Organisational Development (OD) aims at healthy organisational change through harnessing a common value base and collaborative inquiry. In reality, however, organisational life, and change, turns out to be a lot messier and a lot more unpredictable.

A traditional model would see the process of OD like this: an OD consultant meets and gains entry to the client system. A period of relationship building and contracting ensues, whereupon the consultant dispassionately collects data about how the system currently works. Next comes hypothesis construction about what the problems actually are, how they came into being, and how they can be solved. Finally, there’s an implementation intervention, whereupon the consultant exits, leaving the organisation more efficient and better aligned.

It sometimes works like this, but often it doesn’t. Take the classic experiments at the Hawthorne Electric Works between 1924 and 1932. Aimed at determining whether different levels of lighting affected worker productivity, they ended up showing that the real key was the interest shown in them by the researchers. So much for dispassionate data collection in human systems: we influence one another, often in unpredictable ways, whether we’re observer or observed.

Apparently, tiny interventions can result in unpredictably big effects. For example, I once quietly reflected to a group I was consulting to that they were re-entering their conventional state of conflict and deadlock; almost immediately, a new spirit of collaboration and support emerged between them, changing the atmosphere radically – something I didn’t foresee when I made my remark.

Organisations are complex; they involve people constructing perceptions of one another, agreeing to or adopting rules, and then tacitly agreeing on which rules are to be taken seriously and which can be safely ignored – constructions, agreements and practises that can’t easily be empirically captured and systematised. If we’re to expect anything, it’s the unexpected.

In Part Two, I’ll say a little about Complexity Theory and its relevance to OD.

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