Despite the ancient wisdom, “there is nothing new under the sun,” many OD practitioners and their customers seem to be addicted to finding what is “new.” This habit has been manifested over the past few decades through a constant stream of fads such as “change management,” “leaderless teams,” “servant leadership,” “matrixed organizations,” “self-organizing systems,” etc. The list is presumably endless as old beliefs (such as “hierarchy is bad”) and old practices (such as managing change) get repackaged as the latest and greatest. In contrast, a solid future of OD lies in the past. Group learning and action research (also a form of group learning) are theoretically sound and if properly managed will be relevant throughout the ages.
We need look no further than the father of OD, Kurt Lewin, for the elements of this sound approach. He was a systems thinker and a keen student of change. Whether working to change the food preparation habits of US housewives during WWII, the irrigation habits of famers in the dustbowl era, or inter-racial relations in Connecticut, Lewin got carefully documented results by engaging groups in a process of analysis and action. He also recognized the role of authority in systems, realizing in his research on boys groups that his own cadre of group leaders were more often than not ill equipped to lead in a consultative manner…they knew how to lead autocratically and passively, but when instructed to be in charge yet engage the group many of his leaders accidentally became passive.
While incorporating many other sources (most notably John Wallen, Daryl Conner, Daniel Goleman, and family systems theorists Murray Bowen and Edwin Friedman) my father (Robert P Crosby) and now my brother and I (and a small band of colleagues) continue a strongly Lewinian practice, including measuring results through various means (especially through the metrics of the customer). At the core is the engagement of groups, both large and small, in action research, and attention to authority relationships in systems. Both are accelerated through the use of T-groups to increase both EQ and systems thinking. Structure in this way of thinking, is not the problem. There is ambiguity in any structure. As my father puts it (based on ancient sources, of unknown origin), “there is no freedom without structure.” The challenge is for the members of any structure to create as much clarity as possible, including who decides what (and by-when), so that as much energy as possible can be directed towards achieving the organization’s goals. This requires EQ spread throughout the system, so that people take responsibility for co-creating what is not working, and for doing their own mini-action research to continuously improve.
That’s my 2 cents for now. I say “A future of OD” because I’m confident that OD will continue to have many paths. Some of those paths, alas, will be slick marketing without lasting substance, while some will continue to be a catalyst for high performance and lasting change.