May 15, 2015

The Big Myth of Organisational Development

Etsko Schuitema

I have been in the game of organisational change for over 30 years now, 8 years of those spent as a researcher with the Chamber of Mines Research Organisation. In the course of these three decades much of my thinking and work has been dedicated to the development of workplaces that are fundamentally benign; that prosper and that solicit the commitment of members of the organisation. Over the years I have been involved in and have witnessed many interventions, some of which have succeeded and some of which have failed. In the case of both successes and failures, what is painfully apparent to me in hindsight is that you cannot account for them on the level of the organisation. You account for them on the level of the individual.

In cases where organisational interventions succeed it is invariably because there are a few individuals (not necessarily at the top of the organisation) who commit to the transformation that we are calling for and dedicate themselves to propagating the change. Where interventions fail it is more often than not because they are deliberately resisted by individuals in the organisation or because there is a lack of will in individuals to actually engage the challenge of change.

One of the practical implications of this is that one may have an immensely successful intervention in an organsiation that could be sustained over a very long period of time. However, should the leadership of that organisation change (by this I mean the individuals who run the organisation) then all the gains of the work done over many years can be nullified in less than a year. I have seen this happen to at least five interventions that I have been involved with since 1990.

It occurs to me that the critical issue here is the deliberate moral myopia practised by corporate leadership when it comes to appointing senior executives. I recently had the opportunity to debate this issue with a corporate CEO who had run an operating company in the corporation and had then been promoted to running the corporation. We had been involved in an organisational intervention at the operating company in question over a 15 year period, and the business had gained the reputation of being a solid, value driven organisation committed to the Care and Growth criteria. When I pointed out to the corporate CEO how his successor at the operating company was destroying the legacy that he had built over 15 years, his response, without a hint of defensiveness, was that as long as the man in question produced results he was to be left alone to run his business.

The dictum seems to be: “Produce results and don’t embarrass us publically by doing something with your people, your market or the environment that will get us in the press and you will get your bonus.” Worse, “Should you fail to produce a result and embarrass us in the press we may consider paying you twice your bonus if you promise to resign.” The impression this leaves one with is the more senior you are the less accountable you become.

In view of the above I have come to the following conclusion about the work that I do. If I think I am in the game of changing organisations I will, in the fullness of time, fail. It does not matter how successful the intervention is. Because we live in the context of a culture that uses fundamentally malevolent criteria to appoint leaders, at some point someone is going to take over the business you have done all this work in and trash all the gains. Quickly.

If, on the other hand, I consider myself to be in the game of helping individuals I stand a far greater chance of having some success. No matter how catastrophic the failure of an organisational intervention I have been involved with, there will always be an individual whose life has been touched by the thematic in some profound way and has since then used the criteria to make sense out of their life.

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