The Why, What, & How of Organization Development

by | Sep 5, 2017 | Organization Development | 1 comment

Once again, at a major organization development conference, I heard OD practitioners bemoan how hard it is to tell potential clients (and family and friends) what they do and how they do it. As usual, I refer them to a definition of organization development I published several months ago. Today, I decided that it was time to totally restructure that definition.

Much of my thinking about this restructuring stems from the work of Bob Marshak and Gervase Bushe and their work on “dialogic OD.” They propose that OD needs a new “generative image” that shifts away from the problem-solving, change-orientation of the past which rarely addressed “change” to what. Hence, they propose “creating great teams and organizations” as a more useful and powerful image. I am following in the footsteps of Bob, an old friend, and Gervase, a new friend. Starting with our purpose (why); then, our goal (what), and concluding with how; here we go!

Organization Development Definition:

Creating highly productive, engaging, and sustainable teams and organizations through…

Strengthening the human systems that determine the effectiveness of all other organizational systems by…

Using the collaborative and consensual processes of applied behavioral science with leaders and their groups.

WHY: Creating Highly Productive, Engaging, and Sustainable Teams and Organizations

My old definition focused on the root-cause problem-solving perspective of OD, while still important, focuses on what we wish to leave behind rather than where we want to go. As often as not, my new clients start from “I hope you fix this awful situation and those awful employees” and the negative energy embodied there. In response, I ask, “if all those problems went away, what would you and your organization be able to accomplish?” As that conversation unfolds and a vision for their organization emerges, I watch my client’s energy pick up and blossom into excitement. We have switched the focus from the problem to where they want to go—their own generative image!

My job in these conversations is to stimulate a sense of possibility while getting a sense of the distance we must travel to get there. I do this through identifying and shifting dysfunctional belief systems, instilling root-cause systems thinking, emphasizing the development of support, and offering empowerment. By the time we are done, the energy of excitement is front and center. So much more appealing and productive than the energy stimulated by the goal of pain relief alone.

WHAT: Strengthening the Human Systems that Determine the Effectiveness of All Other Organizational Systems

This area makes organization development more potent than any other change management technology. All organizations have been developed, are run, and maintained by some set of human systems. As much as an organization may attend to their mechanic, electronic, and financial systems, they are all dependent upon the organization’s human systems.

And, like all systems, they are synergic in the sense that their behavior cannot be predicted by the sum of the intentions and desires of their individual members. Put a bunch of bright, knowledgeable, and friendly individuals together. There is a no initial way of knowing if their synergy will be negative as they waste and energy time kvetching, power struggling, or other non-productive behavior. Or, if their synergy will be positive as they gel into a high-performing team that invents the next great breakthrough. Without a focus and an understanding of human systems, creating effective teams will continue to be the mystery in many organizations. It is the rare organization that doesn’t focus its feedback and accountability structures on individuals rather than the more important human systems. They do this in spite of their emphasis on being team-based.

As human systems become more effective so will their individual members and the organization. Working with human systems is the special skill the organization development practitioners have to solve problems at the roots and create great teams and organizations.

HOW: Using the Collaborative and Consensual Processes of Applied Behavioral Science with Leaders and Their Groups

OD practitioners accomplish these goals in two fundamental ways:

  1. We coach organizational leaders to increase their ability to see their human systems, understand their impact on them, and to manage their behavior to optimize that impact.
  2. We facilitate organizational leaders and their teams to collaboration and consensus to create alignment and establish the effective use of differences to accomplish team and organizational goals.

Those are two sets of skills effective practitioners must have. Describing those skills, however, is well beyond the scope of this article. For more about those, check out the Dragon Principles Intensive at It will help you both understand and build immediately useful skill in…

  • The eight Dragon Principles that represent the most powerful technology for managing change in human systems from yourself to groups to organizations to communities. I describe these principles briefly in my article “It Takes a Dragon” at
  • The six Core Interventions will help you navigate even the most difficult projects. I will describe them in my next article in a couple of weeks.

To enhance your skills with creating great teams and organizations check out the Dragon Principles Intensive. It is a workshop of twelve full days spread over ten months. It offers immediately useful skill with the eight Dragon Principles and the six Core Interventions. We start in San Francisco on October 12 and 13 and in the Washington D.C. area on October 19 and 20! Go to for details and to apply. We keep groups small, so put in your application now! Build your skills and change your life!

Michael F. Broom, Ph.D., CEO, Center for Human Systems


Michael is an organizational psychologist with 40 years of experience with all kinds of people and organizations. He is the author of The Infinite Organization, and Power, The Infinite Game (with Donald Klein), and the upcoming The Dragon Principles. Formerly of Johns Hopkins University, he founded the Center for Human Systems and is a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree of the OD Network.

Contact Dr. Broom for coaching and consulting for your organization!

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