A CEO of a medium-sized hospital asked me to train his front-line patient-facing staff in how to be pleasant to patients. The head of IT department asked me to facilitate “an advance” for her and her staff. She pointedly told me that everything was working well; that she wanted “an advance” rather than “a retreat.” That’s just two examples of the clients who routinely ask me to implement the solutions they think will solve the problems they believe they have. I have been fortunate that my mentor, Donald Klein, drilled into my head not trust client diagnoses and prescriptions. Do your own systemic diagnosis, he told me.

I didn’t take his admonishment too seriously. A general manager of a TV asked me to facilitate what he called a routine annual retreat to reward his team for good work and to think about the coming years. “Nothing heavy,” he said. I took him at his work and was blindsided by the considerable mean-spirited sniping and their difficulty getting to consensus about the smallest issue. I never again trusted a client diagnosis.

More important, when I insist on doing my own diagnosis and contracting around those results, I found myself doing more systemic OD work and fewer stand-alone retreats and trainings! Through insisting on doing my own data-gathering (individual interviews), I can discover the systemic issues that are the root-cause of the client’s issues. With the hospital, I identified as a key issue the lack of accountability for building and maintaining a positive work environment that started at the very top of hospital. As we resolved those issues, behavior at the bottom quickly improved.

From my IT department interviews: everything was not hunky-dory but rife with frustration from the staff’s inability to solve problems because of the director’s intention driven by her assumption that everything was okay. As a result, we did a series of retreats to clear-up the back-log of problems followed by strategic planning.

In both cases, I did extensive coaching with the clients about their use of self before any group-work could was done.

Some OD practitioners fall into is the automatic tendency to please their clients by doing what they ask for. Significant Conscious Use of Self is the antidote here. In addition, I have had clients insist that no data-gathering was needed since they told me what the problem is and what they want done about it. Do not allow yourself to be intimidated. Instead, suggest there is always more going on than meets the eye. I also tell them I need to do your interviews to design something that will be effective. I’ve not had that fail.

Turning requests for retreat facilitation, training, and other interventions into real systemic intervention delivers a better result to clients and helps practitioners build a reputation for making a difference that drives more work.


Michael F. Broom, Ph.D.


About Michael F. Broom. I’m an organizational psychologist with 40 years of experience with all kinds of people and organizations. I’m the author of The Infinite Organization, and Power, The Infinite Game (with Donald Klein), and the upcoming The Dragon Principles. After 25 years at Johns Hopkins, I founded the Center for Human Systems. I am a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree of the OD Network.