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

Shared values or not

‘You don’t need to share values’, someone I was in a meeting with the other day, said very firmly.  I’ve been thinking about his statement.  In each of lift lobbies where I work the organisation’s values are the first thing you see when you leave the lift.  They’re painted large on the wall opposite the lift doors.  I found his statement intriguing and I’ve been asking myself some questions that it raised for me:

  • Do I share those values?
  • If so, how do I convert them into my day to day working life, so I ‘live’ them?
  • Are the values ‘liveable’ – for example, if I make what I believe to be a ‘bold decision’ (one of the values) what if others believe it is foolhardy, risky, or wrong?
  • Does it matter if I don’t share the values? If so, in what way?
  • What if I do share the values but interpret them differently from others – what are the implications?
  • How does the concept of ‘sharing values’ square with the concept of ‘valuing diversity’? Suppose someone doesn’t share the values but met all other criteria for employment, would we say that they are not right for this organisation –  in which case would we be valuing diversity – or only some aspect of it?

Maybe I’m overthinking this off-the-cuff comment, but it led me into looking more at espoused values – those that appear on walls, on corporate websites, sometimes in the employee handbook and on induction programmes.   In a paper ‘Evaluating espoused values: does articulating values pay off?’  Researchers noted that there’s often ‘cynicism and suspicion about the values that companies espouse with their written value statements. Terms like “window dressing”, “greenwashing”, and “PC” (political correctness) easily spring to mind because the link between articulated values and corporate behaviour may be tenuous’.

Nevertheless, these researchers offer several reasons why having them is worthwhile.  They found that espoused values:

  • Are important because they are positively associated with financial performance.
  • Help with ‘impression management’ and that a ‘corporation’s ability to communicate values to their current and potential stakeholders is better than not trying at all.’
  • Are increasingly contractually required in order to acquire new customers, including governments.
  • Are associated with matching people’s values with those of the organization and that ‘communicating espoused organizational values upfront paves the way for matching expectations and for relevant discussions prior to recruitment and relationships with potential partners.’
  • Can help employees (and potentially other stakeholders) focus their attention on what is considered ‘right behaviour’ and assist in their interpretation of what makes a ‘good soldier’: they know what ideal to strive for, what is conceptually expected from them, as they are a ‘solid cue for current and future staff and managers of the organization regarding what is important around here.’

They conclude their paper saying, ‘Our findings suggest that, while managers should not naively believe that corporate values will necessarily be exactly what people in the organization do, there is some advantage to espousing values actively as part of corporate communications strategies. We recommend espousing values that are, at least to some extent, different to those of other companies, and we believe that organizations are better off adopting a dynamic approach to espoused values where changes and dialogues take place.’

The ‘dynamic approach’ is interesting.  Their suggestion is that it is better to change an organisation’s espoused values over time, rather than stick with a long-term stable set.

The changing nature of espoused values in organisations is touched on in another research paper, Mapping Espoused Organisational Values.  Here researchers found that ‘A first observation is that our inventory of espoused values has similarities with previous frameworks on organisational values in general. For example, all include values that are concerned with capability, including performance, efficiency, flexibility and adaptability. … However, there are categories in our inventory that are not evident in most of the prior frameworks. In particular …  values that reside in the ‘Emphasis on Community’ … such as ‘sustainability’, ‘care for environment’, ‘social responsibility’ and ‘ethical practice’.   Similarly, values such as achievement’, ‘winning’ and ‘challenge’ do not appear in earlier inventories.

They suggest that ‘the richness of value labels that relates to broader ethical issues may be aimed at external stakeholder management, but also may have an increasing influence on organizational behaviour as they are embedded into organizational practices.’

I what ‘embedded’ means?  What I take it to mean is that the espoused values must be more than words on a wall.  They must be evident in every day use.  Achieving this could contribute to overcoming the ‘say-do’ disconnect which gives rise to the cynicism that often accompanies discussions of organisational values.  (See some research on this in:  Inspiration and Cynicism in Values Statements) How does being embedded square with being dynamic?

One way of making use of the values is in decision making.  Joel Urbany explains how to do this.  He points out that ‘a decision necessarily involves an implicit or explicit trade-off of values. Because the values that underlie our decision making are often buried in the shortcuts we take, we need a means for revealing those values and expressly thinking through the trade-offs between them.’  He outlines a process of decision mapping that ‘literally creates a picture of a decision that is built around choice options, consequences, outcomes and values/goals.’

Principle 1: Every action represents a choice

Principle 2: Every choice option has both positive and negative poles.

Principle 3: Every decision is a trade-off of values.

Principle 4: Reflections about values are more likely to “stick” if they are grounded in the reality of everyday or recognizable decisions rather than presented in the form of abstract exhortations.

Urbany continues by outlining how to use decision mapping as an everyday tool in organisational life, linking it to the values of the organisation.

This seems a practical and useful approach to both having and using organisational values, what it doesn’t mean is that someone has to ‘share’ the values – they just have to enact them.

I didn’t answer all my questions as I pondered the statement ‘You don’t need to share values’ – but I ended up agreeing with it.

Do you think employees need to share organizational values?  Let me know.

Image: Sharing values and social ontology, Marcus Hedahl & Bryce Huebner