Wright, N. (2003) ‘The Human Dimension: A Case Study in OD’, Organisations & People, Association for Management Education & Development, February, Vol 10, No1, pp33-40.
Managing the human dimensions of change can be a complex and difficult task. I believe that through disciplines including Organisation Development (OD), however, HRD practitioners can provide an insightful and valuable contribution that extends well beyond the confines of the training room.
I was invited by the Project Manager of an organisation-wide change process within an international Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) to provide OD input into that process, just at the point at which its Executive Steering Group (ESG) was preparing to move from strategy development to implementation.
The perspective I brought to this venture, which forms the basis of this case-study article, is intended to stimulate interest, insight and ideas for others working as HRD professionals in the OD field.
What is OD?
OD is a professional discipline concerned with understanding the essentially human factors and dynamics that influence an organisation’s ability to be effective. It is this orientation that has been found to add particular value to leadership, management and teamworking strategies. Since the planned NGO change process was likely to have significant impact in each of these areas, I was invited to provide input as an HRD/OD specialist.
Key OD considerations
The following OD considerations are, generally-speaking, those that are fundamental to effective change processes. Typically, the degree to which these considerations are taken into account and managed effectively will have a significant effect on the outcome of the process:
Other considerations could be, of course, added to this list and from additional perspectives (e.g. Personnel/Finance/IT/PR/Marketing). What I will focus on in this article are certain areas where I believe that OD can provide a distinctive contribution:
Extensive research was conducted in the 1980s and 90s to try to understand why managers in organisations seemed to hold such different views about what they needed to be effective, what the main barriers were how they ought to be overcome.
An important conclusion of this research was that each person tends to look at an organisation through a unique set of psychological ‘spectacles’ that determine his or her analysis and understanding of the situations s/he encounters (e.g. Morgan (1986); Bolman & Deal (1991)). The ‘lenses’ are shaped by various factors including personality, culture, professional specialism, structural location and degree/experience of exposure to alternative perspectives.
The research went on to note that a significant number of managers:
Were completely unaware of the spectacles/lenses they were wearing.
Were generally unaware of the limitations of their own perspectives.
Genuinely believed that their perspectives were holistic and self-evident.
Were often surprised that others seemed unable to share their perspectives.
Often interpreted people with contrasting perspectives as subversive, blocking or resistant.
These characteristics clearly apply equally well to all employees. The OD significance is, however, that managers, as a rule, hold greater power and decision-making authority and, therefore, carry greater potential for organisational impact in areas such as strategy and policy.
The ESG had included specialists in the four areas identified as key components of its international strategy.
From a psychological frames perspective:
The diverse composition of the ESG provided significant strength at the conceptual design stage by including different stakeholder perspectives and expertise. This, in turn, helped to ensure strategic coherence and avoid blinkered vision.
We identified that specialisms required for the design/implementation phases were different to those required for the conceptual design phase and that additional stakeholder perspectives would need to be taken into account. I recommended that this should involve changes in/broadening of ESG composition and an active period/process of consultation.
Change is often planned, introduced, implemented and managed as a principally rational and technical process. The underlying rationale is that if strategy, funding, structures, job descriptions etc. are organised and articulated clearly, consistently and fairly, participants in the process will (or at least, should) have little cause for concern or complaint.
From an OD perspective, rational-technical considerations are vital, but they are not enough. As we saw in section 3.1 above, the temptation if all of these points have been covered is to consider any subsequent disquiet as evidence of resistance to change or a basic lack of commitment. Concerns about how change is enacted should not be interpreted necessarily as objections to the nature of those changes or to change per se. Negotiating the process of change is as important as negotiating its content.
It is true, of course, that sometimes individuals may behave in ways that are deliberately subversive but the psychological contract perspective cautions managers to avoid drawing this conclusion too quickly.
For those who may be unfamiliar with this term, a psychological contract (as distinct from a formal, written contract) is an implicit understanding between employer and employee that is often assumed and unspoken but which, nevertheless, ensures that organisational relationships and workings run smoothly. The fact that the contents and resulting expectations of a psychological contract are rarely articulated or explored means that, unfortunately, breaches can be difficult to avoid in practice and yet can result in fairly ‘bruising’ consequences.
In light of this psychological phenomenon, organisational change literature (e.g. Bolman & Deal (1991)) comments almost universally that what is critical to take into account from a human perspective is not just what will happen but what it will mean, especially for those who believe that they may be affected adversely. Examples at the ‘meaning’ level within the NGO were likely to include:
How to stay motivated when one’s job is at risk.
How to deal with ‘survivor’s guilt’ if colleagues are not appointed.
How to lead a Team that may be changed fundamentally in terms of key roles and relationships.
How to trust and stay committed to an organisation that doesn’t feel as safe as it did before.
A practical application of the psychological contract perspective is, therefore, that any major change process needs to take seriously the psychological/emotional impacts of proposed changes on individuals, teams, groups, beneficiaries and organisation as a whole. OD research concludes somewhat soberly that the degree to which this dimension is circumvented may well correspond to the degree to which an underlying change strategy is likely to fail.
The NGO’s strategy and change plans had focused predominantly on rational-technical issues. These dimensions were important and provided a very clear strategic rationale, vision, focus and framework.
From a psychological contracts perspective, I recommended that:
It would be important to develop a ‘planning-for-change’ strategy in active collaboration with those who were likely to be affected most.
The planning-for-change process should actively encourage opportunities for open airing of concerns without contributors being branded ‘subversive’, ‘resistant’ or ‘uncommitted’. Providing an open forum is likely, in practice, to diffuse anxiety/frustration and create buy-in to the change process as well as provide useful insight into how it can best be managed.
A practical technique (known as ‘negative brainstorming’) should be used that involves actively encouraging participants in a group to brainstorm every possible objection to what is being proposed on one side of a flipchart, no matter how trivial, including every reason why they think it will not work. This can be done in a fairly light-hearted way and at no point should objections be countered by the Manager. When the list is exhausted, participants are asked to work in 2s or 3s to find workable solutions to the objections that have been raised.
Where concerns about specific changes arise repeatedly and/or with particular strength, it would be advisable to: (a) consider what aspects of an unspoken psychological contract may at risk of being breached, (b) sensitively test out hunches with those involved to see whether they were valid, (c) consider whether the ESG needed to draw back from the breach in order to model/preserve something important (e.g. the organisation’s core values) and, if this was not possible, (d) explore whether that aspect of the contract could be re-negotiated to achieve an alternative win-win solution.
The temptation to circumvent the human dimensions of the change process out of a simple desire to achieve a quicker result should be avoided at all costs (see Moss Kanter (1984) for further practical insights and ideas in this respect).
The question of corporate congruence is concerned principally with how to ensure that an organisation’s internal practices are consistent with:
The standards it applies in relation to its external customers, stakeholders and/or beneficiaries.
This is particularly critical for an NGO as a values-led organisation. Research in the area of organisational psychology has identified that:
Organisations often lack consistency between their espoused values and the actual values demonstrated by their internal practices.
Organisations are often unaware of the discrepancy between their espoused and actual values, as if passionate commitment to values = adherence to them.
Discontinuity between espoused values and internal practices can lead to various kinds of organisational ‘pathology’ (e.g. confusion created by mixed messages).
Organisations are often better at seeing and addressing problems ‘out there’ (a phenomenon known as projection) without seeing reflections of the same problems within.
This perspective calls for an examination of observations, analysis and strategising externally and to hear what echoes may resonate internally. I will touch briefly on each of the following central components of the NGO’s strategy as specific examples of how this approach can be applied in practice.
Advocacy is concerned with enabling marginalized people to recognise their rights, articulate their needs and influence key decision-makers. From the congruency perspective, I posed the following questions:
Which people within the organisation could feel unheard in the current process?
What rights could different parties reasonably expect to exercise in relation to the planning and outworking of NGO strategy?
How could those who might feel unheard be encouraged and enabled to articulate their specific needs and, thereby, contribute to the process?
During this aspect of the exploration process, I found myself struck anew by the importance of all parties leading and impacted by the change process feeling heard as a pre-requisite for effective dialogue and collaboration.
b. Community development
Community development is concerned with establishing relationships and pooling/leverage of resources for individual and collective good. Values of interdependence, mutuality, cooperation and collaboration are at the heart of this approach. I asked:
What were the essential characteristics of relationships that the organisation aspired to achieve internally?
How would the change process need to be managed in order to ensure that internal relationships were maintained and developed according to these essential characteristics?
What distinctive resources could each party affected by the change process contribute positively to benefit the whole?
What processes would need to be built into the change process in order to ensure that benefits would be maximised at all levels?
I believed that learning to apply internally the organisation’s experience ofcommunity development externally would turn out to be the very key to moving things forward in this area.
c. Disaster management
Disaster management is concerned with increasing security and viability by minimising and mitigating against principal risks. I posed the following questions:
What different kinds of security were various parties within the organisation going to need in order to relate, work and develop together effectively?7
What risks to security were posed within the organisation by changes in strategy and the change process itself?
What/how could be planned/done practically to increase security within the organisation as and when changes were implemented?
In order to emphasise the importance of this dimension of the change process, I added that a significant body of OD research indicates that one of the principal reasons why many strategies fail is not because the vision was unrealistic but because risks associated with basic human needs (e.g. to feel involved, heard, respected, capable of influence) were not adequately addressed at the planning and implementation phases.
d. Economic development
Pro-poor economic development is concerned with improving sustainable livelihoods by enhancing resource development/deployment and creating infrastructure/opportunities for fair trade. In the context of the NGO change process, I asked:
What people resources (including vision, motivation, enthusiasm, commitment, relationships) were available within the organisation that could be capitalised on to greater effect, and what were its human resource deficits?
How would ‘people deficits’ be identified and tackled without raising increased anxieties or creating additional pressures?
What were the necessary structure/policy conditions within the organisation that would encourage and allow maximum participation in the change process on an experienced-as-fair basis?
As a result of considering these OD deliberations before embarking on detailed communication and strategy implementation, the NGO was able to avert some of the characteristic stress/pain associated with change and to develop a robust process that would help ensure maximum integrity, collaboration and success.
Although the case example presented here is NGO-specific, I believe that the principles offered can be applied to very diverse types of organisation. The challenge that I leave with my fellow AMED colleagues and readers is this: is it time for OD perspectives to be integrated as a matter of course into the management development arena as a whole?
Bolman, L & Deal, T. (1991). Reframing Organisations. Jossey Bass. California. Bridges, W. (2002). Managing Transitions – Making the Most of Change. Nicholas Brealey Publishing. London. Morgan, G. (1986). Images of Organisation. Sage Publications. London. Moss-Kanter, R. (1984). Managing the Human Side of Change. In Kolb, D. et al. (1995). The Organisational Behaviour Reader. Prentice Hall International (UK) Ltd. London.