Planning an OD intervention on an interface between functions

The interface between functions (marketing and sales; R&D and service; finance and HR) and the interface between people (Jack and Jill) is the domain to which Organization Development brings more added value than any other profession.

OD certainly has practitioners who want to change the world-but that desire to inspire change is just an illusion de grandeur, especially since OD practitioners shun the use of force and do not share values with most of the planet. Hell, it even hard for us to create a change in culture, and in this link I explain why.

Yet the interface between people and functions is our major domain expertise. In this short post, I want to spell out how initially to look at interfaces between functions and people. I start by asking

  1. How is the interface\relationship impacted by differences in culture, competence and power allocation?
  2. What are the goals of each side, and far more important, what are the shared goals of each side?
  3. How will each partner be judged if the other succeeds\fails?
  4. What impacts the mutual trust?
  5. How does the organization gain by their NON cooperation?

After diagnosing the above, the next steps are:

  1.  At what level to I need to intervene?
  2.  What will success look like?
  3.  How do I garner support before I start the work, by negotiating the consequence of success \ failure?
  4.  Then, and only then, do I plan the intervention tactically.







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Just a few tips about doing OD outside a North American context (updated 2023)

For the OD practitioner who has work to do in geographies where the values upon which OD is based are not dominant, here are my top ten tips.

1) It may take more time to build trust. In a 90 minute initial interview, don’t expect to get reliable diagnostic input. And understand that this is an advantage, because when eventually people do open up, the level of cooperation will be higher.

2) Many things are left unsaid. And you must listen intensely to what is unsaid. If you ask a direct question and get a fuzzy answer, you know you are onto something. But do not probe. Listen to what is inferred.

3) If you prefer to be called by your first name, wait a while before you impose this on the people that you are speaking with. THEY need to be more comfortable than you.

4) You can use events that have not yet happened to get better answers than you can from analysing events that went wrong. Future events can help save face which has not yet been lost. Past events involve talking about lost face.

5) Don’t assume that just because someone you speak to has excellent English that this person knows what is going on. Quite the contrary; excellent English can indicate a returning resident who may not know that lay of the land.

6) If at all possible, don’t take notes in first discussion. Try to remember what you are told and jot down notes after the meeting.

7) Take into account that many of your values can be irrelevant or held as distasteful. If, for example, you are a 26 year old female interviewing a 67 year old man, there may so much background noise that all the data is tinted. Politically correct-no! Correct? Yes.

8) Show respect and understanding to people who are stonewalling you. Hint to them as follows, “I understand what you are saying, yet I would like to talk you again at another time, so that we feel more comfortable to develop a better understanding of the issues. I appreciate that this is not yet possible.” 

9) If local culture dictates that the best way to get information is to gossip, then gossip. And if you need to get drunk to get an answer, get drunk.

10) Take a stand and ask for a reaction. This may bypass an interviewees’ objections about being direct. For example, “It seems to me that Mike does not really understand the local culture. Am I wrong”? Then check one more time. “I think that Amy (a local) preferred working with Leonard (Mike’s predecessor). Am I correct?”

11) Political correctness is not a universal religion. Many languages have honorifics. Most cultures are hierarchical. Do not force feed your beliefs, language acrobatics or uniquely bizarre beliefs on others.

12) Move from formality to informality carefully. The other direction is impossible.














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Helping organizations evade the truth

Dr. Alice Goffman introduced me to the word “riding”;  in her ethnography On the Run: Fugitive Life in America “, I learnt that “riding” is  helping a fugitive evade the police/court when pursued. Riders and riding have many strategies, all spelt out in Goffman’s fascinating book.

Organizations have “riders” too. Borrowing Goffman’s term (actually borrowing the fugitives’ term), organizational riding is working to cover up  an organization’s lies.

When an organization lies, it needs a whole set of riders to keep it safe. Following is an example of how riders assist organizations to lie.

Chris (CEO) told  Johnny (Head of R&D) that he must release the new product fix within 2 months. Johnny knows that nothing “releasable” will be available for 8 months. Yet Chris issues an email to all key clients promising the new fix mentioning that  Dr Johnny is in full alignment with the realistic commitment.

No one, not one single person, believes that this commitment is doable. The product “fix” will be delivered 9 months late, and even then, the fix will be very partial. Yet the organization was never exposed, assisted by riders.

How did this happen? Take a look.

1-Amibiguous language was a key rider. “Pending unexpected difficulties; contingent on the purchase of new software; as things stand now”. All these terms kept the lie afloat.

2-HR muddies the water, blowing smoke up peoples’ ass. HR, the ultimate rider, puts plans in place to improve engagement, perhaps, in the future; a new work-life algorithm is put in place, which shows the ups and downs or hard work over a 15 year period. Ok, bust your ass now, but one day you will be saved.

3- Bullshit progress reviews are often delayed and cancelled, or bogged down in detail. The documentation of these riding-driven meetings is fuzzy at best and lacking in most cases.

4-There is creeping de-scoping of the eventual “fix”, de-scoping being a key rider allowing organizations to lie.

5-New, ambitious, fake riding- superheroes push top talent aside as they promise to deliver what old guard apparently cannot deliver.

6-New swear words appear: nay-saying (truth); risk-evasiveness (honesty); negativistic (integrity) .








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Dealing with white lies and blatant fibs in organizations. And in OD!

Budgets, sales forecasts, dates of product releases, product quality: these are all issues that organizations lie about in order to ensure their existence in turbulent times. False data is fed to the market, to customers, to investors, to boards and often to competitors. 

Very often, without these fibs, the liar would have become a goner.

Example: The present budget for the new IT system is 4 million euro, claims the CEO to the Board, which oks the investment with great difficulty. Eight months later and 3 months before project completion, the CEO announces that 7 more months and 2 million additional Euros are needed to complete the project. The board caves in. Of course the CEO  knew in advance that this is the only way he could have pried out the money from the board, which eventually will cost 9 million Euro and 4 years to complete.

What are the main dangers posed by this “prologue” of initially lying? Well, that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Within the organization, people need to pretend: fake goals; fake KPIs; fake updates; a culture of blaming someone else for the delay/quality/price. 

Or perhaps there is a double set of books! Like what we mean and what we say.

Or what we learn not to say.

And what happens to nay-sayers who challenge the fibs? Who thrives and who drowns in such a culture?

It all really becomes one big fucking lie. But the organization survives.

And of course we need to ask, what type of OD is done is such a context. Does OD help perfume the pig, as it were, stirring up the troops to do their level best to “make it happen”? Rah-rah; wow wow!

Or does OD unravel the web of lies, which poses short term existential threats which may cost the OD consultant his, or her, job. Yes, his or her. 

I have been fired 3 times for unravelling lies. I even consulted a company that had missed a delivery date by 3 years on a minor software release, on which no one was even working, albeit that the end customer was paying for its development.

Of course OD also has it little white lies, to say the least. Is what we do actually good for business always? Do the latest trends that OD practitioners push really add value? Like “love in the workplace” or “hire for neuro-diversity”. Is wellness achieved at work, for God’s sake?  Does teamwork pay off? Is process and value alignment necessary, or do the conflicting demands between the two create the necessary tension needed to get the job done? Can we strengthen middle management; Does it do any good? 

I suggest that before we attempt to undo the fibs and lies of our clients, we deal with our own shit. If you get my drift.

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