By Peter Norlin.
Before we take the next step in the process of designing an organizational environment that will stimulate and support the emergence of a “culture of innovation,” I’d like to clarify the frame for this process. What do I mean by “frame?” In this context, I’m referring to whether we should consider the activity we’re exploring here—the design of an organization’s culture— a dimension of “organization design” or “organization development.” While this may strike you as a distinction that makes no difference, I’m going to risk slowing us down and annoying you with nit-picking for a reason, and I hope you’ll find the conversation worth the slog.
As you’re probably aware, I’ve chosen to frame this current exploration through the lens of “organization development,” seen in the rear-view mirror of my own thirty years of experience as an OD practitioner. What you may be less aware of, however, is that in the decades since OD emerged as a hybrid discipline in the late 1940s, a controversy that simmered quietly within the organization development community and bedeviled us throughout our history has now erupted in a full boil. Sadly, that controversy centers on our identity and purpose as a field; that is, who are we, and why do we exist?
To answer those questions, and yet speaking only for myself, I would choose to define the work of OD practitioners as the design and facilitation of processes that enable human systems to learn, change, and fulfill their purpose. For me, every word in this definition identifies a key component of our role and our purpose. And as you’ll note, of course, the first word in this definition is “design.”
If you have wondered occasionally about which specific activities might actually promote human systems (i.e., “organization”) effectiveness, you may also have observed that a separate domain of activity, “organization design,” has gradually established itself over the past 20 years as an equal partner with “organization development.” During that time, organization design professionals have progressively positioned their work as a parallel channel to the work of their organization development colleagues: a different and separate focus—but equal. You’ll find one of the clearest and fairest reviews of this evolution here.
Unfortunately, this evolution also represents yet another example of the ongoing deconstruction of the field of OD. Ironically, many of the core competencies that were initially a part of our defined service portfolio have been unbundled and carried away by separate groups that have then positioned themselves as now-separate, visible ‘owners’ of that realm of competence. As a result, the organization development field is no longer the primary source of expertise in several important arenas of human systems development that it formerly owned, including coaching, facilitation, change management, and of course, most critical for us in this context, organization design.
I am convinced, however, that design lies at the heart of OD practice. Whether we’re designing a team development process, a learning curriculum, a strategic change initiative, a new framework for service delivery, an organization’s work and reporting structure, or even something as simple as a meeting or an offsite retreat, OD professionals are always required to use “design thinking.” But how explicitly do we—and should we—think of ourselves as “designers?”
This has become a more contentious question over the last few decades as “organization design” seems intent on positioning itself as a discrete activity, focused on structure and strategy, that should be clearly differentiated from “organization development,” focused on people and process. The friction in this debate is apparently based on the assumption that structure is separate from process, and that strategy is separate from human relationships. And that, in fact, we can—and should—differentiate the design of organizations from design in organizations. This, I believe, is a problematic dichotomy at this stage in our understanding of the evolution of learning and change in human systems. In fact, I think that “design,” is the creative, essential dynamic that unifies structure and process. The dichotomy collapses if we choose to see structure as frozen process and process as fluid structure.
I wanted to make my bias clear, because in our next conversation we’ll begin the actual design of a “culture of Innovation” in an organizational (read “human systems”) context, and we’ll be challenged to create both processes and structures that exist in a necessary interdependence. And so . . . are we designing organizations? Yes. Or are we developing organizations? Yes.