History of Organization Development: Prehistoric OD

Sections of this topic

    History of Organization Development: Early OD

    Part 1

    (Guest post from John Scherer, Co-Director of Scherer Leadership International, and Billie Alban, President of Alban & Williams, Ltd. This is the first blog post in a six-part series about the history of OD.)

    Introduction to this Blog Series

    • In our work as OD practitioners, whose shoulders are we standing on?
    • Whose ‘conceptual DNA’ runs in our veins?
    • What are our operating assumptions and where did they come from?

    Believe it or not, there was a time when things like involving people in action-planning, group decision-making, action research, feedback, high-performance/high-satisfaction team development, leadership and management coaching, the stages in the consulting process—and a host of other standard OD practices—did not exist. Who figured them out—and passed them on to us?

    You may know some of the people on whose shoulders you are standing, certainly, you have read the works of earlier ‘elders’ who have shaped your work, but many of those who developed ways to improve their social systems are lost in the mists of time. . .

    NOTE: This site distinguishes the difference between “organizational development” and “Organization Development.” The former phrase refers to the nature and scope of change in organizations, i.e., the change is to the entire organization or to a significant portion of the organization. The latter phrase refers to a field of well-trained people with expertise in guiding successful organizational development.

    Pre-Historic OD?

    We have no way of knowing, but imagine a group of Neanderthal men, sitting around their fire in the cave, when Karg, a more free-thinking hunter, using whatever grunts and motions he had available, speaks to his buddies. ‘You know, guys, we got the mastodon today, but I wonder how we could kill them without losing so many of us in the process?!’

    Now imagine the group dynamics that might have ensued. Assuming that the leader—the fiercest hunter and warrior—allowed this discussion to continue, perhaps another hunter made a suggestion about using longer spears (technology). Maybe one of the more courageous women listening suggested that a few hunters draw the mastodon’s attention in one direction while the best spear-throwers came at it from the other side (teamwork). Perhaps someone else said, ‘Let’s do both!’ (polarity management). Maybe the shaman suggested that they should all drink the animal’s blood to strengthen people’s ability to hunt (human resources). The result: the world’s first ‘socio-technical OD intervention’.

    We would not still be here as a species if learning had not taken place at crucial points in our development. Our ancient ancestors faced real-time, real-world consequences (feedback) on a daily basis and did everything they could to solve life-and-death challenges with a combination of improved technology and smarter teamwork.

    Around 10,000 BCE, as humans began to multiply more rapidly and settle down—especially around The Fertile Crescent in what is now Iraq—the tribal social system, which served so well as long as people moved around, began to break down. When humans put down roots to live in one place because of climate, water supply, and/or the presence of game, a more complex social system was required. New roles and new forms of organization had to be invented. Now some people had to not hunt or farm, but stay back to guard that which had been garnered. Someone now needed to count quantities and weights and keep track of who got what. Someone had to make decisions and control the group’s effort and direction. (See Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel for a fascinating exploration of the rise of civilization and the changing role of leadership.)

    The First Consulting Engineers—circa 5,000 BCE

    There is evidence that the Egyptian culture during the time of the Pharaohs had what we would call ‘consulting engineers’, whose job it was to go around to the major construction projects and make sure they were ‘on time and under budget.’ When the Nile flooded every year, communication and cooperation all up and down a thousand miles of river was necessary, leading to command and control structures and enforcement capabilities. If one community astride the river failed to maintain their section of the dam or did not channel the water properly, the ensuing flood would wash away crops all along the river, threatening the very survival of the entire region.

    This emergence of larger social systems also inevitably led to the emergence of a new kind of leader who was not simply the best hunter or fighter, but who was good at what we would call strategic planning and decision-making. The leader then needed people below them (read ‘managers’) who did the organizing and controlling. Just think, all this was in place centuries before the shop floors of the Industrial Revolution.

    Moses and Jethro: The First Recorded Coaching Consultation for Large-Scale Change

    What may be the earliest written account of ‘consulting for organizational change’ can be found in the biblical story of an exchange between Moses and his father-in-law, Jethro. (See Exodus 18:13-27.) Moses had just led the motley bunch of former slaves through the desert, turning South after escaping Pharaoh’s army to rest awhile in Jethro’s domain, the Land of Midian. Moses was probably there to check in on his new wife, Leah. Just a thought, but since Jethro was a Midianite, he would be seen by the client (Moses) and the client system (the Hebrew people) as ‘from out of town,’ and therefore perceived as neutral regarding substantive issues and solutions. (One of Richard Walton’s criteria for predicting a consultant’s effectiveness. . .) As the ancient tale goes, caught in a state of complete overwhelm, Moses turns to his father-in-law, Jethro, for help.

    Now, we don’t know what exactly happened back then in that conversation, but here is one paraphrase:

    • ‘I can’t handle it anymore!’ Moses says one night to Jethro.
    • ‘What’s the problem?’ says Jethro, caring deeply about this wild man who is married to his favorite daughter.
    • ‘I’ve just got too many people coming to me for decisions and advice. All day long. . . It’s all I do now. Hundreds of people bringing me every little problem they have, wanting a decision or a judgment. It’s driving me crazy! I’m exhausted. . . What can I do?!’
    • Jethro thinks for a while and says, ‘Yes. . . This is going to be a problem all along your journey, son. People are going to want solutions from you as long as you are their leader. . .’ He thinks some more. ‘Well. . . How about this? What if you set up some of your best decision-makers to be responsible for a hundred people, and a few of your very best to be responsible for a thousand people? That way, some handle the little stuff, others handle the not-so-little stuff, leaving you to take care of the really big stuff.’
    • ‘Hey!’ says Moses. ‘I like that!’ and he did what Jethro suggested, creating a hierarchical organization much like the one you probably work in—or consult to—today. (Only it sounds like Moses had a slightly wider span of control. . .)

    There is a lot about OD consulting, albeit the more traditional ‘expert’ variety, embedded in this ancient vignette:

    • There was real-world pressure for change and sufficient dissonance in the client. Moses is hard-working—you might say even driven—and is experiencing some strong dissonance between his idea of how this wilderness trip was supposed to go and what was actually happening.
    • They had sufficient mutual trust for this conversation. Jethro is older, more experienced, knows his way around, and is someone Moses respects.
    • Jethro had the emotional distance and clarity to help his client from behind a solid boundary. He didn’t get reactive to Moses’ complaining.
    • Moses was trapped inside his old paradigm—the one that came out of his promise to Yahweh about getting everyone to the promised land all by himself—and couldn’t see his way to a solution.
    • Moses asked for help. Feedback and coaching were requested. This opened Moses’ heart and mind to receive his coach’s radical idea. (The typical hierarchical organization chart that he recommended is so familiar to us today that we fail to understand just how strange that proposal would seem, especially to someone who thought he had to do it all. . . alone. . . for Yahweh.)
    • Jethro first affirms what will not change in the situation. He stands in reality, not in ‘pie-in-the-sky’ thinking. ‘Yes, Moses, these people are going to keep coming to you—or someone—for a long time. . .’ (This observation is from the creative theologically-trained mind of OD consultant and good friend, Mike Murray.)
    • Jethro then suggests something for Moses’ consideration. He doesn’t try to force or ‘sell’ his idea. It is an offering, not a command. Like a good consultant, he offers an idea, he did not use positional power with his client (which he would have had as a father-in-law in those days), but rather relied on the validity of the idea itself.
    • Moses acts on the coaching. He sets up the organization suggested by Jethro and sees it through.

    So we OD consultants of the last 50-60 years are not the first in history to attempt to improve the quality of leadership and/or the effectiveness of the organizations around us. Written records are not available for many others, but surely kings and princes and religious leaders around the world had advisors they would turn to from time to time for help in matters military, economic, spiritual, or political—or maybe even personal. Just as today, we can look back in time and see what a leader has decided—and the results. What we can’t see is the process by which that decision came into being—and who contributed.

    There was the court jester who played a very important role in the medieval halls of power. The jester’s job was to hold up a mirror, playfully, to make a point in such a way that decision-makers and their hangers-on could laugh at what they saw. Then, on reflection, the more thoughtful participants could possibly see the folly in a particular decision or situation, and either change it or do things differently next time. If we think getting fired by a client is bad news, imagine what our ancestors faced every time they pushed the leader’s face into their own mess!

    These historical attempts to have more effective organizations were missing several important ingredients, especially the distinction between content—where most of the above ‘consulting’ almost certainly focused—and process, something yet to be discovered. It was up to the unique exploration of more recent minds and hearts to discover and apply the principles that launched what we would recognize today as Organization Development.

    Let’s take a look at some of the ‘heavy’ contributors in the next blog. . .

    ? What’s your reaction to this history of OD?

    Reference List of Books from This Series

    For More Resources About Organization Development, see These Free Management Library Topics:

    John Scherer is the Co-Director of Scherer Leadership International, and Billie Alban is the President of Alban & Williams, Ltd. This blog is an adaptation of their chapter in the ‘bible’ of the field of OD, Practicing Organization Development (3rd Edition, 2009, Rothwell, W.J., Stavros, J.M., Sullivan. R.L. and Sullivan, A. Editors). Many colleagues contributed, among them Warner Burke, John Adams, Saul Eisen, Edie Seashore, Denny Gallagher, Marvin Weisbord Juanita Brown, and others. They have drawn heavily from Weisbord’s wonderfully rich, easy-to-read, and well-documented description of the origins of the field in Productive Workplaces (1987 and revised in 2012).