The OD Network conference in Seattle, Washington this week is using the phrase ‘flocking to Seattle’ as a catchphrase for the large group of OD people and others that will come together to learn and converse together about various and diverse topics that concern the world of organization development.
I don’t know the actual reason why this phrase is being used but I do know what it stimulated me to think about. Flocking is one of the concepts that is used quite often when discussing some of the findings of complexity science and specifically the idea of self-organization through simple rules. There are numerous writings on the idea of simple rules and many people have taken the idea and suggested the phenomena of flocking found in birds and what seems to be the simple rules that govern it can be transferred directly into how we run organizations.
I think this is very problematic and yet very common, and also illustrates some of what I hope to converse about with people in Seattle.
Flocking can be replicated in a computer simulation by programming each unit with typically 3 ‘rules’. When these rules are then activated, the units then display a form of self-organization in the absence of any pre determined plan and flock in a way very similar to what we observe in birds. The assumption is then made that if we can find similar ‘simple rules’ in our organizations that we should be able to increase alignment to various goals, get everyone moving in the same direction in a coordinated way and generally improve performance because of this.
This is a common problem that occurs in the OD world with the findings from complexity science. A direct transfer is made from findings in the natural or computer world to the world of human interaction in organizations. The reason this is a problem is that human interaction is not the same as interaction in the natural or computer world. Direct transfers of these types of concepts generally are unhelpful and ineffective. In addition it can cast the findings of complexity science onto the growing heap of discarded ‘tools’ to better understand organizations. Another fad or flavor of the month.
The point of this post is not to review the points made earlier but to articulate the hope that we as practitioners of OD can really challenge our thinking over the course of this conference. Like most conferences such as this there will be keynote speakers and presentations (even my colleague and I will be doing one) and I think too often we treat these sessions as illustrations of best practices to be taken back and implemented in our own organizations. Kind of like the simple rules thing. I’m hoping we can more often take the sessions we will attend as starting points to better understand the thinking behind what people are saying and then better understand and question our own thinking.
If OD is to be a field that contributes to making things better in organizations, however you might define better, I think we really must challenge our own thinking, since I’m not so sure we’re thinking much differently than the people we are trying to help.
I’m hoping to have those kinds of interactions while I’m in Seattle, and those types of interactions certainly will self organize themselves but are definitely not governed by simple rules.