coercion of subjects in favour of engendering docility among them, by expanding surveillant technologies and, through the interaction with populations on the basis of the data that this provides, shaping tacit notions of Normalcy and hence Otherness. (To return to the argument above and originally advanced by McKinlay and Taylor, the “team” at work is the surveillant technology par excellence; managers cannot manage complex and heavily populated workplaces – but they can foster teams in order to engender compliance amongst the workforce.)

Lastly, we can be found to disregard the importance of power and the politics at play in the workplace and set it aside. Or, more duplicitously, we note its presence but agree to bracket it off, lest it muddy the focused discussions that we are eager to support about effectiveness. Or we engage with it as a resource that we ourselves need to seek out and possess. Rarely do we place it in the position where it clearly belongs in organisations within a capitalist socio-economic context, namely at the very forefront of our thinking and in the beginning, middle and end of every aspect of the work we do.

Most importantly, we rarely pause to consider how power is being experienced through us by those around us. I recall being part of an event that began with a mindfulness exercise, something I did not want to do but felt compelled to participate in due to the dynamics in the group of which I was part. Later, that evening, I described to my wife how I had reacted after the exercise, when the facilitator paused to ask us how we’d experienced it and I took the opportunity to respond to this candidly. “But that’s what you do every time you run a session as a facilitator,” said my wife, “You don’t give people the option as to whether or not they are involved. In fact, you don’t even ask them how they feel about it.”

In fact, I can think of just one occasion where, admittedly after the fact, a member of a group with which I was working – ironically in a workshop on power – described how she had not wanted to do the exercise that I had set the group to do at all, had not enjoyed being forced into doing it, and derived nothing directly from it. This was a salutary reminder of the power that exists not simply in terms of the position that I hold (and the imprimatur that I carry as someone commissioned by someone else to do this work) but that exists in the capillaries that support our relational connections in these sorts of contexts. Despite my commitment to the exploration of power, I had allowed the power that flows through me and from me through others to inhabit the work without challenge.

Elsewhere in the OD conversation that I was having earlier this week, one person pointedly made the following observation: “We’re like the jester in Shakespeare plays”. Except, one might observe, the jester was seen to be someone who occupied a role beyond power, who was permitted to speak truth to power because of the fact of the carnivalesque position that they held. Equally, though, one could note that the very presence of the jester reinforces the fact that the vast majority of people are not given permission to speak their truth in this context. Hence, our very presence as the jester serves to deny others the opportunity to give voice to their concerns and ideas; as a jester, we prop up a climate where speaking out is seen to be a privilege rather than a widespread practice.

Sometimes, we make great virtue of bringing in the perspective of the “outsider”: I recall regular meetings with a Chief Executive where their opening conversational gambit would be to ask, “What’s going on out there?” I remember a glow of pleasure arising from such exchanges, a reaction which on reflection I would now see as ethically unhealthy. Again, I cannot help but conclude that this organisational intimacy was speaking to something about power for me. And, of course, that nudges us to a perspective wherein the OD practitioner’s voice is a mere proxy for the polyphony of voices that a senior leader would encounter if they ceased to rely on OD and instead embraced human connectivity and engagement with the lived experience of everyone in their workplace.

OD, its practice, and power

One person caught the overall tenor of my book extremely pointedly, when he queried whether OD was legitimate, bearing in mind that it can be seen as merely propping up a capitalist economic system, which – driven by its internal motors, which OD might be said to service – is creating intolerable pressures on us all as workers, consumers, and citizens of world through its rote-learned focus on productivity and growth.

Latterly, Nims Dhawan posed the following powerful question, one for all of us to take away from the discussions, and which succinctly summarised the deep and critical interrogation of the work we do: ‘Is OD the Emperor’s new clothes of old-fashioned Taylorism?’

This represents a vital prompt for us all to remember that – no matter how sophisticated, well-intended, progressive, and generally “different” we feel our way of doing OD might be – its function can easily be seen to be merely to deliver on the ambitions that existed in early industrial life, albeit now with a shiny and distracting humanistic veneer.

Whether a clipboard or a whiteboard gets used when the work of managing a workforce is taking place, the power that undergirds it is unaltered – and the agenda that overdetermines that activity is that of those at the top of the organisation, not those at the grassroots.

It prompts me to remember that I have a duty to be actively reflexive in respect to critically interrogating my own presence and practice in the workplace, ensuring that this work prompts me to both acknowledge and see beyond the conceits I might tacitly confect for myself in order to unconsciously avoid a recognition of the effects of what I do.

But, alongside this essential interrogation of self and agency, I also have a human responsibility to invite those with whom I work to find space and time to speak of their experience of me and what I do – and not just to hear those voices but to attend to them in a meaningful way.

Otherwise, as Nims intimates, we are merely achieving the intentions of Taylorism – organisational effectiveness through constant review and revision of the interface between people and process – whilst hiding behind false notions of a practice that is humanistic, democratic and progressive.

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