There was a moment back in the early 2000s, when I realised that Organisational Development (OD) was my place.  I had always been interested in helping organisations drive performance through their people, always interested in the intersection of strategy, people and culture; and even technology… having consulted my way through the last major tech transformation with ERP implementations and the unknown of Y2K.

Back then I had bought myself an expensive but treasured textbook, called ‘Practicing Organisational Development’, which defined OD as ‘planned change that takes a systems approach and makes extensive use of collaborative techniques to both solve the immediate problem and leave the organization in a more competent state to handle future challenges’. This resonated for me for well over a decade.

Then, post GFC, when I was consulting to, or working in, large corporate global organisations, I found a world of work that was full of politics and complexity.  And my idea of what OD was about was challenged by the broader challenges of the HR profession. HR found itself needing to be more pragmatic than the revenue generating business units, and harder on its own people than the people in these business units. In part, this is because change initiatives were designed using the latest trend or fad with a promise for change, and impact with a bottom-line ROI; but they often didn’t deliver.

I did have the opportunity of leading and working with newer, different, fresh OD approaches that triggered my rethinking of OD.  These projects included introducing design thinking for product strategy and the use of collaborative problem solving approaches that engaged large groups across the organisation to accelerate buy-in and change. I also began hearing of new ways of engaging people in organisational change that was less structured eg appreciative inquiry with its focus on finding the positive, on what is rather than not working, to move something forward.  Finally, I had also been on my own personal development journey to lean into my stage of adult development, growth and maturity.

But the opportunity to bring these experiences and learnings into an integrated practice and dialogic mindset hadn’t connected for me at this stage.  And so inevitably, there was the failure of beautifully designed and delivered OD projects that just didn’t get the expected and hoped for traction… sometimes they didn’t even make it past concept phase.  I saw leaders scratching their heads, thinking about their own credibility and sensing that the recommendation just wasn’t going to get cut through.

Factoring complexity more deliberately into OD

It was dawning on me that my definition of OD needed redefining, that top-down highly structured change programs just weren’t sufficiently and consistently delivering the desired change well enough in organisations faced with complexity.

And it wasn’t just me with my own reflections.

Global consulting firms and management journals include articles about the lack of impact of organisational change efforts. A recent survey on the topic has confirmed a long-standing trend: few executives say their companies’ transformations succeed.  Of the 2000 or so executives who were interviewed and surveyed, only a quarter say that transformations have been very or completely successful at both improving performance and equipping the organization to sustain improvements over time.  That means that 75% of change initiatives aren’t successful!

And now with a global pandemic such as COVID, irrespective of size, and arguably industry, all organizational leaders and their teams are having to deal with a more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world… or as a client refers to it with her executive team, VUCA + +.

My view now is that there is an opportunity for us as a community of OD practitioners to review how we contribute to perpetuating top-down change and rethink how can we enable change that recognizes our context of complexity and connects people, purpose and profit.

We need to ‘think again’… borrowing from Adam Grant’s 2021 book – where in a rapidly changing world, the idea of our intelligence as the ability to think and learn is no longer sufficient, and a new set of cognitive skills matter more. That is the ability to also unlearn and rethink as our ideas about how the world works needs to remain fluid as new information is acquired and as context changes.

We need to do this as most leaders tend to underestimate the complex nature of the problem and apply a complicated/ordered/planned approach to solving it … they seek out OD/Transformation/Change experts to help diagnose the problem, recommend how to solve it and implement the solution.  What I’ve learnt, is that while this ‘planned’ approach is valuable and can be effective if the problem is indeed a complicated one, more often than not, once the solution has been implemented, the problem recurs or presents itself elsewhere as another version of itself.

When people are involved, it is more likely that the problem is not so much complicated as complex. The nature of the problem could have many many perspectives and how the whole system interacts with it will determine at any one point in time how the issue presents itself.  Ron Heiftz has helped us to understand that this is more of an adaptive challenge, requiring an adaptive approach….

Expanding perspectives – Dialogic OD

While Diagnostic OD is better suited to complicated, technical problems, Dialogic OD is a more effective approach for complex, adaptive challenges. It draws on generative change principles which are adaptive to their context, where cause and effect are only perceptible in retrospect and where transformational change is more emergent than planned.

Back in 2009, Gervase Bushe and Bob Marshak realized that the practice of OD wasn’t always what was reflected in the textbooks on OD, and they began to refer to these practices as Dialogic OD.  They see Dialogic OD as being “powered by attending to the generative nature of conversations (Marshak, 2004), processes (Bushe, 2013a), images (Bushe, 2013b; Bushe & Storch, 2015), and leaders (Bushe & Marshak, 2016)”.  Dialogic OD asks questions like ‘what could be’ rather than ‘what is true’.

This is an important departure from Diagnostic OD, as ‘what is true’ is different for individuals and groups. Organisations are made up of networks of meaning-making, where people make meaning of their experiences.  There is no one notion of truth in a complex environment.  In these situations, actions result from interaction with others and informed by people’s own social construction of reality.  Furthermore it is sustained by prevailing narratives, stories, metaphors and conversations.

Dialogic OD sees the opportunity to enable transformation in complex environments by shaping conversations and enabling emergence, continuous and iterative change, by working with large groups who are directly impacted by the change, using probes and experiments, where leaders hold open spaces and places for conversations, experimentation and learning.

It starts with a shared view on the adaptive challenge, in order to create a clear purpose; what Gervase Bushe describes as a possibility future-focused statement. The purpose could be ‘we want to improve customer satisfaction’ or ‘we want to increase profitability’, or ‘we want to improve aged care’.

There are 3 core underlying change practices of Dialogic OD. For transformational change to take hold, hosting conversations about change is insufficient. There also needs the following processes:

  • Generativity – Compelling new possibilities, ideas, and ways of looking at things, such as a generative image, captures stakeholders attention, catalyses them to think and act in ways that they couldn’t consider before and translates the adaptive challenge into a shared purpose that connects and engages all stakeholders.
  • Narrative – Conversations shape everyday thinking and behaviour and changes to core narratives guides peoples thinking and acting and consequently are a powerful change process.
  • Emergence – Stimulating processes of disruption and emergence is often necessary for transformational change to occur. Facilitating or hosting disruptions can bring awareness to something implicit that stakeholders come to realise is no long effective or viable. When the need for control is relinquished, it can propel them to find ‘order out of chaos’ in new and novel ways. The use of probes and experiments allows people to create new pattens of organising better suited to current needs and conditions. This enables generative change to emerge, rather than be pre-determined such as in a more diagnostic, planned change approach.

So the dialogic approach considers how to induce new ways of thinking by altering the ongoing organisational conversations that continuously create, re-create and frame understanding and action.

Ed Schein has reflected that in his “experience the world is becoming more complex, less predictable, more culturally interdependent, and more riddled with problems and issues that can only be dealt with adaptively”. He goes onto argue that “we need OD processes that are capable of dealing with such issues, that admit from the outset that benchmarking and scanning the current scene will not produce the creative solutions that we will need”.

So let’s rethink OD – to think differently about how we bring value to organisations and reinvigorate our OD teams and impact. Let’s recognize that trying to solve adaptive challenges with technical solutions is flawed and shift from trying to fix problems to cultivating a system capable of addressing its own challenges.

Borrowing from Ed Schein’s own learning about his Organisational Development work and lifelong experience… the promise of solving a problem permanently is illusive; it is only ameliorated because ‘any solution will inevitably create a new problem’ (Bushe 2020). This paradox creates an opportunity for OD to help people to learn how to learn, leverage small wins and build on successes, learn from failures, so we can continually adapt as the environment changes and new issues arise.

As the world becomes more complex, the Dialogic OD approach invites the profession to step into a mindset of inquiry based collaborative consulting which as Gervase and Marshak argue, has the potential to reimagine OD.

Like them, I am excited; even somewhat relieved, that there is this realisation and potential to reinvigorate the profession… opening up the choices available, by working more adaptively by expanding the mental maps that individuals, consultants and the OD profession holds about why, who and how it seeks to help.

There’s a real opportunity to create a movement of OD consultants and practitioners who are able to 1) help determine whether there is a technical problem or adaptive challenge 2) challenge the dominant mindset and the desire to solve an adaptive challenge with a technical solution and 3) embrace the opportunity for adaptively, iteratively, perpetually changing and learning.  This is how OD creates value for individuals, teams, organisations and society, by creating connection, building momentum and evolving the system in order to improve our responses to the many, varied and shared, complex and wicked problems.

How has your perspective of OD shifted? Are you pro-dialogic, like me?

References and futher reading:

Dialogic Organisational Development, Bushe and Marshak eds, BK Publishers, 2015

How to beat the transformation odds, Jacquemont et al, McKinsey Survey,

April 2015

Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis, Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, HBR Magazine, July-August 2009

Planned and Generative Change in Organization Development, in OD Practitioner Vol. 50: 4, 2018

Practicing organizational development: A guide for Consultants, Rothwell and Sullivan, Pfeffer, 2005

The Dynamics of Generative Change, Gervase Bushe, BMI Series in Dialogic Organisational Development, BMI Publishing, 2020