Rethinking organisational development: an OTT series

18 August 2021
SERIES Rethinking organisational development 20 items

The global development sector has long been fixated with how (progressive) change happens and how to facilitate it, especially amongst underserved populations.

Most approaches today challenge the idea of a universal blueprint or step-by-step guide to change. See for example Duncan Green’s book How Change Happens focusing on power analysis and systemic understanding; the Harvard University’s Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation process, which focuses on the problems rather than the solutions; or Political Economy Analysis in Action training course, which focuses on incentives that determine how key actors behave and interact with each other.

The collection of people who spearhead change initiatives (policymakers, practitioners, researchers, activists and administrators, amongst others) tend to be arranged into groups we call organisations, which in turn are often organised into smaller teams or units.

Organisations are therefore important agents of change among underserved populations. And for these organisations to help bring about this change, they need to be well organised and managed.

Yet, while there’s considerable (nuanced) debate drawing on a variety of disciplines and approaches about how change happens ‘out there’, mainstream discourse on organisational development (change ‘in here’) is primarily based on ‘if you do this, you’ll get that’ logic and is generally left unchallenged.

This is odd; like a fractal, one would think that given that organisations are made up of people they would display similar complex dynamics to societies (albeit on a smaller scale) and therefore merit similar approaches.

In The Wiggly World of Organization, Chris Rogers writes that mainstream organisational development discourse suggests that organisational success results from rational analysis of the facts, step-by-step decision making by people whose agendas are ‘fully aligned’, and the translation of those decisions into programmable action on the ground.

Perceived success or failure is subsequently put down to the application or not of such a rational approach. But where organisations have seemingly been successful, what people find themselves doing is often quite different from what was planned or what they ‘should have’ been doing.

To challenge the dominant discourse, for various reasons, seems not to be politically acceptable. Instead, people who want to improve the functioning of their organisations feel compelled to adopt the latest fads and fashions and to account for what they are doing in a way that reinforces the dominant discourse.

About this series

In this ongoing series of articles, I aim to challenge mainstream organisational development discourse by acknowledging the complex reality of everyday organisational life, and by taking my own experience seriously.

I will set aside the ‘if you do this, you’ll get that’ cliches that you find being adopted by many organisational development consultants. Instead, I aim to provide people with a vocabulary that better describes the everyday experience of working in organisations and a set of ideas for improving the functioning of the organisations they work for.

In doing so, I draw loosely on a number of discourses, including: (1) a combination of open systems theory and psychoanalysis, originating at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (2) the group analytic tradition pioneered by the Institute of Group Analysis (IGA), and (3) complex responsive processes of relating, drawing on a combination of the complexity sciences, processual sociology, pragmatic philosophy and the group analytic tradition pioneered by the University of Hertfordshire’s Complexity and Management Centre.

The evidence I use to draw conclusions and derive meaning is primarily rooted in ethnography (used in anthropology) and often auto-ethnography (from which I draw short vignettes to illustrate examples from my own experience).

Ethnographic research methods comprise narrative accounts of social phenomena (or interactions between people, which is ultimately what organisational life is all about). This differs from qualitative or quantitative research methods drawing on a sample of observations from which generalised conclusions can be drawn. As Haridimos Tsoukas and Mary Jo Hatch say, narrative accounts are better at articulating complexity of social phenomena, more concrete, more context and historically sensitive and better able to articulate contradictions and paradox.

In the first few articles, I’ll be discussing topics such as what so-called ‘troublemakers’ represent in organisations, the factors that shape the power and authority of leaders (and their followers), as well as the merits and drawbacks of working in a networked organisation.

In reading these articles, I hope readers will be able to better reflect on their own experiences of organisational life and find better ways of negotiating its vicissitudes.

Please do share your experiences and feedback with me at [email protected] or on Twitter @ajoydatta555 @Onthinktanks.