By Peter Norlin. As a student of organizations for over 30 years, and as a consultant who helps people co-create “productive workplaces” (the title of a powerful book by Marvin Weisbord), I’ve spent my professional life thinking about how people learn and change, especially at work. In an effort to define and talk about my own work more precisely over the years, when people ask me about my field, organization development (OD), I now tend to tell them that “OD is the design and facilitation of work processes that help people reach their necessary future.”
Unfortunately for us, one of the unresolved dilemmas OD practitioners have confronted ever since the field emerged as an applied behavioral science in the late 1940’s is agreeing collectively on what we do and how we do it. Because we’re a hybrid discipline, with roots in psychology, sociology, adult learning, business, education, and anthropology, we do tend to agree that we’re focused on the “human side of enterprise” (as an early text described our playing field), and after that, we typically find ourselves splintering into niches, and activities, and frameworks that keep us arguing late into the night.
No matter how we each frame our assignment as consultants, however, and whether or not we identify it as a core competency, all OD consultants are required to work as designers. Sometimes, of course, we may be asked explicitly to create an “organization design,” a formal structure that determines specific relationships between departments and roles, but in fact we’re always designing, since we’re always devising activities—processes—to help individuals, groups, and organizations learn and change in precise, desired ways. So one of the exciting opportunities that we’ll be able to explore on this blog is how to establish and develop a partnership between our two communities—design and organization development—each of which has an important perspective to share on the design of innovative organization cultures, and whose synergy has the potential, I’m convinced, to build an important, new foundation for meta-innovation, that is, a more innovative way to create innovative organizational environments, especially in business settings.
Let me begin our conversation by proposing a way to think about the relationship between design and “cultures of innovation” that is based on my experience and a personal, strongly-held assumption: namely, that we can’t design and create organization cultures directly. (If anyone is interested in reading a particularly cogent, persuasive definition and illustration of “organization culture,” I’d direct you to the work of Edgar Schein, in his book Organizational Culture and Leadership).
Because culture (i.e., “the way we do things around here”) is transmitted and expressed as behavior, the critical question becomes, can we “design” behavior? And based on our experience in the field of OD, the answer is “yes.” Below, in fact, is the roadmap of that particular design process. It charts the sequence of progressively-unfolding outcomes that does, in my experience, eventually lead us from design to innovation:
design > structures > behaviors > culture > innovation > necessary future
Why include the “necessary future?”
When designing processes that will guide people through learning and change, everything depends on knowing where we’re headed, and where we want to end up. If you’re familiar with current “organization speak,” then you’ve probably heard this referred to as a “vision” of the future. These days, I tend to label this endpoint the “necessary future,” which is another name for “the future we’ve decided we must have.” In the pathway I’ve outlined above, we’ve specified a necessary future that’s infused with innovation, which is, in turn, the outgrowth of a culture that is creating it.
What are we designing?
In subsequent posts, I’ll be talking with you in greater detail about the implications and design possibilities embedded in this proposed framework. The core nugget here? If we know what messages and expectations that we want the culture of our organization to drive and express—in this case, promoting innovation—then we must first decide what behaviors will create that culture, so that we can then design the organization structures that will determine those behaviors. This strategy is based on a basic law of systems thinking (i.e., “structure determines behavior”), and so the design challenge, when we seek to influence human behavior, is determining how to introduce, refine, or change those specific organization structures that will invite people to act in ways that will then lead them to produce the outcomes they want.
So, along the way, I’ll be illustrating how we might approach the challenge of designing “innovation cultures” by reviewing some key principles that OD professionals use to design organization structures and processes that encourage people to change their behavior in ethical, reliable ways. I’m looking forward to an energizing dialogue.