Managers – quite rightly - invest substantial amounts of time, effort and money in individual and team development. Too often, though, they assume that improvements in these dimensions will deliver the desired level of organizational performance – especially if this is accompanied by a programme of organization development. So why is this not the case? What else is going on? And why doesn’t classical OD fill-in the gap at the organization ‘level’?
Managers – quite rightly - invest substantial amounts of time, effort and money in individual and team development. Too often, though, they assume that improvements in these dimensions will deliver the desired level of organizational performance – especially if this is accompanied by a programme of organization development.
So why is this not the case? What else is going on? And why doesn’t classical OD fill-in the gap at the organization ‘level’?
To answer this, it’s perhaps useful to reflect on a story in the book by Rob Eastaway and Jeremy Wyndham, entitled How Long is a Piece of String? One of their stories describes the computer simulation of a couple of test matches between the England and West Indies cricket teams. The program is a sophisticated version of a 1950s dice game, Howzat!
In the first run through, the ‘Windies’ bowled England out in their second innings to win the match by 97 runs. For the second simulation, the programmers changed just one parameter; they increased the strength of one of the West Indies batsmen. In simple terms, this meant that he was likely to score more runs than before and was less likely to lose his wicket. The characteristics of the other players remained unaltered. And so did the series of random numbers (the ‘dice throw’) that determined what happened ‘ball-by-ball’ throughout the match.
Overall then, the West Indies team was slightly stronger than it had been in the first match. Common sense (and the logic of personal, team and organization development) suggests that the advantage gained by the West Indies, in having an even more powerful batsman in their side, would assure them of an even more emphatic victory in the second match – especially given that ‘all other things were equal’. In fact, England won the second match by the considerable margin of ten wickets.
Although this outcome is counter-intuitive from a rational, linear-cause-and-effect standpoint, it makes perfect sense when viewed through a social complexity lens. Here, outcomes are seen to emerge from the complex interplay of in-the-moment interactions between people. And small changes in these interactions can lead to large and unpredictable shifts in the outcomes that ultimately emerge.
So, going back to our imaginary cricket match, we can envisage how a ball that had been hit for two runs by our ‘star’ batsman in the first match might, second time around, yield three runs. One consequence of this apparent advantage would be to change everything that happened from that point onwards. For example, one immediate effect of scoring the additional run would be that the batsmen would have changed ends. The next ball would then be faced by a player with different capabilities from those of the player who had received the equivalent delivery in the previous match – perhaps making the fall of a wicket more likely. In any event, an entirely different pattern of run-scoring and wicket-taking would have emerged over time – in this case resulting in the England win.
Organizations, similarly, are complex social processes of people interacting with each other. Rather than bats and balls, of course, the medium of interaction is conversation. Outcomes emerge from the complex interplay of these local, conversational exchanges in the form of:
- organization-wide strategies, processes, systems, procedures and similar artefacts of the formal organization;
- local actions (overt and covert) that flow from people’s ongoing sense making, in the light both of these formal, idealized designs and, at the same time, the specifics of the situation in which they find themselves ‘in the moment’;
- informal coalitional activity, through which people seek to initiate, support or frustrate particular courses of action;
- patterns of taken-for-granted assumptions that become embedded over time and which tend to channel ongoing sense making imperceptibly down familiar, ‘culturally acceptable’ pathways.
Overall ‘results’ arise from the complex inter-weaving of these formal and informal dynamics of everyday organizational life. And these results are recognized and validated as such (or not) through this same conversational process.
Small shifts in the pattern and content of this dynamic mix of planned and unforeseen interactions can lead to widely differing – and unpredictable - outcomes. The challenge for managers is how best to engage with these dynamics in ways that help to shift the content and pattern of interaction in organizationally beneficial ways. And this demands a focus on organizational dynamics more than on classical organization development.
Managers (like everyone else) can act with intention as they go about their work. But they can’t be sure what will happen as a result of their involvement in it. So paying attention to what’s going on in the messy reality of day-to-day organizational life, rather than focusing too much on the design and delivery of set-piece events and initiatives, is the essence of change leadership and ‘performance management’ from this perspective.
Although OD appears to add a different dimension to those offered by individual and team development, its focus still tends to be on formal, planned and ‘global’ approaches to organizational change and development. And these ignore the complex ‘local’ dynamics of interaction through which outcomes ultimately arise.
See Ashley’s dropped catch, for another take on this.