Sacred cows make the best burgers

‘The relevance of organisational development has never been more critical, given the complex issues facing communities, organisations and wider society. This raises the question of how we as OD practitioners can play a role beyond that which we do currently.’  This statement introduces this year’s European Organisation Development Network conference which takes place 25, 26 April 2018.

Without thinking too much about it, several months ago I agreed to speak at the conference.  I can’t quite remember how we got to the topic of my presentation ‘Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers’ but it’s a title of a business book on change readiness by Robert Kriegel and David Brandt that I read years ago.  It opens by telling readers to round up sacred cows –  the well-worn or outmoded beliefs, assumptions, and practices that inhibit organisational change and prevent responsiveness to new opportunities.

Here is my starter list of five sacred cows of organisation development that, in my view, merit discussion on whether they should be rounded up or whether they have continuing value.

  1. Organisation development is a distinct discipline requiring specialist skills, attributes, practitioner training. There is little to suggest that OD is a ‘distinct discipline’.  In Revisioning Organization Development: Diagnostic and Dialogic Premises and Patterns of Practice, for example, the authors ‘are trying to open up the possibility that there are different enough forms of OD in terms of theoretical and philosophical premises, and not just practice technologies or underlying values, to warrant closer inquiry and recognition in the official literature(s) of this field. Right now, in most academic and practitioner publications there is only one, monolithic OD, presumed to be practiced using variations of the same foundational premises. In our experience, this leads to confusion and misunderstandings especially when people without much theoretical background try to combine, for example, objective diagnosis with self-organizing ’ Backing this up, Linda Holbeche, a writer in the OD field,  suggests that OD is a ‘scavenger discipline …  an eclectic field that borrows from many other disciplines and theories’. (Impact, Issue 26, February 2009).
  2. Organisation development activity is for the betterment of organisations and organisational members. There are several who argue that OD is coercive – think of the language of ‘getting’ people to do things, or ‘changing mindsets’.  An article by Marie McKendall, The Tyranny of Change: OD revisited, exemplifies this point of view.  The abstract reads:  ‘The premise of this paper is that planned organizational change, commonly known as organizational development, induces compliance and conformity in organizational members and thereby increases the power of management. These consequences occur because organizational development efforts create uncertainty, interfere with the informal organization, reinforce the position of management, and further entrench management purposes. These consequences occur regardless of the intentions of management and regardless of whether the goals of the organizational development intervention were achieved. Instead of examining these consequences, practitioners and theorists have engaged in self-deception and depoliticized the practice of induced organizational change by creating a field known as Organizational Development.’
  3. Organisations can be ‘developed’. The implied question in this sacred cow is whether there is a single organisational entity that can be developed or whether it only that individual members of the organisation can be developed (assuming you think they can). Their collective development contributing to whole organisational development.  Derek Pugh devised an OD matrix – a conceptual framework for understanding and diagnosing what change is necessary in an organisation, what methods to consider, and which directions to go in initiating the change process, which seems to suggest that whole organisations can be ‘developed’.
  4. Organisation development activity can deliver tangible business results. There’s a commonly heard statement – a sacred cow in itself, perhaps –  that 70% of change intervention fails.  Attributing an ROI to OD work is not easy to do.  (Does anyone do it?).   Yet in his article ‘Do 70 per cent of all organisational change initiatives really fail?’ Mark Hughes ‘highlights the absence of valid and reliable empirical evidence in support of the espoused 70 per cent failure rate.’  However, in rounding up that sacred cow, Hughes fails to provide any valid and reliable empirical evidence that change initiatives actually do deliver tangible business results.   A report by Liz Finney and Carol Jefkins, Roffey Park, Best Practice in OD Evaluation, says ‘We approached our research aware that there are many practitioners in the field of OD who believe that its systemic nature makes it hard to measure; some hold a world view that says it’s inappropriate even to try. Some talk about the evaluation of OD interventions as a ‘holy grail,’ perhaps implying that to seek it would be a hopeless quest. Evaluation is something which is often overlooked, avoided, or included only as an after-thought when an OD intervention has already taken place.’ In the absence of no evidence of OD success can we provide evidence that it delivers business results?
  5. Organisation development practitioners share humanist, democratic and ethical values. A special issue of the journal Organization ‘reveal[s] the shifting, ambiguous and inherently political arena lying beneath and beyond the bland cliches, pious nostrums and simplistic recipes that are the stock in trade of organizational change management.’  The author points out that the financial demands inherent in much organisation development work (headcount reduction, mergers, efficiency gains, technology implementation, etc), often with the requirement to make these financial gains speedily, conflict with the humanistic, democratic and ethical ‘practice values’ that, in Cheung-Judge’s/Holbeche’s words give organisations and OD work ‘a rudder and bearing’.

I have a reserve list of five more sacred cows but I’m hoping that the above will spark a  conversation.  To facilitate this I’m asking four questions adapted from a Cartesian quadrant –  What happens if we accept the sacred cow?  What happens if we don’t accept the sacred cow? What won’t happen if we accept the sacred cow? What won’t happen if we don’t accept the sacred cow?

What are your OD sacred cows?  Let me know.

Image: Attack on the sacred cow,  Andriy Zholudyev