One thing I do quite a lot is networking. This often involves going into a room full of strangers and talking to them. This is how a typical conversation will go:

Stranger: “Hello, I’m Geoff.”

Me: “Hello Geoff, I’m Richard.”

(Business cards are exchanged)

Me: “So what do you do?”

Geoff (Not a stranger any more, you see): “I’m a procurement manager.” (inspects my card). “So what is it that you do?”

Me: “I’m and Organisational Development Consultant.”

Geoff: “Oh. So what what is it that you do?”

The next line depends very much on what Geoff does. Sometimes I say “It’s sort of like HR”, sometimes I tell them “it’s kind of like personal development, only with organisations.”

In my more retrospective moments, which rarely occur during networking, I try and think what Organisational Development is, and how to describe it.

For me, OD is about making organisations more effective through its people.

That sounds simple, but what that encompasses is really, really complex, and it means you need to know quite a few things before you can get started.

Firstly, you need to know how effective the organisation is now. And for that, you need to know what the organisation is there for; what is it meant to do?

This is a very straightforward question, surely? A shop sells things; a manufacturer makes things (and then sells them); a legal firm offers advice about the law to clients. 

There is clearly more to it than that, and I have blogged previously about the importance of vision and values to an organisation, and how these link to the strategy; if you combine all of these, you will get a sense of what the purpose of the organisation is, and then you can start to think about how effective the organisation is.

Then you need to think about how they can make it more effective. How it can do what it needs to do to meet its purpose in a better way.

Clearly you can change things like systems and processes, making them more efficient and productive, which is fine as far as it goes; what you also need to bear in mind is that you need people to operate these new systems and make these new processes happen, which is why I define OD as the process of making organisations more effective through their people.

This can be as simple as making sure people can operate the new processes or systems; however, there should be more OD can do. OD can look at the culture of an organisation, and see if it is aligned to the purpose; OD can see if the behaviours that are dominant in the organisation are going to help or hinder effectiveness; OD can see if leaders are leading in a way that helps or hinders too; OD can help you understand if your people are engaged with what you are doing, and with the organisation.

At its heart, OD for me is about change; if you are becoming more effective, then you need to change something about the organisation, and for change to be effective, people need to understand what’s changing, why and how, in order to make that change happen. Again, it’s all about the people.

Most of all, OD is about asking questions; it’s about defining and clarifying where the organisation is now, and where it needs to be, and then asking more questions to understand and define the journey between those places that the people of the organisation need to go on.

Which is why, in my blog, I usually end up with a question. What does organisational development mean to you? What have I left out? What else does it mean? Have a think, and let me know.

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