What common challenges do you encounter as an OD Professional?
I think there are upfront challenges and challenges during the process itself. Upfront I often hear a skepticism that change or improvement will actually occur. Most of the time, I find that people have a lot of reasons why they do not believe we can be successful — leadership won’t support it, people don’t change, we won’t get the money, it’s unrealistic, etc. To me, hearing these objections is extremely valuable, because we immediately know what is on people’s minds. The closer I listen, the more I know what we need to address at the beginning.
Challenges during the process itself include frustration with other people, fear of the unknown especially if it involves reorganization, concern about the length of time needed, and difficulty in making new behaviors stick. Change always seems to take longer than anyone wants it to. What I think is important is to think big picture and work incrementally. People can focus on and make small changes more easily than they can keep the big picture in mind. For the OD professional, I think the challenge is to keep adjusting what we do and not get caught in one way of working.
How do you and your clients measure results? Can you share a specific example?
I’m a big proponent of clients measuring results, rather than practitioners. This is because it is the client’s results that matter. In addition, I think the most effective results to measure are the results that they’re measuring already. In other words, there’s a reason why we as OD practitioners are talking to potential clients in the first place. It’s because they either have a pain point — something that is not delivering the results that they want, or they are looking to achieve a stretch goal or deliver a breakthrough project. Either of these has specific business metrics attached to them. As practitioners, I think it is best to find out exactly what metrics and goals they are trying to achieve and align our work and support with those. I find that many potential clients are not actually clear on the metric that they want to achieve when we begin talking. That sets up a very useful conversation right from the beginning where we can support them to determine what metric and goal they want to use.
For example, we were working with a large specialty hospital which was having an issue with patient satisfaction. The satisfaction measures were measured by an outside company each month. Patients’ ratings for “courtesy of the person cleaning the room” were in the high 80th percentiles as compared to other specialty hospitals in the US. The high 80s sounds pretty good, but this institution insisted upon 90th percentile or higher for all their patient satisfaction scores. These scores were presented monthly during a regular meeting of more than 400 managers. In other words, these scores were a big deal! So, our work with them focused entirely on raising those patient satisfaction scores. Not only did that crystallize the goal for us, but it also made it very easy to measure our success. It became immediately clear that we needed ongoing support in addition to training. If we had delivered training only, I’m sure we would have seen an immediate increase in the scores and then had them returned to their previous levels. By building ongoing support into the organization, we have helped them to maintain scores above the 90th percentile for more than 10 years now.
In what ways does OD work take into consideration the whole individual in experiencing growth and learning?
I think OD sometimes seems like a lofty endeavor because we aim to address the whole individual in our work. To me, that is a wonderful idea and something that I push for as well when it makes sense. At the same time, I think we are more effective when we approach it a different way. For me, addressing the whole individual is practical. Many times, we find that the real or underlying issues that block successful change are really interpersonal issues and group dynamics. Most often, people benefit from support to be strong emotionally and interpersonally so that they can effectively manage the stress and uncertainty of change while continuing their regular work. For this reason, our approach, called The Human Element, specifically addresses the individual as a whole first so that we can then focus thoroughly on the interpersonal and team dynamics. Without the work at depth where people become aware of their true motivations and fears, it is very difficult to change behavior in the organization at any level—individual, team, or organizationally. We always aim to work on this area first in order to set the stage for successful change.
What have you found most effective in managing resistance during the transformation process?
I think anytime we view it strictly as resistance, we get ourselves in trouble. Essentially, labeling a person or people as resistors make us, the practitioners, part of the problem. We have just set up an adversarial situation. Instead, I try to cultivate the mindset that anyone who is speaking any kind of concern or objection is really giving us some of the most valuable information that we need. Without addressing that dissent directly and quickly, our chances of success go way down. We always bring the loudest objectors into the process immediately. When forming any kind of change team, steering committee, or any other body that helps the process along, we always aim to include those people from the start.
I’ve also found that allowing those people to have their say without refuting them is effective to help to dissolve the blocks. Sometimes, so-called resistors have legitimate points, in which case we should be listening and incorporating their views into our solutions. Other times, they may simply not feel heard. In some cases, I find it helpful simply to state that I feel that they are resisting and engage them in a conversation about that. The more I remain non-defensive and listen openly, the more I find these to be productive.
How do you start the process of changing deeply ingrained mindsets?
I’m a big fan of After Action Reviews—immediate team performance evaluations after an event or project afterward. As we cultivate more and more open conversations in the organization, these become more and more valuable. When people get less afraid of hearing each other’s honest evaluations of how they are doing as a team these become extremely powerful tools for making improvements to team productivity. Let me emphasize the team aspect of this. When we try to leverage change with one person alone, we often fail; when we create structures and support for teams to be open together, that’s when things change.
I think ingrained mindsets only shift when people have powerful experiences. The more we are busy creating experiences that challenge their mindsets rather than arguing with them in one form or another, the better chance we have of bringing them with us. There is no substitute for inviting them in and demonstrating results, rather than trying to convince, cajole, or make a deal with people.
Do you have any final lessons that you’d like to share?
The world and the market are changing at such a rapid pace, I think it can be very seductive to believe that we will be relating in substantially different ways in a very short time. However, I think that in the end, we are still human. That means that we still have the same motivators, fears, and things that excite and inspire us. Technology can facilitate some things and make other things more difficult. I think that the work of OD will be both enhanced by technology and somewhat hampered by it. As practitioners, I think what we have to offer, particularly on the side of human dynamics and relationships, will be not less but even more valuable in the coming years. Our challenge as a group is to make our value clear to people in organizations so that we have the opportunity to support the organizations to be wonderfully successful.