The Future of OD

First published on the NHS Do OD blog.

I have just returned from the US after attending two conferences – the first was the inaugural HSD (Human System Dynamics) conference and the second was the fiftieth anniversary of the Organisation Development Network Conference.  Both events, in different ways, devoted time to talk about the future – the NEXT WHAT of OD and HSD.   

The Reality of the World of Work

In 1978, French and Bell talked about the future of OD in their first definitive book on OD:

'Enormous opportunity and potential exist for the OD movement in the future. Organizations throughout the world need the unique help that can be provided by highly trained interventionists using people-orientated action research approaches.  The future of OD is bright… 

What is OD all about? OD is about people helping each other to unleash the human spirit and human capability in the workplace’                         
French and Bell, 1978:333

This statement still stands true because - surprisingly the current reality of organisation and the manifestation of the various challenges remain similar – inspite of the increase of speed, pace and complexity of changes in the environment.

  • Society continues to struggle to achieve the right balance between economics, technology, political, ecological systems, etc. and their impact on people, community, and world health situations.
  • People continue to need to work both as an economic necessity and as a legitimate channel for the utilisation of their gifts and talents, even though the nature of work has changed.
  • Inherently unequal structures within organisations prevent the setting up of the right conditions to unleash the human spirit to do their best work, despite good intentions of some leaders.
  • Leadership continues to hold a critical position to shape an organisation’s direction, culture and climate, maintain its boundary, shape its productive capability, and survive public demand and scrutiny all within a volatile, chaotic, complex environment.
  • We have still not got developing leadership 'right' – and many leaders are still being promoted without the necessary skill to build both an 'effective' and 'healthy' organisation.
  • Organisational health does not and will not happen by chance; it can only be achieved through intentional effort from leaders with the help of applied behavioural scientists.

Those of us working to support organisations have to reckon with the above realities in our everyday work, which often dominate how we FEEL about our work and can make us myopic about the longer-term future of the field of OD.

The Future of OD – Our Impact on the World of Work

So 'NEXT WHAT' for OD?  

There are many ways to respond to this question, but I want to answer from an 'intrapersonal' concept - the concept of calling.  By 'calling' I mean the sense of 'substantive' deep knowing what we personally are meant to do base on our yearning to align our values, gifts, approaches, andour desire for impact. We know instinctively what would it feel like if we are in possession ofmeaning, purpose and a deep sense of fulfillment.  We pursue that sense of calling until we finally KNOW that we have arrived in that right place.   It is that calling that continue to fuel our willingness to 'sweat' through challenging situation in order to attain magical results.  

You may ask why 'calling' is important to the future of OD?   

  1. It is in this context of 'calling' that I believe will put us in the best position to do our dreaming about the future of OD – especially around the questions of what sort of legacy we want to leave to the world.  
  2. The future of OD needs highly trained, high quality and hard-working interventionists who do not choose OD as a job, but a profession that will help them to express and add value at work.
  3. The future of our field depends on practitioners who are sure about what we are here to do and how we strive hard to become the 'must-have' not just 'nice-to-have' helpers to our organisations.  
  4. When the work gets tough, the resilience fueled by our calling will keep our feet on the ground.  
  5. Finally, as Weisbord stated, it is our passion, our clarity of what we can offer to our clients, and our presence (to provide something that is missing from the system), that will inspire confidence in those whom we serve.

Summing up – you have the power to shape the future of OD and your place of work

Some of you may currently feel stuck in the mundane world of work and are affected by being witnesses to the dark side of organisation or feel discouraged as it has been hard to see the fruit of your labour.   May be this is THE TIME for you to step out and indulge in some dreaming: what type of future can you dream of creating for your organisation, the glorious NHS, the colleagues’ and patients’ community and UK society?   Never underestimate the power of dreaming.  

The following three quotes show those of us who are simply feeling the toil of working in the human system how to be futurewise.

  • "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams." Eleanor Roosevelt
  • "I do not want to foresee the future.  I am concerned with taking care of the present.  God has given me no control over the moment following." Gandhi
  • "The future never comes – today is the future you imagined yesterday.  It is slipping into the past by the second." Marvin Weisbord

I have been rebuked by Weisbord’s quote – I believe that the future never comes; it is already here because the future is so much in the hands of us NOW.  What we do today, no matter how small, will impact the future.  

What can we dream about?

May I share with you what I continue to dream about the future of OD hopefully to get you going on your own dreaming?

I dream that when a collectively group of OD practitioners who operates from a deep sense of 'calling', we can……

  • Build effectiveness in the organisation systems so that staff and those whom it serves will benefit from the organisation.
  • Restore dignity, meaning, humanity to the work place - as Weisbord exhorted us.
  • Equip leaders to deal with the inherent structure and practices in organisations, and be courageous to change them to motivate their most precious asset – the human asset.
  • Support organisations to build a set of 'conditions of success' - culture so that the human spirit will be magnified at work.
  • Help organisations to operate in an interdependent way – so that collaboration and high quality of interchange will become the norm of all organisation culture. And the integrated services will benefit all those who use the health care system.
  • Help fulfill one of David Cooperrider's famous quotes, 'The best path to the good society, we believe, is the construction of great organisations that nurture and magnify the best in human beings'.

This is an awesome list. It is like the North Star, forever pursued but never attained – but it inspires me.  It is important that you should personalise the list that will inspire you to get up in the morning and skip to work.    

I know when most of us no longer ask, "What will the future of OD be and how can I adapt my practice to stay relevant?" but ask, "What can I, you, we do more today to secure the future we desire and the future that will make OD even more impactful?” – the OD community will  make a big difference in the world of work and at the community level. 

Colleagues – you are working for the crown jewel of British Institutions, the National Health Service, and the future of OD is indeed in your hands – so what do you want to make happen? What legacy do you want to leave? I encourage you to start to make what you desire happen, and do not leave the future of NHS in someone else’s hands.  

I was old enough to be part of Martin Luther King’s movement in the US.   His challenge of 'ONE DAY, together we will SEE...' have kept millions of us fighting for racial justice.   May I encourage us together to dream 'ONE DAY in the NHS we will SEE…(fill in your dream)'.   Have coffee with colleagues, dialogue about this, raise it in your networks, start taking baby steps to disrupt old patterns, and raise the level of collaboration between small teams. In the DO OD forum raise the question and see whether together you can create a future of OD that can truly impact on teams, organisations, communities in NHS. 

I wish you a meaningful time in creating the future of OD you want to see; after all, OD is the principal and most complete discipline that deals specifically with organisation health, effectiveness, change and transformation.   Our job is to dispose our help to develop, improve and change the organisation and the people within it to enable the organisation will be FIT FOR THE FUTURE.  

As Goethe said. 'Whatever you can do, or dream that you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.'