The Upside of Knowing Nothing- Fred and Graham go to Thailand

Fred and Graham are two senior analog engineering managers who just returned from a joint business trip to Thailand.

Fred (an analytical introvert) was born and brought up in Raleigh and he studied in North Carolina. This was his first trip abroad. Fred attested that “I know nothing about Asia” before he left. “This will all be new to me-all I can say is that I am open to learn and sound stupid’.

Graham (a more jovial and outgoing extrovert) was born in Boston and he has a Chinese-Thai grandmother, which you would never know by the looks of him. He speaks rudimentary Thai yet Graham understands about 80 percent of what is said. Graham visited Thailand as a child, and this was his first business trip. “Don’t worry, Freddy -boy……you may be a better engineer than me, but YOU chose the right guy with whom to go to Thailand. I’ll show you the ropes”.

Fred loved the trip;  he felt comfortable at all times and he was well liked. Fred was patient and “half the time I did not know what was going on”….but more of often than not, Fred managed to engage the people effectively. The clients simply loved him.

Graham was far less lucky. Graham found himself very impatient with the pace of things. Try as he did, the locals did not appreciate his language skills and they preferred answering Graham in English. Graham felt the locals almost resisted him and he felt out of place.

Most strange of all,the clients preferred Fred to Graham, because they felt Graham “speaks down” and felt ashamed of their poor English. The clients understood why Fred went “straight” to business without small talk, and pardoned him. When Graham went “straight to business”, they chided him as “are you sure you are part Thai”?

This story illustrates a complex dynamic between Fred and Graham’s Thai hosts, within Graham’s psyche as well as the upside of knowing that you know nothing.

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Jungle Warfare, Darwinism, Machiavelli and OD

The birth of OD was rooted in establishing a type of organizational life which would never allow the atrocities of WW2 to occur again, and as such, OD  has a very humanistic bias in its very foundations.

The achievements of OD in establishing a humanistic compass are enormous. And while I believe that Hannah Arendt hit the nail on the head when she claimed how banal evil is, OD does provide a context for preventing certain types of evil from happening again in certain cultures.

But let’s put aside the last war for a moment, and let’s look at the present war. There is basically one dominant economic model –  is global capitalism. Other economic models do exist but they are minor players. Without competition, this dominant economic model gets more hard core, cruel and cut throat. This has impacted the economy and organizational life.

Organizational life is often a cess pool of political intrigue by folks struggling to keep a job by doing everything it takes not to be in the way of the swinging axe of the downsizing department. Everything goes when it is all about survival.

In my experience, jungle warfare within organizations seems to “pay off” by those  skilled in that art. Darwinism is a great key to understanding present organisational politics. And Machiavelli’s insights were never more apt: “Men should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries – for heavy ones they cannot” comes to mind.

I believe that in order to be relevant, we OD practitioners need to better understand jungle warfare, have a better grasp of Darwin and reread Machiavelli. We need to ask ourselves what can we change, and what can’t we change. And we need to ask ourselves if the solutions we provide suggest going unarmed into the battle ground. If indeed this is the perception of our work, OD has a real problem of being relevant for the present war.

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Change is not a project that can be managed (revised Dec 18)

In recent posts, I have elaborated on some of the differentiators between Organization Development and Change Management in coping with the implementation of  complex organizational change. This post will illustrate provide a short case illustrating the differences.

Change Management approach is mechanistic. CM believes that change has a beginning and end, and the transition between the two is “manageable”. Change management focuses on delivering predefined changes to managers more than happy to in-source their woes. CM provides well documented and rational road maps on how change management delivers. CM uses a wide of tools, many of them mechanistic to the extreme.

OD views “changing” as ongoing and constant state, not a project with a beginning and end which can be managed like a software release. OD has a dynamic approach to the way events unfold in an organization. OD address underlying dynamics which impact the ability of organizations to adapt, such as power struggles, poor teamwork, lack of engagement, detached leadership and pissing contests. Professional OD consultants are suspicious about constant change programs and futile reorganizations.

The basic approach of OD is that “change” is likely to be subverted unless the underlying dynamics are dealt with. CM often blames underlying dynamics for screwing up their well drawn up plans.

OD focus is on achieving ongoing systemic flexibility and agility, not a one time hit and run change.

Let’s look at this real case which shows the difference.


MBK, a small Israeli  firm with a cutting edge technology, buys an American competitor with an older and out-dated version of the MBK’s technology in order to gain access to their former US competitor’s install base. The CEO wants to realize these synergies quickly via rapid integration, so he calls in both an OD consultant and Change Manager to get their cut on how this can be achieved as fast as possible.

The CEO wants the propagate the vision of “our wow new technology to our new US  install base-all leveraged and done in 6 months”.

OD’s Plan:

A realistic (aka pessimistic) OD consultant confronted the CEO that the transformation cannot be done that quickly; he suggests a 3 year year period adjustment time is more of less what is to be expected. The OD consultant claims that a vision of  “our new  technology to our new install base” means nothing very practical to the leadership and troops of both organizations. Each and every individual is worried about “what happens to me” and that is the issue which needs to be addressed, claimed the OD consultant.

The OD consultant wanted to start the integration by developing the framework of a flexible planning platform with a very small group of key people from both the US and Israeli organizations . This group is to be tasked with making (and re-make) plans and managing the integration activities which go on. The “plan will probably changes tens of times”, as it  takes into account the  goals of the acquisition, factoring in ways to deal with the massive resistance, fear, anxiety, and political agendas of all. The OD consultant called this plan a “a rolling out plan”, which changes all the time based on obstacles encountered and the derivative adjustment of the integration goals.

The CEO thinks the OD consultant has no  business focus and that he is negative.

CM Plan:

The CEO chooses to work with a  user friendly and less argumentative Change Manager!

The optimistic Change Manager draws up a plan (with his bare hands)  that creates synergies to leverage the newer technologies in the large US install base, creating huge revenues. The Change Managers’ plan, covered in 70 slides, takes 6  months to fully implement. The plan consists of redrawing roles, responsibilities, creating new processes and  some team building (via cooking classes and golf tournaments.)

The CEO is impressed and the CM is hired.

The Results:

3 months into the the plan, the CEO and his change manager look at the organization, and all they see is resistance and push back:  The US team had blocked access to their clients, and the Israeli team works directly with clients, causing friction. Sales are down and the organization is inwardly focused.

The CEO and his CM have stormed ahead, but the troops ain’t there. There are three months left to go and the integration has yet to begin.

The Change Manager and the CEO agree that a motivational speaker will be brought in. The cost of the motivational speaker is $9000.

PS. Naturally, CM and OD have their place in the current marketplace. For commercial reasons, CEO’s prefer the quick and often very ineffective CM fix. OD, caught up in its past, has yet to adapt itself to being relevant in global change.


Dear subscribers, In order to clean up the spam, all blog subscriptions were deleted and a new subscription system installed. Please re register  on the right side, or below and sorry for the trouble.

Allon  אלון

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A key differentiator between OD and Change Management is scalability

1) Highly professional Organizational Development is impossible to scale. The personality of the practitioner, the trust he or she builds with the client, the accrued knowledge and experience of the individual practitioner cannot be scaled.

2) OD assumes change is constant; “constant  changing”  is a semi chaotic process ,made more effective and tenable when appropriately enabled by OD.

Change Management believes changes have beginnings and ends, and can be managed like a project.Many OD people believe (I certainly do) that change is not managed like Change Management  believes it is.

Enabling constant change like OD does  is less scalable and marketable  than “managing” change, like CM purports to do.

3) Commercial needs have led to the development of OD tools, but in the hand of the unskilled professional OD practitioner, these tools are useless, (what we call in Hebrew a “gold ring in a pigs’ nose”)

Furthermore, highly skilled practitioners use very few tools, although they have a wide eclectic knowledge of these tools.

4) Obviously, Change Management assumes change can be managed. Management has tools and templates and process. Once these tools and process become workable templates, many folks can be “scaled up” to become Change Managers.

While the personality of the Change Manager carries some weight which is non scalable, the tools and processes and templates can scale up NCG’s (new college graduates) in no time, forming armies of Change Managers.

6) I am old enough (64) to remember the TQMers who almost put OD out of business, until the software industry showed us all how far you can get delivering half cooked crap, denting  the myth of the overwhelming value of quality. (“You don’t like this version-buy the next one”.)

 As the world speeds up and the pace of constant change becomes even more furious driving organizational life into deeper chaos , the sexy myth of the manageability of change may experience “some” difficulty.  CM will become another TQM. Because there is no scalable  “cookbook” for dealing with change.

7) The very lack of scalability of OD is what makes it sustainable when well practiced.

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OD should not overplay the “Goal” ticket

Change management, Organizational Development and Coaching all deal with change and the enablement thereof. CM and Coaching attach huge importance to the setting and achieving  of goals. OD should not necessarily follow suite.

Change management is the top down, mechanistic and process-driven of implementation of a priori defined set of changes.  Clearly change management cannot exist without a great deal of emphasis on achieving the change goals. “We’ll get this implemented for you on time, sir; we will use template 34-77.”

Coaching supposedly assists people to achieve their goals. There is no coaching without a strong “play” on the “goals” ticket. Coaching is not only done by professionals; it is often done by “certified” and semi-trained “barefoot doctors”  (赤脚医生), who lean on a protocol of “making your dreams come true, a la “yes we can”. Like the barefoot doctors, these coaches are one trick ponies who need goals FOR THEMSELVES, to deliver what they market

OD needs to put goals in perspective. Following are 4  points we need to keep in mind in order not to emulate CM and Coaching.

  • Goals change all the time due to the rapidly changing environment. The danger of sticking to your goals is obvious in many present day organizational realities.
  • A twisted sense of self, personality defects and traits as well as chemical activity of the brain may lead to a wrong set of goals being set up.
  • Goals are part of a system consisting of people, luck, strategy, values, constraints, motivation, politics etc. Everything does NOT need to be aligned to achieve goals; rather at times,  goals need to be changed due to circumstance. Goals are part of a system, not THE defining parameter by which we line up everything else.
  • Many goals are contradictory and often,  people need to entertain 2 or more conflicting sets of goals, as they juggle the realities of post modern organizing.

Awareness of this above will ensure that the OD practitioner is wiser, less mechanistic, while truly bringing value added to our clients.

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OD Coaching and Coaching: some differentiators (a biased look by an OD veteran)…In reply to Terry Seamon

My friend Terry Seamon asked me to write a post about some of the differences between the coaching traditionally done by OD people, and the coaching work done by the coaching folks.There is not a clear boundary around either profession, and I doubt that there is even agreement if both domains are professions. But here is a first stab.

1) OD coaching assumes that goals change all the time as a result of organizational dynamics. So coaching within an OD context  is not obsessed with defining goals, because of constant flux, and lots of these goal changes are exogenic to the individual.

2) Coaching in an OD context assumes some degree of organizational “lack of wellness”exists, since the act or organizing itself creates anxiety. Anxiety is rampant in organizations and thus,coaching in an OD context will probably factor in a more “dynamic understanding of context” and  thus may be less gung-ho, “yes we can.”

3) In an OD context, coaching is ONE tool of many than can be applied. Thus, it is not a cure-all. A top OD professional will not recommend coaching when another dynamic is broken. He/she will point to the root cause, and not apply an empty “what’s your goal” protocol.

4) OD consultants would probably concur that individual coaching done within organizations executed by coachers without an OD background is misguided because it lacks context, has the wrong focus, and is a cop out from dealing with the issues at hand….like middle management training.

5) The main beneficiary of OD in the context of an OD project is the alignment of an individual or team to the system and-or change. The main organizational benefit of coaching individuals in an organization but not in the context of OD is the maintenance of the status quo.


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The Inevitability of Organizational Death-Revised FourthTime (Summer 2023)

Aging and death are natural-both for people and for organizations. Clearly an organization is not a biological entity, yet enough similarities exist to justify the parallel.

People have life cycles; when someone gets lucky, they are born, grow up, have kids, have grandkids, get sick, and die. This is natural. Yes, to some extent the aging process of an individual can be slowed down. But we all get old, sick and die; that is a best case scenario.

Organizations have life cycles as well. When they are conceived, they are crazy, sexy, innovative and informal-then they proceed along a path of aging as nature takes it course. Most organizations get very sick, get old (or prematurely old)  and die, or disappear in acquisitions or disasters such as sudden loss of market. Only few will last a long, long time. Death is part of organizational life. This is especially true now as covid has decimated supply chain, labour supply, motivation and cash flow.

If OD is to be true to its humanistic roots, we must cleanse ourselves from the denial of death. Life of a high quality needs to be prolonged, yet we need to better understand what can change and what cannot change. We need to acknowledge that an organization’s various illnesses and ultimate death are part of its life. 

OD needs to beware of over treating (yet another reorg) and over diagnosing (too much feedback when change is impossible). For many aging organizations , there are no “cures” or magic elixirs.

We must accept an organizations’ limitations & ultimate decay, which include containment of pain and eventually hospice. It do believe that there is an organizational parallel to the famed Dr Werner in the French Movie Country Doctor (Medecin de capagne), who deals with an elderly patients death with grace and dignity.


I wrote the above post several years ago. Since then, not only have I aged (somewhat gracefully, I hope) , but there is a pandemic raging-with organizational collapses a-dime-a-dozen, fear of illness and societal/political delay all around us.

There have been several attempts to cope with the pandemic which appear to be part of the denial-of-death which this post originally challenged. What caught my eye from the very beginning was the “back to normal” harpings of the “positive thinkers” and those who grind lemons into lemonade which aggravate the shit out of me.

Periods of sickness are normal, and after many protracted diseases, we are never the same. 

I suffer from a very painful lower back pain for most of my life, due to my height and genetics. The pain used to come and go;  now it comes much more than it goes. I keep very active, watch my weight, and wouldn’t you know it, the pain is there. However, there are good days and bad days. Good hours and bad hours. The best of times and the worst of times. This is natural. Like a pandemic.

Afterthought: Yalom’s Staring at the Sun is a brilliant guide to overcoming the fear of death. When my mind wanders in the wrong direction, Yalom’s guidance serves me well. People can and do err when fear of death prevails, butchering their lives and others’ due to not accepting the inevitable.

The present “fear” and obsession about the threats posed by AI are a good example of what happens when the inevitability of organizational death is ignored. AI is just another change. It will not make organizations immune from its natural life cycle. It will not save us, or kill us. No. It is just another change. 

Organizations are born, get old and die.








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OD and Change Management: some major differentiators

1) Change management assumes that organizations are more orderly than they really are. And, when CM encounters unexpected difficulties, they further develop tool kits to drive out the noise cause by these so called “unexpecteds”.

OD (when practiced as an art) knows that the organizations have massive underlying dynamics which render much of the “visible activity” of an organization into a very partial view of things. OD knows that the organizational world is about the anxiety caused by the chaos fuelled by constant changing.

Thus, OD’s view of things is less positive and enticing for managers.

2) Change Management is not stuck in humanistic values. Thus, CM is more appealing to managers,. Managers and CM never say that people are spare parts; they just act that way. Thus, the derivate difficulties they encounter but do not often acknowledge.

OD is rooted in humanistic values, many of which are admirable but out dated. OD has been reticent about updating its value offering by become more relevant world wide. Thus, OD is a bogged down in the values of the western world and cannot scale up to global organizing.

Thus, CM mechanizes change and ignores people while OD promulgates western values in a global environment.

3) CM is productized, easy to understand and markets well. OD is “knowledge work” with an “art” delivery mechanism when well practiced. It is very hard to market, but far more sustainable over time.

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Can OD be useful in all forms of change? Allon elaborates on a question from John Scherer

For years, Dr. John Scherer prodded me to write a blog (and a book), and thus any request from my friend John comes to the top of the pack.

In my previous post, I pointed out some of the contextual features of the environment in which OD operates; John Scherer has asked me to elaborate.
I wrote “rapid change is just even  getting faster, making organizational change inhumane; this has grown the business of “change management” and shrunk available business for more classical OD types.”


1) In medicine, some tumours are inoperable.
2) In law, while anyone can be defended, the legal profession  realizes that in some cases, defending someone is a mere formality.
3) Paramedics who arrive at a massive  terror attack (like Dolphinarium attack in Tel Aviv) first choose who needs to die, so that available paramedic resources are used to save lives.

Now, lets move from the metaphor to the case at hand.

1) OD needs to operate in a playing field where our profession (with its humanistic basis)  is relevant. Not all organizational changes meet this criteria.

2) Rapid change which dehumanizes organizations should not  be the domain OD; dehumanizing change is the domain of a defanged HR (which has lost its way) and  Change Management, which has a ready made productized template for everything under the sun. OD has no value for an organization which undergoes 3 mergers in a year. Similarly, when a Board tells a CEO to close a US based R&D center with 600 people in 2 quarters and open a new R&D center in Bangalore “whilst keeping customers and staff happy”, OD has nothing to offer. This type of brutal change is best handled by HR managers like  Gloria Ramsbottom.

3) OD cannot be effective in all change situations. OD needs to be able to say “not in our domain”-and this will make OD far more effective and far more respected. When we peddle our wares in very rapid and inhuman change situations, we make  mockery of who we are.

4) OD is applicable to changes where OD can be loyal to its humanistic roots; not all clients suit that bill. Furthermore, change which is too fast and too brutal is  out of the ballpark or playing field on which we play.

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Effective OD Consulting requires additional areas of expertise

You sure don’t need this blog to tell you that the context in which Organizational Development is practised is changing:

  • people have become spare parts making our humanistic focus an uphill battle.
  • rapid change is just getting faster, making organizational change inhumane; this has grown the business of “change management” and shrunk available business for more classical OD types.
  • globalization is all over us, making the Western values of OD often irrelevant.
  • the HR function is degraded to compliance and hire/fire, and OD’s former gateway to organizations is contaminated,
  • the twisted character of the manager who gets the top in this new reality, make the prognosis of their understanding OD’s added value as poor.
  • and the inroads of the false Messiah of quick fixes, aka,  the Coaching “profession”,making competition cut throat.

Given the above, what are the areas of expertise we need to survive as OD consultants, without cross dressing as coaches or change managers with a humanistic streak?

Here are 3 areas which come to mind.

1) Cross cultural competence.

Huge portions of this blog site  are dedicated to how to acquire  cross cultural competence and I shall not expand on this here. An example in this link.

2) Business Domain Knowledge

Domain specific content and context is absolutely necessary not only for face validity, but also in order to ensure relevance.Gone are the days when OD consultants can facilitate change in all domains, simply because we focus on process and people and systems.

Personally, I focus on high tech organizations which develop products quickly, medical devices, the interfaces between R&D, engineering and product management, financial services and professional services. My  domain level of understanding is enough that I really get the gist of what is going on, end-to-end.

I believe that without this domain specific knowledge of the clients served, you are a has been.

3) Cognitive and Behavioural Patterns of Various  Professions

Finance people, engineers, software developers, chemists, lawyers, system engineers and accountants all think and act quite differently in organizations. While within each profession there is vast variance, each profession has a code which OD needs to crack in order to be able to interact and gain trust.

It is unreasonable to expect an OD consultant to be “fluent” and capable of interacting with all professions with the same level of competence.

OD needs to map out the cognitive and behavioural patterns of the various professions and provide ways and means to “gain access” by speaking our language in their dialect.

  • These 3 skills are part of  the foundation for the next generation of competent OD consultants. These skills will  provide OD  with a competitive advantage, create more customer intimacy, and enable OD practitioners to be more relevant and effective in the niches in which they operate.
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