An Anthology of my Critiques of Organizational Development

My friend and former business partner, Kristin Cobble, recently asked me to re-share some of my critiques of the organizational development (OD) field and of OD consultants in particular. It took me some digging to pull together what I felt were the most relevant posts, so I thought I’d share them here.

The best place to start is, “Group Process on Steroids.” I make the point that OD practitioners tend to be too meeting- or tool-centric. I think they need to be more principle- and practice-driven, like chefs.

In “Disrupting Organizational Consulting,” I talk about commoditizing the low-end of the market. For most people, hiring OD (or management, for that matter) consultants is overkill, and they generally get a low return on that investment. If we created more DIY and low-end support options (which is where I’m focusing a lot of my energy right now), we could eliminate that side of the market, which would also help weed out mediocre consultants. I riff on this some more in, “What Consultants Can Learn From the Photography Field.”

In “Organizational Development as Product Design,” I compare the two fields, and I talk about what OD consultants could be learning from product designers. One of those things is about naming and testing your assumptions up-front, which would give us a baseline for measuring our effectiveness. This rarely happens, especially among social change consultants, many of whom suffer from Noble Pursuit Syndrome.

“Lessons from the NBA on Life, Learning, and Navigating Power” is more of a personal riff, but I talk a bit about the lack of openness and collaboration in organizational consulting, something I’m trying to be a lot more intentional about modeling.

Finally, this network analysis of OD and related fields shows how siloed the OD field in particular is, and discusses some of the implications.

What Consultants Can Learn from the Photography Field

Last year, I wrote that I wanted to disrupt organizational consulting. My basic premise is that spending money on organizational consultants is a poor investment the vast majority of the time. Those funds are better spent developing the internal capacity to do the same kind of work.

I think this holds true across the board, but it’s especially true for small organizations, particularly nonprofits. They often don’t have the capacity to evaluate or manage consultants, and they don’t have the budgets to afford good consultants or to absorb the mistake of hiring mediocre or bad ones.

I believe there are lower-cost, higher-return ways to meet the needs that organizational or management consultants typically provide. This is what I’ve been exploring (and writing about at Faster Than 20) for the past year.

Suppose that I’m right. Furthermore, suppose that this is already happening in a big way and that organizational consultants are starting to feel the pinch as a result. If you’re a consultant, what should you do (besides come after me with torches and pitchforks)?

There are plenty of examples where this has already happened — photography, for example. It would be a massive understatement to say that the field of professional photography has shifted significantly. The low-end of the photography market has become completely commoditized.

Digital technology, of course, is to blame, but it goes beyond the ubiquity of cameras. There was a time when being a photographer meant understanding metering, film speed, manual lenses, etc. Today’s cameras figure out most of that for you, and they do a fine job of it most of the time. Two out of three non-professional DSLR owners have never changed their mode dial away from automatic.

The barrier to entry for taking decent quality photos is low, meaning that the market for photographers has completely changed. There is a saturation of “professionals,” and most people are taking their own pictures for many uses rather than hiring pros. Last year, the Chicago Sun Times laid off its staff of photographers (later rehiring a few), opting to use freelancers and train its reporters to take pictures instead.

What are professional photographers doing in the face of these dramatic market changes?

When the low-end of a market gets commoditized, that increases the value of the high-end. There’s still a market for great photographers. To take advantage of that market, you have to be great at your craft, and you have to do everything you can to keep growing.

I recently listened to a podcast interview with photographer, Jay Bartlett, who described how he continues to differentiate himself. First, because he’s a fashion photographer, he has done everything he can to learn about every aspect of fashion — from the makeup to the clothes to the industry. It’s not just about mastering his technical craft, it’s also about mastering the subject of his art.

Second, when he was first starting out, rather than invest in equipment like most photographers, he chose to invest in a support team so that he didn’t have to do everything himself. Famed photographer, Joe McNally, recently told a similar story, describing the critical role his studio manager, Lynn, plays in keeping his operation running.

What can organizational consultants learn from this?

First, don’t rest on your laurels. Just because the bar is low, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t raise it on your own. Set high standards, and continue honing your craft.

Second, invest in a team. It’s great that you can do everything — everyone should know how to work the line — but you should be focusing on what you do best, and working with others to do the rest. That means being intentional about building a team and applying your own skills in facilitating collaboration toward your own team.

The market for organizational consulting at the low-end should be commoditized. People can and should be able to do the basic work on their own with more cost-effective (and effective in general) support structures than consulting. But there will always be a need at the high-end. Those of you who are consultants should be working to get there and to continue growing.

Networks and Enrollment

Los Angeles Union Station

I spent this past Wednesday with some of my favorite colleagues talking about networks and social change. Garfield Foundation had brought us together to surface our collective mental models about networks and to see where they overlapped and where they diverged. The day was rife with wonderful twists on familiar topics, and I learned a tremendous amount exploring different nuances with the others.

One of the important themes that emerged was enrollment. The classic careless way to approach design is to say, “Let’s just get everybody into a room together and see what happens!” There’s an element of openness here that should be encouraged, but beyond that, this approach is likelier to create more problems than solve them. It’s critical to think through the following questions:

  • Whom do you want to engage in your process?
  • How do you enroll them?
  • At what stage do you enroll them?
  • How do you want them to engage with each other?

Taj James shared a wonderful metaphor for how to think about enrollment: Picking people up at the train station. Do you want to pick people up at the first stop? The second stop? The third? What would happen if you had picked up the people from the third stop at the first stop instead? What if you want to pick up a group of people at the first stop, but they’re not ready to travel? Maybe they’re not packed yet, or maybe they don’t want to travel with people they don’t really know.

Here are three examples of how I dealt with issues of enrollment in previous projects:

Wikimedia Strategic Planning

The purpose of the Wikimedia Strategic Planning process (2009-2010) was to build a movement-wide set of priorities through a bottoms-up process. We had to navigate around two conceptual myths:

  • “We have to work in small, closed groups before we can open up the process. Otherwise, it will be too chaotic, and we’ll never get anything done.”
  • “Once we have something to show people, we’ll put it out there, and thousands of volunteers will magically start working on it.”

The first myth is a common one. It is easier to get things done and build relationships when working with small groups. But should the first stage of a process like this be about “getting things done”? Who gets to be part of that initial small group, and what will be the impact of the people you leave behind at that first station? Also, is “closed” truly a prerequisite for working in small groups?

When I came on board, the team had already drafted a plan that did not open up the process until three or four months into a 12-month process. I immediately changed that, and two weeks later, we were engaging with the community in an open, large-scale way. My reasoning was this:

  • The end goal was co-creation and broad-scale ownership of the strategy. If you don’t give people the opportunity to get on board early, then it won’t be co-creation.
  • Even if you gave people the opportunity to get on board, why would they? Wikipedians are overwhelmingly young (in their teens and 20s, many of them students). Most of them had never heard of strategic planning, much less participated in a planning process. Many of them didn’t even know what the Wikimedia Foundation was or that it even existed. They were there because they liked writing carefully crafted, thoughtfully researched articles about areas of interest. Why would they spend time participating in a strategy process?
  • We already had a small group of people who were committed to working on strategy, and we had some norms and relationships in place. Given that core, I was confident in my ability to open up participation while maintaining a high-level of productivity.

We engaged our core community immediately around questions that mattered to them, and we listened. The initial question we asked was, “If you had the opportunity to change anything, what would you change, and why?” The “why” question pushed people to start thinking strategically, because it forced them to connect tactics to purpose. It helped everybody — not just us — understand what people were seeing and thinking, and it also surfaced people who were already thoughtful and engaged whom we could more actively target in later stages of the project. Because it was many-to-many conversation as a opposed to something like a survey, people were building relationships with each other while they worked through these questions.

We also continued doing our preparation work, but we did it openly, inviting others to jump in and participate. The deluge of distracting volunteers that people feared never came. Instead, the people who did come helped shape and improve the work that we were doing, and many of them became critical leaders later in the process.

Delta Dialogues

With the Delta Dialogues (2012 and still continuing without me), we were dealing with the wickedest of problems: California water issues. One of the ongoing dynamics was the lack of inclusion in existing planning processes. People involved in planning feared disruption, and so they would either exclude stakeholders from early stages of the process, or they would try to control their participation through a set of discouraging ground rules. That simply reinforced the rampant mistrust that already existed in the region, especially when the resulting plans felt one-sided, which made those stakeholders even more disruptive. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We originally proposed a joint small-group / large-scale engagement process, but for a variety of reasons, we ended up focusing on a small, representative group of stakeholders. It was a network leadership play. Our goal was not to “get things done.” That approach wasn’t working, because people were not taking the time to listen and understand to each other. Our primary goal was shared understanding.

Once again, our biggest challenge was going to be enrollment. There was severe planning fatigue in the region, and the people we were targeting were extremely busy. The exact timing (beyond our control) was even more challenging, because it came in the heart of harvest season, when farmers in the region were literally working around the clock, seven days a week. How were we going to get people into the room? How could we keep them coming back?

We played a number of cards:

  • We focused on people, not just organizations. People didn’t really know much about our organizational client, the Delta Conservancy. But everybody knew, liked, and trusted its Executive Director, Campbell Ingram. People came the first few times because of their relationship to him. It was our responsibility at that point to keep them coming. If he had not already been such a trusted network weaver, we probably could not have gotten this process off the ground.
  • We bet that participants would buy into the goal of shared understanding versus something like planning.
  • We invested a considerable amount of time creating a space that was safe, inviting, and transparent. Instead of hosting the conversations in a “neutral space,” we rotated locations among the stakeholders. That deepened empathy and relationships, because people were not only talking to each other, they were immersed in each other’s worlds. It was also far more inviting to spend a day on a farm or in a nature preserve than it was to be stuck in an office building.
  • We thought explicitly about people we wanted to bring on board at future stations, and we tried to set the stage for that. We produced artifacts that people could easily share outside of meetings, all centrally located at a public website that anyone could point to. We assigned each other buddies, and we encouraged people to talk to their buddies between meetings. We also had a leadership development component to encourage people to have these same kinds of conversations outside of our process. (This part of our process wasn’t working, and we quickly scrapped it. We were trying to do too much.)

Our ongoing challenge was making sure people kept coming back. And, at each meeting, people would consistently say that they had felt swamped and had considered skipping, but that they were glad they came and that this was their favorite time of the week.

Organizational Change Initiatives

I don’t really differentiate an “organizational approach” from a “network approach” in my mind, because an organization is simply a type of network, and the same principles apply. I’ve been in a few large-scale organizational change efforts, and enrollment was always a huge, sometimes overlooked challenge. People don’t necessarily think this is the case, because if you’re working with C-level leadership, they can essentially “force” people to “participate.” The power dynamic here is similar to what many foundations experience. They can easily get people into a room. However, getting people into a room is not the same as enrollment.

Many organizational consultants make  two mistakes in their processes. First, they spend all of their time with leadership, which simply reinforces both a narrow perspective as well as a power dynamic that gets in the way of broad participation. Second, they focus entirely on the meetings. Again, you can leverage power dynamics to get people to a meeting, but your success depends on what people do outside of those meetings.

I always apply the same principles of participatory processes to my organizational work, and I invest just as much time building relationships with people at all levels of the organization. Those leaders are critical in getting other people on board at future stops.

Noble Pursuit Syndrome

Earlier this week, I told my friend, Jeff Mohr, about a strange result from a survey that we took last year about nonprofits’ experiences working with consultants. As Rebecca Petzel noted in her writeup of the results, the nonprofits we surveyed generally expressed a high degree of satisfaction in the quality of their consultants’ work, but the majority also said that the work had not stuck. (Here’s some additional analysis performed by a larger group of participants at a followup workshop.)

How could organizations be satisfied with the work if it didn’t stick?

Jeff’s response was to cite a term that his dad, Mike Mohr, likes to use: “Noble Pursuit Syndrome.” It seems that folks in the social change space often rationalize work by suggesting that the intentions were good, therefore the work could not have been bad.

Not only is this something I observe others do all the time, it’s something I personally do all the time! My higher self is aware of this and tries to counterbalance it, which is a big reason why I ultimately left consulting. But it’s also a big reason why I stayed in consulting so long. I and my team would work our butts off on an inspiring project, and at the end of the project, we would review our often softly-framed success metrics, discuss all of the things that we thought went well, then collect our checks and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.

I always felt (and still do feel) completely validated from a market standpoint. But it was hard to truly assess the quality of our work from a social impact standpoint. While I tried (and am still trying) to be thoughtful and rigorous about impact, I often found (and am still finding) myself falling back on Noble Pursuit Syndrome. It’s a challenge, and I believe it’s a serious problem in this space.

Jeff said that Mike has threatened to write more about the syndrome. I, for one, would love to hear what he has to say, and I hope that others share their thoughts and experiences with this as well.

Disrupting Organizational Consulting

My secret goal with Changemaker Bootcamp is to disrupt management and organizational development (OD) consulting.

My rough and totally unscientific estimate is that the budgets for 90 percent of all management and organizational development consulting projects would be better spent on capacity development for staff.

Good consultants already orient their work toward developing this capacity, but it comes at a premium cost. When compared to other consultants who are charging similar or higher costs but are providing far less value, these costs are more than justified. However, I think there’s a huge market opportunity for something that provides greater, broader value at a fraction of the cost.

Physical fitness offers an apt analogy. If you want premium service, you can hire a personal trainer. At the opposite end of the market, you can buy a book or search the web for tips on how to stay fit. There are many services in-between as well: DVDs, bootcamps, gym memberships, and so forth.

Fitness Market

With organizational work, there are two extremes with very little in the middle, and it’s skewed heavily (and needlessly) toward the high-end.

Organizational Effectiveness Market: What Is

There’s consulting on the high-end, and there are books and articles on the low-end. Most existing training programs fall on the low-end of the spectrum as well, because they are oriented primarily around delivering information rather than on shifting behaviors.

There’s no reason why the market for organizational effectiveness should not look more like the market for physical fitness.

OE Market: What Should Be

I think organizations in general — and, by extension, society as a whole — would be much better off if it did. I think services like Changemaker Bootcamp have the potential to shift the market in this way.

An Example: Strategic Planning

Consider strategic planning. Organizations bring in consultants to help guide the process or to provide content expertise. The vast majority of strategic planning processes focus on helping the leadership team develop the “right” strategy.

Some organizations really benefit from these processes, because they understand what strategy is, and, more importantly, they understand how to act strategically. I’ve worked with several organizations like this, where my primary role was to create the space for them to have the strategic conversation. Once they had that space, they were able to align quickly and execute effectively.

The vast majority of organizations — and people, it seems — don’t fall into this category. In these cases, hiring a consultant is a waste of money. These organizations don’t have the capacity to evaluate the end result, and they’re not likely to act on it regardless.

Unfortunately, these organizations often hire consultants anyway, and the results are predictably ugly — “strategies” consisting of long lists of goals that are too general and abstract to mean anything. Not that it matters, since no one in these organizations generally knows what those goals are anyway.

The worst part about all this is that developing a good strategy is relatively easy. Acting strategically is what’s truly hard.

Acting strategically takes practice. Good consultants can help organizations practice in the same way that personal trainers help their clients. However, most consultants do not take this approach. Even if they did, there ought to be more and better ways to support practice than consulting.

Changemaker Bootcamp’s approach is to offer a set of exercises for practicing asking generative questions. These exercises don’t require any specialized skill to do, but they can help develop specialized skills if repeated often enough with constructive feedback from others.

My hypothesis is that most organizations would benefit far more from having their staff go through exercises like these than they would from hiring expensive consultants lead them through traditional planning processes.