COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | STAN SEWITCH

Reductionist organization development

In my line of work, there are a lot of published tools and structures, models and methods. There are many frameworks upon which notions of organizational development are draped. Many of these tools are valuable constructs that allow leaders to organize their thinking more objectively. They can provide intellectual guidance. But the tools, structures, models and methods do not constitute the actions of developing an organization.

It’s like the formula in physics for force. The equation tells us that force exerted in a particular direction by a body is exactly equivalent to that body’s mass multiplied by its velocity squared. The formula is a tool to understand what is happening. But to achieve the desired force, energy has to be applied to the body in a consistent, accelerating fashion. Somebody has to push it.

Complicating matters further, an organization is not a simple homogenous substance with constant mass, lying patiently in wait for some energy to give it directional force. An organization is a collection of human beings who have joined together in economic interdependency, with livelihoods or time or both serving as the currency of exchange. They are bound together by common purpose and a daily decision as to whether to continue to be so bound.

This amalgam of humanity is constantly changing, as individuals and as groups within groups, even as the environment in which the organization operates continually changes as well. Pushing the bodies in an organization doesn’t work to create directed and effective force toward positive change. Bodies in an organization have to want to move in a given direction, else they will find many and varied ways to evade the direction intended.

I would like to offer my three principles of organization development. These are principles that are applicable in the context of any model or tool or method of organizational development. These guiding stars of organizational navigation have helped me in my business-building efforts more than anything else, and they have helped the companies I’ve had the honor to serve.

Principle No. 1 is that in most cases, growing your own talent is not only more cost-effective, it creates a stronger, higher-performing organization than trying to always hire the “A” player who can hit that proverbial ground running and who needs little or no direction. People who are hired into a larger role than they left are excited and energized. This strategy provides a higher quality of life experience for all those involved, and it concurrently helps to build better leaders quicker, because those leaders learn how to teach, one of the most important roles of a leader. If you focus on hiring people who are smart, self-motivated, curious, disciplined, humble, possess strong moral character and share the same values as the company, you will have an organization that is able to be developed. Good raw material.

Principle No. 2 is to continually look for ways to decrease the number of people who must get involved in decisions, at increasingly larger magnitudes. Delegating authority is a primary method of developing experience and judgment in others. Much has been written about consensus-building and the need to engage many people in the processes related to “change management.”

While I don’t disagree with the need to involve people in changes that will affect their lives, it is not always possible or pragmatic to do so. Sometimes, time is short, or the decision cannot be left to a group that may itself be affected by the outcome. There is no substitute for leadership in such cases. Giving authority to individuals to make decisions deeply in the organization, appropriate to their role and the impact of an error on the company, is a way to speed action. This provides people the experience they need making decisions in order for them to develop better and better judgment.

A third principle is to always be looking years ahead at what the organization’s functional structure will need to be to succeed in the likely conditions it will face at that distant future. One cannot perfectly predict the future, of course. But many macro-trends are identifiable, if one takes the time to look and then to apply that information in scenario modeling.

One need ask, “If we succeed in our strategic endeavors, what will our company look like in 10 years? How many people will we have? What functions will exist? What geographies will we be operating in? What changes will occur in our products and services? Who will be here, likely, to lead in that changed organization? Are they in the company today? If so, how do we make sure they get the experiences they need to be able to exert good judgment in that future organization? If not, how do we find the right apprentices that we can invest in to be ready when the time comes?”

Many other questions can be asked. Many won’t have answers immediately. And the answers will change over time. It’s the continual asking that results in the right actions that have a chance of ensuring the future organization is developed sufficiently to be self-sustaining.

That’s my “OD-3.” I hope they may be of some use to you.


Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at sewitch1@cox.net.

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