Holistic Organization Development: A Paradigm for the Future

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    The Future of Holistic Organization Development

    © Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC.

    Traditional Definition of Organization Development (OD)

    Social scientists have learned that our paradigms have a powerful effect on how we interpret the world around us. The following definition of organization development is rather standard.

    “Organization Development is an effort (1) planned, (2) organization-wide, and (3) managed from the top, to (4) increase organization effectiveness and health through (5) planned interventions in the organization’s “processes,” using behavioral-science knowledge” (Beckhard, “Organization development: Strategies and Models”, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1969, p. 9).

    The definition was developed in 1969 at a time when an organization was considered to be much like a stable machine comprised of interlocking parts. OD diagnoses an organizational problem and then prescribes an intervention to fix it, much like a traditional medical doctor treats a body today. The above definition is often cited when describing the field of OD. OD courses explain methods in terms of diagnosis, interventions, and evaluations.

    Traditional View of OD Must Change

    Today’s organizations are experiencing change like never before. Many of us practitioners now find that after we’ve “treated” one organizational problem, another soon surfaces. This cycle occurs despite our efforts to diagnose the client’s problem. Some of us view our recurring interventions as if we’re peeling off layers of an onion to get to the real cause of the client’s problem. Others view recurring problems as inherent in the turbulent environments of today’s organizations.

    This ongoing dilemma in OD is similar to that in medicine. Physicians rely on empirical forms of research-based heavily on the scientific method. They work from a linear model in which the practitioner analyzes a symptom, makes a diagnosis, treats the apparent problem with an intervention of some sort, and then waits to see what difference the intervention made. When the symptom goes away, the practitioner concludes that the problem is “fixed”. Particularly in today’s high-stress environment, the patient soon experiences other problems with other symptoms. Too often, the patient tragically assumes that discomfort is what life is all about and resigns to a lower quality of life than could otherwise be had.

    Features of Holistic Medicine

    Many people now seek remedies in alternative, holistic forms of medicine. Fortunately, a new paradigm seems to be developing in medicine that accommodates and integrates new forms of treatments. Medical schools recognize this new paradigm. We in OD must now do the same.

    Holistic medicine works from a systems perspective rather than the linear model of traditional medicine. Service providers in holistic medicine consider the patient to be so dynamic that cause-and-effect perspectives can’t grasp the true nature of the patient “system”. Providers consider all aspects of the patient, including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Providers harbor no illusions of “fixing” anything. Instead, they work toward wellness, toward improving the overall quality of life for the patient. Providers believe that the patient’s system knows how to take care of itself. That is, the wisdom is there, but the provider and patient must work together to let this wisdom come out.

    Holistic services include varied forms of treatment, for example, training about stress management, exercise, adjustments to diet, counseling, massage, acupuncture, herbal medicine, etc. Often these treatments are highly integrated into comprehensive treatment programs, including ongoing support to patients as they accomplish necessary life changes. There’s a concerted effort on the part of service providers to train about methods of holistic treatments. Courses are held in homes and communities.

    Beginnings: Holistic OD

    Actually, developers have been adopting various forms of holistic development for several years. Many practitioners now take a systems view of organizations. They focus as much on the processes between the parts of an organization as on the parts themselves. They talk of patterns in organizations rather than events. They talk of paradoxes and polarities, rather than fixing. They count on guiding principles as much as verified facts from social sciences.

    Self-organizing systems and self-managed teams are now mainstream in the literature. Spirituality in the workplace has become a common topic. Many management books reference principles from Eastern philosophies. Management development programs now include forms of self-development as well. Dialogue groups enhance meaning for members. Interventions, such as coaching and peer coaching seem to be on the rise. Consultants specialize in facilitating the rituals inherent in managing change. Consultants promise “learning relationships” with clients.

    Yet to Be Done

    However, much remains to be done. We recognize that leaders are faced with many anxieties while facing constant change. Yet we provide few avenues for leaders to get ongoing support to deal with these anxieties. Research indicates that adult learning is very organic in nature and occurs from ongoing actions, reflection, and feedback. Yet too many of us resort only to traditional classroom techniques for leadership development. We recognize that change takes time. Yet we cave into client demands to shorten the length of projects. Too many of us see only those symptoms that match the treatments only we can provide. Many continue to question why MBA programs include few if any, courses in OD.

    In addition, we need a new definition of OD — a definition that integrates and accommodates new methods to enhance the effectiveness of our organizations. It may not be a definition at all. It may be a set of guiding principles around which the field of OD self-organizes for now.

    One New Definition of OD

    Today, OD is counted on to improve organizations that are operating in a quite different environment than that of the 1960s. The nature and forms of organizations are changing dramatically. The field of organization development requires its own evolution to accommodate the evolution of organizations. Consider the following rather novel definition of organization development.

    “Organization Development is the attempt to influence the members of an organization to expand their candidness with each other about their views of the organization and their experience in it and to take greater responsibility for their own actions as organization members. The assumption behind OD is that when people pursue both of these objectives simultaneously, they are likely to discover new ways of working together that they experience as more effective for achieving their own and their shared (organizational) goals. And that when this does not happen, such activity helps them to understand why and to make meaningful choices about what to do in light of this understanding” (Neilsen, “Becoming an OD Practitioner”, Englewood Cliffs, CA: Prentice-Hall, 1984, pp. 2-3).

    This definition places priority on the “candidness” of organization members and their taking “greater responsibility for their own actions.” This definition places priority on nurturing the authenticity needed for members to continuously learn from themselves and each other. As Terry asserts: “authenticity self-corrects” (from “Authentic Leadership: Courage in Action”, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1993). This definition is probably one of several that could serve as a basis to define or suggest what OD is today.

    A recent discussion in the online ODNET discussion group discussed whether OD has a credibility problem or not. One of the major outcomes from the discussion was that the profession of OD means many things to many people. As with most things in life, this ambiguity has its advantages and disadvantages. As with most things in life, the benefit from this struggle comes not from the solution itself, but from the struggle.

    For the Category of Organizational Development:

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