The meaning of Organization Development (OD)
Our philosophy of Organization Development is crafted by our founder, Robert P Crosby, but
perhaps best summed up by Dr. W. Warner Burke. He stated that, “To be OD it must (1)
respond to an actual and perceived need for change on the part of the client, (2) involve the
client in the planning and implementation of the change, and (3) lead to change in the
organization’s culture.” Further, Dr. Burke went on to write that,”…organization development is a process of fundamental change in an organization’s culture. By fundamental change, as
opposed to fixing a problem or improving a procedure, I mean that some significant aspect of a
culture will never be the same.”
How authority works in all organizations
Robert P Crosby was heavily influenced by two seminal thinkers in the twentieth century: Kurt
Lewin (1890-1947) and John Dewey (1859-1952). Not only did he study their work, but he also
was trained by Goodwin Watson, a colleague of John Dewey, and had a 29-year mentorship
and colleagueship with Ronald Lippitt (starting in 1957), one of Kurt Lewin’s top graduate
students. Both Dewey and Lewin believed that democracy is a learned behavior. Further, it is
more difficult to learn than either autocracy or permissive styles of leadership. That is, all
employees already know how to behave under an autocratic leader. The continuum of this
behavior, depending on their work culture, will be to either fall in line passively or find ways to
sabotage the direction.
Employees also adapt to permissive environments. In them, bosses often become indirect and
ineffective. This can easily result in the traps of asking permission for the smallest of actions
and in a failure to implement even important changes. Rather than trying to direct others, the
path of least resistance for some becomes “unless I do it myself, the work won’t get done.” On
the other hand, some supervisors may try to overcome the environment by being inappropriately
autocratic, or “tough.” The most predictable result of this is a backlash against the supervisor,
rather than inspiring appropriate dialogue about the dilemma of trying to lead in a permissive
environment. Because of these dynamics, permissive environments are ironically a breeding
ground for passivity and conflicts that are left unresolved, the very problems they are designed
In autocratic environments, large problems and conflicts often get resolved by bosses mandating
“the fix,” thus dis-empowering employees and decreasing their ability to manage issues and/or
execute solutions. Everyone has ideas about their work, and the inability to act on at least some
of those ideas kills discretionary effort. Even worse, solid practical solutions from the workforce
get lost. The inability to act can happen in both autocratic and permissive environments.
Furthermore, in both environments bosses tend to let conflicts linger between people and
departments and do not give the oversight and support that could help them begin to build the
competencies necessary for effective resolution. The art of leadership is to be able to tread the
middle between these extremes in order to drive direction and ownership throughout the
organization. This, however, takes commitment to learning which includes education, skill
practice, and persistence.
In a nutshell, it is this: Authority exists in all systems. Pretend it does not by trying to take away
all supervisors and it will still emerge. If a group has no formal boss followers and leaders will
still fall into place, but at random (a good example of this, although extreme, is the novel, “Lord
of the Flies”). Furthermore, don’t kid yourself that a self-managed team has no boss. The layers
above are still responsible for the team’s performance. If a leaderless group is failing, they will
either be corrected from above or they will drag the organization’s performance down with them.
Rather than creating a vacuum of authority by eliminating supervisors or bosses, we think it is
better to focus on creating clarity about authority of who can decide what, and to encourage
dialogue about work issues upward and downward. This needs to be done in each intact work
group (boss and direct reports) as well as cross-functionally. In fact, think of clarifying authority
as an ongoing task with no end, and with adjustments made as situations change. It should
happen at all levels, with the people closest to the work given the ability to make fast decisions
so that effective work gets done. In other words, delegate authority as much as possible with
clarity about who decides and how they will be monitored. Further, don’t be driven by an ideology. The often-repeated error here is to immediately (sometimes behind the guise of a new program) move every group from authoritarian leadership to permissive as if all are the same. We recommend an evolutionary approach that takes into account the uniqueness of each group/crew and recognizes that some will work better with a more directive style, while some groups can be more successful working with little direction as long as goals and accountability are clear. All of our business books highlight the folly of permissiveness as manifested in the notion of self-managed teams. We think the same of authoritarianism.
Finally, this is a journey without an end. As people become more capable they need more
decision authority in order for the organization to be as productive as possible, but always with
clarity and accountability. Newer employees with little experience, of course, need more
direction (as nicely modeled by Hersey and Blanchard’s “Situational Leadership”).
Let your employees have as much freedom as you can, but never do it suddenly without clarity
in a way that creates chaos and power struggles. Authority is! It is not good, bad, right, or
wrong. When an organization creates a vacuum by trying to eliminate supervisors, authority will
arise in the workforce sometimes for better but far too often for worse. It’s too important to leave
to chance! Effective organizations are honest about authority and continually strive to find
balance. Having real authority to act is a critical component of creating employee ownership.
The goal is for managers to give the employees maximum influence including appropriate
delegation so that work can be accomplished with quality and on time. Yet managers must stay
in touch with the results and quality of the work. Therefore, simple ways to monitor and
continually assess whether the business objectives are being achieved are critical components
of delegation and are often, ironically, overlooked.
On being practical
We have both a lofty goal of OD, which is to create again what we have helped emerge in many
organizations and a practical belief that not all organizations need or want complete cultural
change. Of course, we want to create a fundamental change in cultures but we also pride
ourselves in being practical. Realizing that many organizations don’t have a need or motivation
to make such a large fundamental change, we also provide practical solutions to solve the
smaller problems that nag all organizations.