Organisational Development and the NPO Leader: Part 1 - What is OD?

organisational development
Tuesday, 8 September, 2009 - 10:36

Organisational development is the systematic practice of improving an organisation’s effectiveness in an orderly and thoughtful manner. This should make sense to committed and experienced leaders who know that it usually takes persistence and long-term effort to achieve anything of real value. Leaving it entirely up to human resources consultants is a mistake, rather NGO leaders need to be involved, and understand the principles of this important practice

Organisational Development (OD) is the systematic practice of improving an organisation’s effectiveness. Every leader, NPO/NGO or otherwise, would love to see their organisation become more effective. OD is therefore something that all leaders need to understand and be able to get involved in. Putting OD in the domain of only HR people and consultants is a mistake that many organisations have made. There are some OD processes which are more complex, risky or time consuming, which could motivate a leader to look for an OD practitioner, but even in these circumstances, understanding OD, its principles and aims, will ensure that the leader does not get mislead and can maintain oversight of the OD process.

A lot of people like to label all kinds of practices and processes ‘OD’, for example team building is often seen as OD. Team-building can be a form of OD, but calling team-building OD is like equating town planning to bricklaying. In truth, real OD follows a specific set of guidelines in how it is motivated, planned and executed. The aim of this article will be to help you, the NPO/NGO leader understand what OD is and what should guide its use (Parts 2-4 of this series of articles will explore the practical process of OD in more detail). Organisational effectiveness can mean many things, such as better structures, smoother service delivery, better stakeholder engagement, or a better organisational ‘mood’. One way of understanding organisational effectiveness, which I have borrowed from Edgar Schein (one of the major pioneers of organisational theory and research) is to divide organisational effectiveness into internal integration and external adaption.

Essentially internal integration covers all matters related to getting the members (or departments/teams) within an organisation working together well. This covers issues such as conflict, communication, alignment of different units, organisational culture, climate, leadership, integration of technology, communication and implementation of strategy, trust, decision-making, change, and a whole lot more. Internal integration is about getting the ‘insides’ of the organisation working well to ensure the organisation can focus on and achieve its mission or purpose.

External adaption, on the other hand, is all about getting the organisation aligned with its environment. This includes variables like stakeholder relations, aligning the organisation to funders, aligning the organisation to social needs to ensure relevance, compliance to the law and regulations (including employment equity or affirmative action), relationships with other NPO/NGOs, and identifying and developing strategy. Having an organisation that works well, but is poorly aligned to its environment (eg meeting needs that are not key to society or inability to gain funding), typically results in as many problems as an organisation that is well aligned to its environment but has internal integration issues (eg torn apart internally by politics).

Like people, organisations are never in perfect shape (or at least not for long) before a new challenge comes along and begins to create problems. So do not expect your organisation not to have issues. The key for the leader is to recognise which issues are paramount, in terms of internal integration and external adaptation, and drive those issues as long as necessary or until a greater issue comes along. In general, OD does not refer to short-term, minor interventions (eg painting the office) but focuses on long-term adaptive processes (eg trying to get an organisation to become more responsive to its clients or beneficiaries, or building a stronger, sustainable leadership structure). Such long-term, complex problems may take months and years to overcome. In other words, OD does not follow a ‘problem’ or ‘flavour’ of the month approach, but is usually far more big-picture and strategic in the issues that it focuses on. It is a systematic effort to change the organisation in deeper ways such as with culture, strategy, structure or capacity.

OD typically follows a cycle of diagnosis, planning and intervention. Diagnosis is the process of identifying what the issues are and what is causing them. Without an understanding of what the issues or problems are, we are unable to prioritise or choose interventions. This is the topic of Part 2 in the article series and will help leaders understand how to go about the process of diagnosing problems. Suffice it to say that we are usually aware of the symptoms (eg clients, funders or employees complaining), but we are not always able to see the underlying problems or their causes.

Once we have established the problems and their causes, we are in a position to beginning planning interventions and changes to overcome the problems (Part 3 in the series). This stage is all about exploring options, problem solving and thinking through plans to make a change. When actual intervention implementation (Part 4 in the series) begins, it needs to be executed in a systematic and well-thought out manner to ensure that needed changes take root.

OD is often programmatic, meaning it often involves a series or collection of interventions rather than just one intervention. For example, a large organisation wanting to develop its culture will not achieve this with one intervention (eg a series of workshops on the ‘new’ culture’ over a month), but will more likely require a series of interventions (eg workshops, training, communication campaigns, motivational realignment, updating of rituals and symbols) over a number of months or even years in order to see real improvement. Failure in diagnosis (eg focusing on the wrong problem), planning (eg choosing the wrong intervention) or intervention (eg running the intervention in a disorganised or unprofessional manner), will allow the initial problems to persist.

Significant changes to an organisation’s effectiveness are rarely achieved by haphazard or accidental interventions or processes. They are also rarely achieved by lone individuals or leaders. Hence, in most organisations an OD programme requires a team of committed individuals (including significant representation from the leadership of the organisation) to guide and oversee OD programmes. In some large organisations this will result in an entire OD department dedicated to this purpose. Regardless of who is doing the work, OD is so important to the organisation that the leader has to be present and committed to aid, guide and oversee the OD process. Leaders should never relegate themselves to the periphery of OD by abdicating the organisation’s whole OD programme to others (eg HR or consultants), and significant involvement (at least in terms of awareness and support) of the board is critical. Equally, leaders may lose perspective of their organisation and problems that occur, and it is even possible that the leader becomes part of the problem. In this case, having an independent and experienced outsider to aid the OD process is critical. Aspects or tasks in the OD process can be delegated, but the overall direction and championing of the OD programme requires a passionate, involved and humble leader.

I hope what you have seen thus far is that OD is relevant to every organisational leader. Within NPOs, as well as corporate environments, there is little forgiveness for organisational ineffectiveness, and organisations disappear every year. Equally I hope you will see that OD follows a logical and systematic sequence. It is not haphazard and does not rely on (much) guess-work. Rather it is a step-by-step process of identifying problems or needed changes, planning those changes, and implementing the changes (through interventions) in an orderly and thoughtful manner. This should make sense to most committed and experienced leaders who will know that it usually takes persistence and long-term effort to achieve anything of real value.

Dr Stuart Allen works at the Nyack College, SBL

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