The Why, What, & How of Organization Development

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:

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 chumans.com/intensive. 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 chumans.com/it-takes-dragons/
  • 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 chumans.com/intensive for details and to apply. We keep groups small, so put in your application now! Build your skills and change your life!

Also, Jumpvine, Inc, workforce optimization company is sponsoring a workshop on “Creating Positive Change in Organizations” that I will lead on September 15 in the Atlanta area. For more and to sign-up go to jumpvine.net/broom.

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!

Center for Human Systems
chumans.com ~ michael@chumans.com


It Takes Dragons

People ask me why I use a rather fierce looking dragon as my Center for Human Systems’ logo.

Dragons are known throughout the world in all climates, cultures, and eras. There are dragons with horns, claws, breath of fire, great size (some small), wondrous wings (some wing-less), and marvelous colors. These serpentine creatures forever populate our myths, legends, novels, and movies. Dragons are strong, fierce, powerful, and persuasive. They are creatures of magic, power, and beyond-normal insights. In Western cultures the magic and power of dragons is destructive; they are to be eliminated. In other cultures, dragons are positive symbols: Chinese dragons are symbols of good fortune. In the Aztec, Olmec, Mayan world, their dragon—Quetzalcoatl—symbolizes sustenance and re-birth. In the old Slavic world, some dragons—Zmaj—were friends of humans while others—Azdaja—were friends of witches and such. When they fight, great storms occur.
Dragons are creations of the human psyche representing the passion, fierceness, magical potentials, and depth of insight that is now mostly hidden from human kind. As Western rationality and civilization ascended over the centuries and around the globe, we repressed those potentials. Unfortunately, as we deny our passions, our fierceness, and our magicality, we also deny ourselves the power and insights needed to make real the possibility of creating teams and organizations, families and communities, even humankind to be as healthy, productive, and engaging as we want them to be.

In these modern times, our scientific method would have us be sensible people who do not accept dragons or magic or fairies or spirits or sprites or witches or wizards or anything we cannot see, measure, manage, and control. In the place of dragons, science and technology have given us the wonders of automobiles, airplanes, skyscrapers, computers, the World Wide Web (chockful of dragons itself), and cell phones. Caught up in their thrall, we depend more and more on rationality and technology. We have put aside the part of ourselves that loves wholeheartedly, that can make castles from cardboard boxes, and that have the insight and discipline to create healthy, productive, and engaging organizations–organizations where people love to go to work and do whatever it takes to make them successful. Those things we can do if we reclaim dragons—as magic, power, and possibility.

When I live as the dragon I am, I end the power struggles we create when our egos make it important that we never be losers. I learn and can help others to learn from our differences rather than work so hard to convince others that I am right and not wrong. The dragon I am loves fully with total focus, consummate passion, and direct action. I am irresistible and in wonder.

Only the dragon I am listens with compassion. I have the insight to see hostility and fear to be signals of pain needing healing. Only the dragons we are turn dysfunctional groups into synergic teams appreciative of each member’s good heart, good intentions, and useful contributions. Only the dragons we are can see the systemic issues that create cultures of blame and dysfunction. We can discover the levers that will most bring everyone to full alignment and the organization to full productivity and success. The dragon I am sees resistance to our efforts as important information we need to fine-tune those efforts and create new partners.

A dragon is the symbol of the Center for Human Systems. The dragon in us manifests through eight essential and insightful disciplines that enable us to be dragon-wise and dragon-strong as we create change within ourselves, with others, with groups, and with organizations. We call those disciplines Dragon Principles.

The Eight Dragon Principles

  1. Conscious Use of Self: Where It Change Needs to Start

We behave mostly on automatic without the need for much thought. When wanting to create change, however, our automatic tendencies often do not have the impacts that will be useful. Consciously and deliberately choosing our behavior, emotions, thoughts, and beliefs to create the changes we desire requires dragon-wisdom. Such Conscious Use of Self is the foundational discipline for creating the changes we desire.

  1. Human Systems Thinking: The Power of Organization Development

Understanding and operating from the premise that systems behave in whatever way they are behaving because every component of that system is behaving the way that they are. This gives us opportunity to manage change at every moment. It also provides the foundation for sustainable, systemic behavior change. As we are soaked in the Western socialization of individualism, dragon-wisdom is required to consistently think and operate in terms of human systems rather than individuals.

  1. Sound and Current Data: So Obvious, So Important, So Often Missing

Our assumptions based on our lifes’ experiences get us through our days with little need to check them. However, if the changes you seek are not forthcoming, it’s time to see if your assumptions are in tune with what is really happening. The biggest assumption that can hamper our change effort is the assumption that they are Sound and Current Data when they are not. That our assumptions may be correct 85+% of the time is enormously seductive requiring dragon-wisdom to notice and dragon-strength to resist.

  1. Personal and System Feedback: Are you on target or off?

Feedback allows us to evaluate how well the impact of our behavior is congruent with our intentions. The more we can fine-tune our behavior so that our impact will be in sync with our intentions the greater will be our effectiveness as managers of change. Easy to understand, yet difficult to apply since feedback has a bad reputation. What’s your first reaction when someone says to you, “Can I give you some feedback?” And, we don’t see systemic feedback at all since we don’t see human systems. You as dragon is needed.

  1. Infinite Power Orientation: The Heart and Soul of Organization Development

Most people see the win/lose power struggles among people and their differences as an inevitable, wasteful, and unpleasant part of human nature. We know to avoid them by shaping ourselves to conform to the norms we see; thus, destroying whatever unique value we might have brought. Shifting such a finite, control-oriented view of power to one that sees power as infinite and as energy rather than control is crucial to successful change creation. What better purpose for both dragon-wisdom and strength!

  1. Learning from Differences: The Hardest, When It’s Important to Be Right

We all like to learn except when we have attached our egos to being right. We must be dragon-strong to use such ego-laden differences to accrue knowledge and skill rather than as the source of contention and hostility. Then, we can help others do the same. This is the source of dragon-wisdom.

  1. Empowerment: The Value-Add of Organization Development

Empowerment is about supporting others to self-discover their ability to make conscious choices and recognize their inherent excellence toward invoking their ability to achieve their personal and systemic goals.

  1. Support Systems: The Pay-Off of Organization Development

There is nothing of any significance that we have accomplished or can accomplish by ourselves. We need support systems. In fact, we need two kinds of support systems: a personal support system to help us maintain our conscious use of self and to help us have developed support for our change goals to critical mass. When the latter occurs, the change is virtually at hand! But, we often equate needing support with weakness and disadvantage. Dragon-strength is needed to continually focus on building support systems for ourselves and our goals to critical mass–the herald of success.

Creating change in teams, organizations, and other human systems is often an uphill battle against the norms and cultures whose task is to maintain the status quo. Armed with the eight Dragon Principles that battle is won. Be the dragon you are to create the changes you’d like to see!

Get the skills and wisdom of the Dragon Principles for yourself! Take the Dragon Principles Intensive! Go to chumans.com/intensive to apply!

Want to sharpen and deepen your organization development skills? Sign-up for the Master Classes in Organization Development jointly sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay OD Network and the Center for Human Systems.


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

About Michael F. Broom. I’m an organizational psychologist with 40 years of experience with all kinds of people and organizations including Microsoft, Google, and Genentech. 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.

The Center for Human Systems ~ http://www.chumans.com ~ michael@chumans.com


OD Is Not A Recipe!

Lean, Six Sigma, Prosci, and other formulized change management methodologies all offer an orderly set steps to take—a recipe for ending waste, improving productivity, and otherwise accomplishing desired changes. There are, of course, several recipes from organization development practitioners that offer recipes. John Kotter’s eight steps are very popular. There are several versions of the stages of planned change that that typically include entry, contracting, data-gathering, intervention, and evaluation in one set of words or another. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that practical work of creating change where people are involved requires dealing with the anxiety, uncertainty, volatility, and emotionality that invariably show up when people are trying to get something done together. At those points in time, the rationality of structured formulations are not very useful. Creating change in human systems is as often as not a stressful process at any point in time. Under stress human beings tend to automatically operate in patterns that were set in during growing-up years. Some of those automatic reactions may be useful in the current situation and many will not be. In addition, the automatic patterns of some are likely to be in conflict with the patterns of others. These are situations were rationality is limited. Limited, particularly, because everyone believes that he or she is the only one being fully rational. Of course, I am over-simplifying.

Those of us who desire to be effective managing change involving human systems need something less formulaic and more amenable to creating alignment toward desired change. What is needed is n

ot recipes but a shift in perspective, of our fundamental thoughts process toward a way that we can be with human systems that allows their members to align with each other to create the improvements in engagement and productivity they want.

To do just that Edie and Charlie Seashore and I put together eight disciplines or principles to help the students we’ve had be able to actually practice what they had learned academically. They are:

  • Conscious Use of Self: Consciously choose to switch off automatic and unproductive energy-sponging behaviors like worrying, complaining, blaming, and fighting–allowing you to consciously choose behaviors that you’ll find more productive and satisfying. And, help others to do the same.
  • Understanding Human Systems: Experience how everything you do impacts those around you. Then consciously choose behaviors that will support the changes you want in your human systems. And, help others to do the same.
  • Critical Mass & Personal Support Systems: Realize that there is nothing of any significance that any of us has accomplished by ourselves. In turn, develop the systems of support that will allow you to accomplish personal and systemic goals. And, help others to do the same.
  • Sound and Current Data: Consciously choose to be curious rather than automatically presuppose, as we too often do, that our assumptions and interpretations are facts. And, help others to do the same.
  • Systemic and Interpersonal Feedback: Do you cringe when someone says to you, “May I give you some feedback?” Learn new ways to receive feedback without upset and how to give feedback to greatest effect. And, help others to do the same.
  • Power as Energy: Discover how to shift from control-oriented win/lose power dynamics to the more practical perspective of power-as-energy which allows satisfaction for all. And, help others to do the same.
  • Learning from Differences: Consciously learn from the differences that our egos automatically reject. Learn more about yourself and those who share your human systems. And, help others to do the same.
  • Empowerment: Become aware of your own magnificence and support others to do the same.
  • Find out more about each from the Dragon Principle Webinar Series that starts on January 24th. I’m offering an introductory webinar (no charge) on Wednesday, January 18th. It would be great to meet you there! Go to chumans.com/webinar for more information!

Michael F Broom, CEO, The Center for Human Systems

About Michael F. Broom, Ph.D.

I’m an organizational psychologist with 39 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. Formerly of Johns Hopkins University, I founded the Center for Human Systems and am a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree of the OD Network.

The Center for Human Systems ~ http://www.chumans.com ~ michael@chumans.com