Adding Value by Getting Out of the Way

Tom GibbonsLearning, Organization Development, Presence3 Comments

As OD professionals we typically are asked to work with individuals and groups to improve performance.  It is assumed we have and can impart some type of expertise that will be one of the causal factors of this improved performance.  In doing this we would be adding value and in our proof driven organizations this means we need to find a way of proving that we did, in fact add value. 

What if the best way we could add value was to get out of people’s way and let them interact and see what might happen?

Last week I was involved in a session with a client group.  They were using one of our assessments to help them improve performance.  In sessions such as these I am typically positioned as the ‘expert’ in understanding and interpreting the data that comes from these assessments and the client typically expects this expertise to be demonstrated throughout the session.

Over the years however I have come to learn that it is best for me to get the data to the group as quickly as possible and then get out of the way and let them interact with and about that data. Together we will see what emerges.  There is often so little time in our organizational lives to actually interact with each other in a reflective and proactive way. I find people simply like to be in conversation with each other about things other than the pressing, immediate needs of the business.

Of course I have a role in putting some structure to the interactions people are having but sometimes I wonder if the group would still have a ‘great session’ if I just tossed the assessments results into the room and left.

In the session last week the most uncomfortable thing I did all day was to interject into people’s conversations so we could make sure we got through all the material.  People were leaning into each other, sometimes huddling as small groups, sometimes laughing, sometimes very serious and each time I said ‘time’s up’ someone would look up and say, ‘can’t we have 5 more minutes?’.  At the end of the day they seemed quite tired, quite happy and very engaged with each other.

Is this going to produce better performance?  Was I adding value by getting out of the way for most of the day?  I would certainly say yes but I’m also just as certain I can’t prove that.  At least in the way organizations tend to understand proof.

I take more of a constructionist perspective on how organizations operate and for this reason I think better performance will occur and that I was adding value.  I see organizations as the patterns of interactions between people and if people are having what they would define as meaningful and effective interactions there is a greater probability that the organization will perform better.  And I can add value if it is helpful to get out of the way of those meaningful and effective interactions.

Most organizations understand proof as being able to measure a causal link from one point to another.  The underlying assumption of this is that there is a planned action to produce these causal links.  This perspective sees organizations as the result of planned activity, rather than constructed through interaction, and this planning is most often seen as being done by people of some expertise, such as senior management or external consultants.

In the context of proof driven organizations, perceived to be created by logical plans there is tremendous pressure to be an expert and in the OD world this so often means getting IN the way.  Getting in the way with our models, theories, tools and techniques and often pontificating our opinions, thoughts and ideas.

From this perspective it is not easy to be seen as adding value by getting out of the way.

Of course you should not be getting out of the way all the time, but I find now that my perceived expertise, and my desire to express it can get in the way a whole lot more than I ever imagined.

In my session last week I imagine that I could have positioned myself as ‘expert’ and might have sounded really good.  I also imagine people wouldn’t have been saying ‘can’t we have 5 more minutes?’  And for me that question last week was enough proof that I was adding value.

Author – Tom

3 Comments on “Adding Value by Getting Out of the Way”

  1. Tom! I really like these comments. I have found that the more confidence I have, the less tools I need…if I make it about them, and not about me being perceived as a great consultant, they get what they need. Wish I would have found that out a long time ago…If you create the environment, and trust adult learners can process what they need to learn, you can get out of the way – instead us having to tell them what they just learned.

  2. We received this comment via email from Dr. Sheila Sheinberg and with her permission post it here. There are some good resources included that you may find of value.

    Dear Tom,

    I loved your article about “getting Out of the Way.”

    I thoroughly agree that creating a structure, and then letting the interactions occur within that structure, is the best way to develop an organization and the people within it.

    Unfortunately all of the Cartesian/Newtonian frameworks that organizations work in, make it difficult for the individual, consultant or manager to create the environment, and then step away and allow the interactions to occur. We want to “manage” everything, we want to control through our planning and execution processes, and we want to measure god knows what – usually an output.

    There is an increasingly important area of research, which gives credibility and support to your position. Unfortunately, we tend to put it on the back burner, because again – we have the Cartesian/Newtonian mind-sets in organizations.

    This area of research looks at organizations as an on-going social construct, always in the state of becoming, and becoming because of the interactions that occur between the people in the organization. You know it seem so obvious to me, take the people out of the organization, and you have nothing. Put the people in the organization, and watch their interaction, and you will then begin to understand what you have.

    You can shape this interaction, and you can shape the outcome, but you cannot determine it. In our deterministic society, and in our deterministic organizations, the constructs about sense making in organizations, and interactions as the creator of outcomes, is shoved to the side as irrelevant.

    Some areas of research that you might explore, that would validate your statements are:

    · Hermes, T., & Maitlis, S. (Ed.) (2010). Process, Sense Making, and Organizing. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.

    · Hermes, T. (2008). Understanding Organizations as Process: Theory for a Tangled World. New York, New York: Rutledge.

    · Stacy, R. D. (2010). Complexity and Organizational Reality: Uncertainty and the Need to Rethink Management After the Collapse of Investment Capitalism (2nd Ed). New York, New York: Rutledge.

    · Taylor, J. R. & Van Every, E. J. (2008). The Emergent Organization: Conversations as Its Site and Surface. New York, New York: Psychology Press.

    If you find any of this interesting and entertaining, and supportive of your world view, and it actually enlarges your world view, let me know Tom.

    Wishing you all the best.



  3. Far too often the role we find ourselves in is one of teacher. That means for many people: teach me. (Short form: imbibe me with what you know by doing something: talk, flip powerpoints, lecture…) This expectation is programmed by the archaic vestiges of academic tradition. It is not how we learn, but how we are expected to behave when the ‘expert’ shows up. Increasingly I try to say what is important to create an experience that might not be possible without saying it. And to give guidance for experience, action and reflection. Does this add value? Sometimes it’s immediately apparent, but usually I suspect (and hope) the real value happens long after the event. Leaving me in a feedback vacuum I am quite comfortable with.

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