Definition of Organization Development

by | Jan 31, 2019 | Organization Development | 1 comment

Let’s clarify the definition of organization development (OD), the most powerful technology for managing change in human systems. It is unclear to too many people and organizations who could need it. Not too long ago, I was having dinner with a client during a project that was going well. At some point my client looked up at me and said, “I’m glad you’re not one of those OD people.” After recovering from my surprise, we had an excellent discussion about what OD is and isn’t. Below, I summarize how I helped this client understand OD.

Most of the definitions of organization development I’ve read in texts are too abstract to be of much use with folks who do not have an OD education, not to mention bottom line, task-oriented organization managers and leaders. summarizes a few of those definitions at Too often they think of OD as “touchy-feely.” Or they think it’s the latest jargon for team building, retreat facilitation, or training—all of which are a part of OD, none of which are OD. So here is my definition based on what has worked in my experience with 100+ clients and too many students to count.

Our Definition Organization Development

The technology of using collaboration and consensus-building with leaders and their teams to…

  • Create systemic change and root-cause problem solving on behalf of…
  • Improving productivity and employee engagement through…
  • Strengthening the human systems and processes through which the work of the organization is done.

This definition offers the essence of (1) what we do, (2) the results we are after, and (3) how we do it. Exploring these three items will help us understand and explain several critical aspects of what we do and don’t do as OD practitioners.

What organization development practitioners do

We support “leaders and their groups.” The operational word here is “support.” Many of our potential clients come to us with the notion that we will fix whatever their issues for them. We are experts who understand how to create and facilitate human processes that will support leaders and their groups in identifying and solving their own problems. Our clients must lead their own projects in collaboration with us as process designers and facilitators.

Maintaining these roles is important. Beware the practitioners who want to fix client problems for them. Beware those who see themselves and their expertise as subordinate to their clients from fears they will get kicked out if they don’t. We are experts in the realm of organizational and human processes. Clients are the experts of the business of their organizations. Working together as collaborative partners develops the synergy that powers organization development. This definition of organization development supports clients to remain masters of their fate rather than having to rely of external expertise.

The results we are after

We are after “systemic change on behalf of root-cause problem-solving toward improving productivity and employee engagement.” This is the most powerful aspect of our work. Systemic change gets at the root cause of organizational problems that are in the way of full productivity and high performance. Human systems are not like machines. When machines malfunction, the process of choice is to locate the malfunctioning component(s), then fix or replace them. In human systems, such fault-finding processes promulgate more problems, not solutions. In human systems, a “malfunctioning component” can consistently exist only with the support of the rest of the system.

When a client suggests a single-point solution (such as, please train my supervisors), I respond with something like… “I see what you’re after. It would be a good idea to find out what’s going on that has so many of your supervisors demonstrating poor management skills. Things like poor hiring practices and poor accountability management are often behind such problems. If we can get at the root causes, the problem will go away forever. What do you think?” I’ve never had a client turn down such an approach.

The results of systemic solutions are long lasting. They promote organizational well-being including improved productivity, bottom lines, and employee engagement. Such results are memorable. Clients call me back for other projects and pass my name on to others because of the quality of the results we achieve together.

How organization development practitioners do it

We do it by “strengthening the human systems and processes through which the work of the organization is done.” Any task gets done through some process, and the quality of the result is closely related to the quality of the process. Organization development is very much a task-oriented field. The practice of organization development enhances accomplishment of the business goals of organizations. That is the only reason for its existence. How we enhance those business goals is through improving how the people tasked with accomplishing those goals collectively go about their business as they interact and support each other.

Our definition of organization development insists that practitioners learn the business part of the organization they will work with. I may start out not knowing much at all. By being profoundly curious about it, I can learn the particular pressures and stresses, the margins it needs, and priorities it must sustain for success. In fact, my ignorance is my most important tool. As I ask my clients to explain to me their business—what works and what doesn’t, we discover the holes in their thinking to fill them in. As we bring teams together to share information and ideas, our facilitation synergizes their collective intelligence into root-cause solutions. Over-simplified, yes, but still an accurate description of how OD works.

Organization development differs from consulting processes that study client problems, then present recommendations in a report likely to gather dust in some drawer. People will implement the solutions they have invented and in which they believe. Those are the solutions that we help our clients invent!

Our definition of organization development hopefully will clarify the many misconceptions of OD that are out there. After all, when properly understood, OD is the most powerful technology for managing change in human systems.

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