Why organizational development needs a 21st century approach

Many organizations today find themselves in an uncharted, complex, rapidly changing, and uncertain world. To remain relevant and successful, it is important for organizations to constantly learn, adapt, and respond to new opportunities and unexpected challenges. In the face of pressing operational demands, the comfort of ‘fixing problems’, and the value of ‘getting stuff done’, this presents business, HR and OD leaders with a significant tension that can accelerate but also impede meaningful change.

Organizational change and transformation are in many organizations approached as planned-change. That means, an urgency to change is created and a guiding coalition is formed to lead, plan, and communicate the change to the organization, who are then expected to implement it. It is an approach that many change, HR and OD leaders are familiar with, are often expected to use, and which provides a sense of control. Leading organizational change in this way is the equivalent of going on a journey with a clear destination in mind and a detailed itinerary in hand that is planned, approved, and budgeted for in advance.

Fit for Purpose

The assumptions of stability, predictability, and ability to direct others to act that have underpinned the planned-change approach since its development in the mid 20th century, have long been overtaken by reality. From being complicated and understandable to complex and uncertain, the world faced by many organizations today is constantly changing, in multiple areas at once, and accelerating at an exponential rate. Sticking with a planned-change approach in the face of these complex and ambiguous conditions means planning for failure and irrelevance.

What is needed now is a very different approach to leading change that fits the nature of 21st century external environments. This approach needs to enable every individual and team within the organization to intrinsically navigate towards the same destination and allow them to explore independently and collectively how to adapt and respond to emerging opportunities and challenges from their position. Leading change in this way is the equivalent of a flotilla of ships travelling across the high seas towards a common destination over the horizon, whereby each team is empowered to navigate and adapt their own course in relation to others in real-time.

Mobilizing a Network of Teams

This unfamiliarity of the business environment faced can trigger a fear response that brings progress to a halt at a time when collaboration, observation, learning, and adapting are necessary to perform at the highest level. Overcoming this response requires an ability to fuel people’s intrinsic motivation so that it overpowers the resistance to the unfamiliar and inspires seeking out novelty, tackling challenges, and innovation.

The most important condition to foster this behavior is a strong feeling of belonging and psychological safety. To cultivate that feeling a reason is needed that moves individuals and teams across the organization beyond self-interest and to contribute to the well-being of others who share the same beliefs, values, or goals. In other words, a clear and compelling shared purpose that creates the feeling that tasks and activities performed make a meaningful difference in other people’s lives. That starts with leaders across the organization being clear about whom they serve, having empathy, and understanding what matters to others.

Dealing with Different Questions

While navigating rapidly changing environments, individuals and teams across the organization will encounter different emerging opportunities and unexpected challenges and experience these differently:

  1. Some may be unaware that the game is changing
  2. Some may be aware that the game is changing but unaware of the approaches for adapting and responding to it
  3. Some may be aware that the game is changing as well as the approach for dealing with it

What this means, is that the organization collectively might not be ‘on the same page’ at any one time and therefore that individuals and teams are grappling with different questions. For example, those who are unaware that the game is changing need to realize first that their current approach is not delivering the expected performance anymore. Then they need to understand WHY that is, i.e., answering the question behind the question to understand the real problem faced.

Those who are aware that the game is changing and know WHY may not yet understand the nature of the approaches that could be suited for adapting and responding to a new context. They will be focused on understanding WHAT to do NOW, i.e., exploring what the options are for solving the real problem faced.

The question that keeps those who understand WHY change is necessary and WHAT to do NOW from moving forward will be HOW to implement the chosen approach.

The free flow of information and the forging of relationships between teams is key in this endeavor to make meaningful progress as an organization, but also the understanding that what various teams need at moments in time to move forward is different.

Determining and coordinating all this is an impossible challenge for an individual leader or an executive, transformation, HR or OD team, particularly when the organization is large. Their role needs to be creating an environment where every leader and team feels committed to the shared purpose and enabled to make a larger difference in the world together.

That’s a meaningful organizational development in itself.

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