Putting Your Skin in the Game: The OD Practitioner as Organizer

The following is an excellent description of Crosby & Associates’ approach to Organization Development (OD), written by our founder and reprinted from the OD Practitioner, Vol 27, #2&3, 1995.  It is also a solid guide for sponsors and agents of change:

Some 20 years ago I attended a conference of OD practitioners where our value orientation was measured. About 85% of the attendees scored as “sociocentrics,” that is, as people whose values were organized by process rather than ends values. These participants favored consensual governance as the primary decision-making style. The leaders of the conference chose a directive style compatible with only 5% of the participants, purposely to stimulate the contrast.

I scored with the 5%. Of course I enjoyed the conference since it was conducted in a style compatible with my own. I was intrigued that many sociocentric participants struggled and indeed got quite angry at these “dictatorial” leaders. The sociocentric is likely to lead with the question “who decided,” while the ends-oriented attendee would lead with “what was decided.” Means vs. ends …an old tension. Of course this is not an either/or issue but finding the balance is critical.

The following is a case for the directive side of OD work which I think is under-represented in practice and literature. The OD profession seems to attract people who prefer process behaviors such as data gathering, process observation, or team-building on call rather than as part of a strategic plan. More directive behaviors such as advocacy, strategizing, or active facilitation of problem-solving processes have not been as widespread.

There are many excellent reasons as to why OD has been influenced by sociocentric values. The early 20th century world into which our profession was born was dominated by authoritarian business structures. The industrial scene at the beginning of the 20th century had many characteristics of a serf culture. Our institutions needed a strong sociocentric emphasis. Labor unions advocated for the down-trodden. New under- standings of group dynamics and democratic management processes were a welcome relief. However, such processes still remain functionally unknown to most managers despite abundant popular articles and research supporting democracy in the workplace. So, sociocentric values continually need to be affirmed if there is to be productivity, quality, safety, and high morale. However, the beginning OD practitioner, often
“driven” to an extreme sociocentric stance does so at the expense of the directive, strategic methodologies that are equally important.

About 10 years ago, Ron Short (1985) suggested a paradigm shift for the practice of OD. He contrasted nine categories. I mention only two here:

Our Current Organizing Myth

Change is brought about by the collaborative communications between skilled, well-informed people. The consultant is, therefore, an educator, data collector, feedback mechanism, and facilitator of process.

A Paradigm Shift

Change is a non-rational process. Change is brought about by transformation of the context, not by incremental events. The consultant is an active agent of change; directive, charged with changing structure, and therefore, doesn’t have as a primary concern how well people are communicating.

The implications of this can significantly alter a consultant’s practice. I am grateful to Ron for this leap. It was, indeed, a paradigm shift for me as well as a model for the more directive side of OD. For me, the word organizer has helped make further sense of his paradigm.

What is the Role of the OD Practitioner? The lead questions of the OD practitioner must, of necessity, be “what are your needs?” and “what do you want?” But they must also be ready to suggest, advocate, educate, apply standards, and be forthright with opinions about what works and what does not work in strategic methodologies.

The non-directive tilt of most practitioners has contributed to a perception of OD as, primarily reactive, e.g., helping this or that group with people problems. OD is, therefore, often identified with Human Resources or Personnel, which are driven by personnel policies and procedures, and are intended as policy and people support functions. However, in the new paradigm, “organizer” model, OD is driven by the organization’s mission, values, and business objectives and supports strategies to achieve these. Given this focus, the OD function is better located with the business unit than with Human Resources. Even better is for OD to be its own function reporting to the CEO.

With such an organizational location the OD practitioner is well positioned to be an “organizer,” a term borrowed from community action. “Put your skin in the game” is the motto. This means that the organizer will take risks and will be held accountable, like everyone else, for achieving the business objectives of the client. There are big stakes in organizations. The stance of the organizer is that s/he is a player in an important game. However, the organizer analogy breaks down ifs/he is seen as partial to any one group; i.e., union, hourly, mid- or top management. This organizer helps the whole organization achieve its goals.

To function effectively within an organization an organizer must be aligned with the sponsor. To reach that alignment they will:

• Seek clarity about the organization’s direction- mission, values, and business objectives.

• Help build strategies to achieve the business objectives.

• Help create alignment with those strategies.

• Encourage the development of financial and non-financial indicators.

• Include in the strategy, the sharing of appropriate information (e.g., monthly status of indicators) with all employees.

• Consult within the context of these strategies, business objectives, and indicators while continually supporting the re-examination of all of these in order to keep current with changing circumstances.

• Challenge nonalignment; aid and abet the communication of emerging problems.

• Encourage problem-solving with the appropriate employees when indicators are lower than intended, and celebrations when they are on target.

• Coach the boss about how to be the type of sponsor who gives solid backing through supportive words, resource allocation, prioritized tasks, monitored activities, clear directives to the subjects of change, and consequence management.

• Stay clear that the OD practitioner does not have line authority, but rather is an agent of change.

Again, all of the above is done in concert with the sponsoring boss with whom there is continuous dialogue. The organizer never loses sight of the need for balance between the immediate organization’s daily tasks that must be achieved, and the long-term building of a more effective organization to achieve the values and business objectives. This includes identifying and training a cadre of employees and managers for roles as change agents.

Additionally, the organizer works with all segments of the organization. This work is done in the halls, lunch rooms, and meetings of the organization. The organizer educates the sponsor to authorize the practitioner and all attendees to proactively create success in all organizational endeavors. In essence, don’t just sit there; create the outcome! A sponsor with whom I worked made it clear to me and to his other employees that if a meeting wasn’t working, he expected all of us to stand up and say,”Timeout,” if we must, and then help the group get on track. The new paradigm practitioner will act during the meeting to help it succeed.

Also, when the practitioner shares the values and business directions, then s/he will not let observations of poor mid-management sponsorship or shoddy quality go unnoticed. While an organizer will first encourage and coach others to report and/or problem solve any practice that does not support the values and business objectives, s/he is not willing to walk away and have nothing happen. The organizer will not let the sponsor/boss be blindsided by information important to the success of the operation, known to the practitioner, which others are choosing to hide. This ethic may be at odds with a process paradigm ethic.

This organizer will never be satisfied working with this or that group without reference to a larger strategy. S/he works continually for organizational alignment and takes risks to get painful information shared. S/he actively dialogues in order to achieve maximum alignment with the sponsor. When that happens, power is unleashed.

This activity includes the offering of both solicited and unsolicited opinions about methodologies. Presumably, the practitioner has expert knowledge about critical issues that make or break change projects. For instance, distinctions between influence and decision-making are fuzzy in most organizations. With true clarity that the boss (who has hired the practitioner) is the decision-maker, the two then can fully engage in dialogue with the practitioner freely offering opinions. The organizer is an agent of change with power derived from the degree to which s/he is aligned with the key line manager. This alignment is only effectively achieved through dialogue. If a practitioner does not believe in the decisions being made, about goals, values, and implementation strategies, then s/he should make this clear and get out of the way. If one believes in the direction, then the organizer will be ready to put her/his “skin inthe game,” functioning in the organization as a community organizer may in a community. This demands clarity in several ways:

1. Never play “boss.”

When confronted with undo resistance, the standard line is, “there must be some mistake. This is not my’program,’ even though I certainly support it. Perhaps you need (further?) conversations with your boss about her/his intentions and the role I’m to play with you.”

2. Hear resistance, disbelief, cynicism in an empathic way…

and sharply distinguish it from one’s own experience! For instance, if workers mistrust the sponsoring boss whom the practitioner trusts, s/he is able to say, “I understand that your trust in the boss is very low,and I have had a different experience. If Ididn’t trust (the boss), I wouldn’t be here. I value your experience and I also value mine. You may see me as naïve and say that I have not known this boss as long as you have, but I have to both trust my experience and pay a lot of attention to yours. However, I am not here to quarrel about our different experiences of the boss. I am here to help you and the boss reach specific agreements with each other towards a more productive work relationship.”
3. Provide eyes and ears to the boss.

S/he must develop strategies that help others give opinions, feelings, and facts directly to the boss. But when something is being withheld that affects the success of the change activity, that is, when others will not come forth with critical data, then the practitioner must bite the bullet and find effective ways to share that with the boss. The ethics for the organizer with “skin inthe game” is to make sure information is available and to trust the boss to use that withheld information wisely. If such trust, and subsequent confirmation of the trust, does not exist, then the consultant must confront this with the boss.

4. Constantly develop strategies with others and act to achieve the goals.

This may mean enabling employees, who are advocating change but have no line management support, to be heard. It may mean questioning the skills, knowledge, or willingness to change observed in lower level managers or employees, or confronting the sponsor. The differentiation here is to remember where the sponsorship and the actual implementation is and not get seduced into being a savior urging others on despite all odds when either sponsorship or implementation by employees is dragging.

All of the above is done in the context of continual dialogue with all levels of the organization. The organizer moves across the continuum of consultant behaviors doing “whatever it takes” to support alignment and to assist the organization to achieve its objectives. This alignment creates a delicate balancing act. S/he may be accused of being too close to the boss and partial. S/he may be accused of favoring the workers. S/he will walk that tightrope and, occasionally, fall off. That’s when s/he gets it, that her/his “skin is in the game.”


Short, R. (1985) Structural Family Therapy and Consultative Practice: A Paradigm Shift for Organizational Development. Consultation: An International Journal, Vol.4No2,pp.99-118.

This entire article was adopted from “Walking the Empowerment Tightrope,” 1992, HRDQ, by Robert P. Crosby. Click here to order: http://www.hrdqstore.com/walking-the-empowerment-tightrope.html

About crosbyod

Crosby & Associates OD is a catalyst for high performance & morale. Our methods are a unique blend grounded in research and decades of experience. In the spirit of Kurt Lewin, the founder of OD, as we partner with you in the present we transfer our methods to you so you are independent in the future. Learn more at www.crosbyod.com
This entry was posted in Change Management, Culture Change, Leadership, Organization Development, Robert P Crosby, Systems Thinking and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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