I recently wrote this to colleagues in a professional OD group:
Crosby Style OD develops individuals, groups, and organizations mostly through group processes that engage the people who are dealing with problems in generating and implementing their own solutions.
Kurt Lewin is the fundamental source of our practice. I wonder what Lewin would actually say if asked “what is OD?” As far as I know, he never used the term, rather thinking of himself as a social scientist. Yet much of what I do is derived from his work and thinking.
In Lewin’s paper, “Action Research and Minority Problems,” he wrote: “As I watched, during the workshop, the delegates from different towns all over Connecticut transform from a multitude of unrelated individuals, frequently opposed in their outlook and their interests, into cooperative teams not on the basis of sweetness but on the basis of readiness to face difficulties realistically, to apply honest fact-finding, and to work together to overcome them…”
Lewin did not do his own assessment and write recommendations to the state of Connecticut. That would be an expert model, and fundamentally violates the Lewian approach. Instead he facilitated a process in which the people facing the problem engaged with each other in assessing their situation, generating solutions, and implementing actions. My brother and I did the same with a tribal organization last week, and a colleague and I led T-group based learning the week before in an industrial setting. As you probably know, T-group method emerged during Lewin’s Connecticut race intervention, and is fundamentally rooted in each participant using the process to derive their own implication about themselves, their interpersonal interactions, and the group’s dynamics, and to conduct their own experiments.
Lewin was consistent in his methods and in his rigorous documentation of the same. For example, in the paper “Frontiers in Group Dynamics” (which is loaded with fascinating research), Lewin documents the “Percentage of Mothers Reporting an Increase in the Consumption of Fresh Milk” based on a study where one group of mother’s was exposed to “a good lecture about the value of greater consumption of fresh milk” whereas another group was involved in a group discussion leading to a decision to increase milk consumption. The percentage of mothers that increased their milk consumption based on the group discussions was much higher than the percentage who had sat through a traditional education passive learning lecture. Lewin replicated this type of outcome time and again.
I derive two key implications. People that come up with their own solutions, even if an expert would have suggested the same thing, are more likely to implement change successfully. They are also likely to customize the solutions to more effectively fit their situations and needs, hence there is better quality and implementation. This seems to me is a universal dynamic that is as pertinent today as it was during Lewin’s time.
The second implication is that group dynamics have a powerful influence on individual beliefs and behavior. One such dynamic is passive learning (traditional classroom lectures) versus active learning (T-groups and other group methods such as survey-feedback).
Our founder’s change formula incorporates the above:
Individual coaching (always in the context of group and organization development…I only coach people if I can see them in action with others).
Group Development (Goal Alignment dialogues and Survey-Feedback sessions where the people who have filled out the survey derive their own implications and implement their own solutions)
Conflict Management (Neutral third-party facilitation in which the participants derive their own solutions)
Whole System and Project Interventions (in which a cross-section derives implications and generates solutions)
Cadre Development (The transfer of OD skills to people from every layer and function in the organization so they can effectively facilitate group process and conflict resolution)
The above is almost foolproof. It has to be adapted to each situation of course, but the basic principle of helping people assess and address their own problems is so sound that I will keep doing it for the rest of my life. I will also continue to teach it to others, whether they are OD people or not.
Maybe I need to say something about authority…our OD is grounded in respect for the authority relationships in the system. How to follow and empower one’s formal superiors is vital, as is how to lead. Our action research approach always starts with and includes the formal leadership.
We have demonstrated this approach to authority for years. First my father was in charge. Then I was in charge for years and he was my subordinate. Then my younger brother also took the lead when he had the contracts. For the past decade my younger brother has led our Seattle events, and my father and I have been his subordinates. Our goal is to make the event work, which means helping the leader succeed, even when we don’t agree, and despite our family of origin issues lol. A culture that supports all roles is a healthy culture.
Respect for single-point decision-making at all layers (with as much delegated as close to the hands-on action as possible) versus flat systems and consensus decision-making is one way our founder diverged from the OD majority ages ago.
As for measurements…we have always used the clients own measures as well as survey ratings to measure effectiveness. It would be fun to have a control group like Lewin, but hard to imagine a customer buying in to that. They want results, not proof that OD works.
I suspect that many who practice and teach OD are swept up in what Edwin Friedman called “quick fix mentality” …a constant and anxious search for something new.
I think believing we must adapt OD to the digital age is at least partially this same anxiety. I’m not against change or technology. Certainly, my use of tech has evolved during my OD career…from payphones and typewriters to cellphones and laptops. I teach with webinars and participate in video meetings. I loved the way the Listening to the City events after 9/11 used technology to solicit citizen input through multi-voting. I would gladly use a similar system. None of that has any significant impact on the fundamentals of my OD however, nor do I expect it ever to.
I am also unaware of the oft lamented “demise of OD.” Certainly, none of the non-OD people that I interact with or provide services to have ever said anything to that effect. Nor have I abdicated my seat at “the table,” wherever this mysterious table may be.
Lewin’s Action Research methods will never be outdated imho. Action Research in my mind is the Lewinian approach mentioned in my definition (above) of “Crosby Style OD.” People solving their own problems and the effective use of group processes to help them do so. I think it should be the lynch pin of OD, but even if others don’t agree, I will gladly rely on it to my dying day.
And get measurable results.
And improve the quality of work and home life of many.
And get hired enough despite the ups and downs to make a decent living.
Happy Holidays everyone!