Reflections on the OD Network Conference – Seattle 2009

Tom GibbonsLearning, Organization Development6 Comments

Two weeks ago my colleague and I attended and presented at the OD Network conference.  It was an interesting time with lots of conversation, chances to meet new and interesting people and then to reflect on the experience and see what emerged.

Perhaps the first thing that stands out for me was that the people who I met there and conversed with were really good people.  Everyone seemed to be very sincere in their efforts to make a positive difference in the work they did and were at the conference to learn new things and meet new people that would help them in their work.  It is nice to be with a group of people where you sense that sincerity alongside high levels of competence.

The second thing that emerged for me was that the primary and often unquestioned method by which OD practitioners look to help their clients was to assist them go ‘inside and deeper’.  By this I mean to look inside oneself or one’s organization and try and go deeper inside until some core truth or meaning is found and then by bringing forth that deeper truth into the world, improvement could be made.  This might be referred to as true vision, who you really are, deeper meaning, core self, or some other manifestation that resides within us to be found if we go deep enough.

This models the psychotherapeutic method and while this method can add value it struck me as the conference moved on how dominant this viewpoint and approach was and how little it was questioned let alone the investigation of alternative methods.  In fact I would surmise that a large percentage of the attendees at the conference have never considered or been exposed to other methods of making sense of the work world.  They have certainly seen a variety of ways of approaching the ‘inner and deeper’ approach (many illustrated at the conference) but not often exposed to a fundamentally different perspective.

As an example I was with a group of about 15 where the word psychotherapeutic was used and everyone nodded in agreement of some understanding what was meant by that.  The word social construction was then used a little later and only one person knew what was meant by that, and they were an academic studying the subject.  Intrigued, I then experimented in the same way with two other groups with almost identical results.

Our presentation was on complex responsive processes; the work of Ralph Stacey and colleagues which has a solid grounding in social constructionist thinking, or basically the ‘outward and broader’ view of the world and people in it.  In contrast to psychotherapeutic thinking, social constructionism posits that we exist and develop in a world that is social and this social process is primary.  It is not exclusive of inner and deeper approaches but would say that even if discoveries were made by going inner and deeper those findings came into being by a social process and do not gain meaning until played out in a social context.

I believe it is time for the OD world to be much more inclusive of social approaches to development and change.  At a very practical level it matches what is actually happening in the world of our clients.  They interact in a social process continually and if we engage that process we can work within it, not outside of it which is what the psychotherapeutic process requires.  Too often the OD world asks, even demands that the work world slow down and go inner and deeper.  Perhaps it is time to match the pace of the world and go outward and broader.

I have no doubt that the people I met at the conference have the capacity to do this.  They were smart, awesome people.  The theme for the conference was Now is Our Time.  I would agree.  Now is our time to move outward from the constraints of the psychotherapeutic model and seriously look to additional ways of adding value.

Author – Tom

6 Comments on “Reflections on the OD Network Conference – Seattle 2009”

  1. Great observation and I totally agree with your assertion that meaning making is primary a social process. Nice to know that there are more social constructionists “in the room”.

    Makes me wonder about the social context of OD, specifically American OD. How does the culture context we are in, which values individualism and capitalism, shape the ways of knowing in our field and the ways of practicing?


  2. Excellent points. OD has had a troubling tendency to value technique over context, with the unfortunate result of losing trust within client systems. Psychotherapeutic approaches in particular are troubling because clients don’t necessarily want or need them–it isn’t always necessary to go deep in the helping relationship–and because OD practitioners without the proper training and accreditation in intrapsychic counseling are unqualified to practice it. Despite using the term “organization development”, I have noticed that a great many OD practitioners work almost exclusively at the individual, interpersonal, and group levels. The organizational level and its context deserve serious contemplation and inclusion in OD engagements.

  3. Thanks Tom for a great perspective.

    I also share your firm’s belief that the social system is critical and is where both positive change and barriers to change must be discovered and addressed. I see this as clearly linked to the Lewinian concept of Field Theory and a Gestalt approach vs. a more Freudian psychotherapeutic method.

    It is an old adage in OD and CM that “culture eats change for lunch”, yet rather than address the social system directly, much of OD is focused on 1:1 (“coaching”) or small team interaction, in part b/c this is seen as a more manageable and measurable area. But, to use another old OD metaphor, we may be looking under the lamp post just b/c the light is better, rather than searching in the dark where the real solution might be.

    Sorry I missed your session at ODN and thanks for making your materials available on-line.


  4. Applause. I appreciate this perspective and the comments. I could not agree more that both, the social constructionist perspective is useful and that organizations, even regions or communities, need to have a contextual approach to change. Indeed, such systemic thinking might bring our clients into intentional relationship with the economies in which they are rooted leading to more practical approaches to sustainability, performance and less myopic goals.

    Sorry, that I did not meet you in Seattle.

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