Organisational Development and the NPO leader: Part 2 - The OD Diagnostic Process

organisational development
Wednesday, 16 September, 2009 - 12:09

In the second part of the series focusing on organisational development (OD), Stuart Allen turns his attention to the OD diagnostic process. He writes that diagnosing the problem properly is key to being able to address and improve organisational effectiveness. The diagnostic process must follow a logical sequence: identify the problem, explore probable causes, and then find solutions

‘One-size fits all’ solutions are common today. Thousands of self-help and business books published each year make the assumption that ‘what has worked for me will work for you’. Often the solutions touted by supposed ‘gurus’ seem to make sense and even apply to our situations. However, people and organisations continue to have problems – evidence that self-help books are yet to provide the perfect cure.

Professor Dail Fields’ (Regent University, USA) writing on organisational diagnosis raises the modern occurrence of ‘solutions looking for a problem’. This simply means that we find a tool or idea that sounds great and proceed to implement the idea, which potentially distracts from or avoids the real problem and its causes. Illustratively: if you went to a mechanic and before you could explain your car’s problem they told you they would replace the radiator and everything will be fine, you would be pretty suspicious. However, if the mechanic spent some time test-driving your car, looking under the car and at the engine, and asking you questions about your experience of driving the car, you would be a lot more open to the list of suggested remedies. Organisations are no different - the new ideas, tools, strategies and methods (which often have clever names like ‘3rd-wave dynamics’) suggested by ‘gurus’ for improving some aspect of your organisation rarely address the unique situation, problems and environment of your organisation. What is more often required is a unique solution or an old solution customised in a unique way.

In Part 1 of this article series, diagnosis was named as the starting point of the organisational development (OD) process. This means isolating problems, figuring out what the causes are and preparing to look for solutions. For the NPO leader, I’d strongly recommend working with your management team, your board, an assembled task team, or all three, in starting the diagnostic process. Usually an OD process is started because of an awareness that ‘things aren’t as they should be’, but even if you are not overtly aware of major problems, you can engage this process as a means to give your organisation a health-check or to identify things that could be improved on.

Extending the mechanic metaphor, the next step in the process of diagnosis involves looking under the hood of the car to get more information. Now it is very easy for us, as the leader, to assume we know what the problem is, but our own relationships, personality biases and history, position in the organisation, and personal theories about the organisation may blind us from the real problem. Organisations can be like holograms – your position / perspective in an organisation is a major influence on how you understand or interpret a situation or problem. To avoid confusing symptoms and causes, focusing on the wrong problem or cause, as well as a myriad of other OD maladies, we need to follow an objective process that gives us perspective on the situation. Following a logical method helps us avoid these pitfalls. The diagnostic process involves a few steps:

a) determine your focal areas;
b) hypothesise about the possible causes of the problems;
c) gather data; and
d) analyse the data objectively to see if your hypothesis is supported.

Determining the focal areas of your diagnostic enquiry is essentially about identifying your key problems. It is like recording a list of a patient’s symptoms and trying to summarise them. Added to this, you should discuss these problems with different stakeholders (eg employees, board etc) to see if there is general agreement about the problems, symptoms and potential causes. This prevents you from falling into the trap of assuming you know what the causes and solutions are, and allows you to discover new and diverse information. The aim in discussing problems with others is to listen and ask questions – not to convince them of your views or theories.

The next step is to hypothesise on the cause of a particular problem. Now you probably already have a few hypotheses, but the idea is not to simply take a few wild stabs at what you think the issues might be. Rather, there are some well developed guidelines (based upon organisational theory) which help to explain the majority of organisational problems. The challenge is to figure out which one is relevant to a particular situation. Below are some questions that can guide us toward a hypothesis about the causes of a problem:

  • Is it a conflict / tension between management and employees?
  • Are employees’ needs not being met by the employer? (financial and others eg need for achievement or support)
  • Is employees’ work appropriately designed with clear roles, expectations and measurable goals? (although a mechanistic view, a lack of management control can be a cause of problems in organisations)
  • Is the organisation rationally designed (with clear authorities, administrative policies and procedures and required levels of competence at each level) or does the organisation rely purely on the charisma of its managers and leaders? Organisations cannot avoid all bureaucracy as control and freedom need to be balanced
  • Is the organisation structured in a way where it can be responsive to its environment? Rapidly changing environments often require smaller autonomous teams that can quickly make decisions and adapt to needs
  • Is the organisation reliant or dependent on any specific limited resource (eg personnel, funds, expertise, suppliers)? As soon as there is a resource dependency, people in organisations often compete for that resource or fight to reduce their dependence on it
  • Is the organisation excessively institutionalised by its need for legitimacy? Most NPOs need to comply with numerous laws and expectations. The organisation can lose its identity and uniqueness in this context. Is a better balance needed?
  • Beyond the formal hierarchy in the organisation, organisations become a bit like families with their informal webs of relationships. Is the informal organisation aligned with the formal organisation?

Various other common causes exist. However, the above questions may help you depersonalise your thinking and recognise deeper patterns in the organisation, which often relate to patterns in power, relationships, organisational structure, matching between the organisation’s design and its environment, management effectiveness, culture, and similar systemic issues.

The next step is to objectively confirm what is hypothesised or suspected by gathering real data and interpreting it. This step may involve interviews, surveys, examination of organisational records, work group observations, or focus groups. In many cases you need someone with technical expertise and objectivity in data collection, to help you collect accurate data and interpret it. The important thing is to let problems and causes emerge from the data, and not impose our favoured theory or explanation.

What I hope you would have gathered from this short introduction to the OD diagnostic process is the importance of following a logical sequence in identifying a focal problem, exploring a set of probable causes (with less focus on our own personal biases, assumptions and views), gathering data to see if we have the right problem and causes (a bit like a doctor doing blood tests to confirm their initial diagnosis based upon symptoms), and finally making judgements of the data to determine if, on balance of probability, you have isolated problems and causes that need to be worked upon to improve organisational effectiveness. The trick here is that you do not need to be the expert in diagnosis (hire/consult an expert if needed), but rather you need to ensure a proper diagnosis is completed to prevent you and your organisation from being peddled ‘a solution looking for a problem’ or missing the real problem. In Part 3 of this series, I will focus on planning your OD intervention.

- Dr Stuart Allen works at the Nyack College, SBL.

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