“Mutual Adaptation”: Case Study of OD in a global context

When faced with complex issues in a global organizational context, many practitioners fall back on the  traditional values of the OD profession. These values, western in their etiology, are built into the type of input OD professionals provide, as are the tools that the OD practitioner administers.

When traditional OD  tools and interventions are aimed at a Miami water utility or a Houston department store chain, that’s one thing.

In a global environment, a less value driven approach is more appropriate. There is no use of asking a Thai engineering team to be more “open” with their Taipei based boss.

I have found that bringing  people to “mutually adapt” to one another is an extraordinarily useful approach.

It is not a value-neutral approach,  but it is not ramming my values as a consultant down the client throat-and subsequently failing, to boot.

Leveraging “Mutual Adaptation” rather than naïve value imposition,  does drive behavioural change in organizations with acute diversity.

Mutual adaptation basically provides the client with the following platform: you all are both very different. You have a common task, but you probably understand it differently. The way to get it done is in your hands. Find a way to work together. If you hold onto your own way of doing things, it may/may not work, but there are prices to pay. Try to adapt to one another. Assume your partner will do the same. Or he/she may not. That needs to be worked out.


Sherman Whitehead is an American executive who likes to shoot straight, make decisions expediently and delegate. Sherman is New Product Introduction VP.

His colleague Nathan Ramos from the Philippines prefers to concentrate authority, delays decision making until he can try to please most of the stakeholders, and sees each and every decision as a matter of principle. Nathan is Key Greater Manilla Area Account Manager.

Sherman is driving the introduction of  a new product into Nathan’s territory. Until now, it has been a massive failure.

Sherman and Nathan have a great difficulty working together. Sherman has his foot on the gas; Nathan has his foot on the brakes. Sherman takes risks; Nathan plays it safe. Sherman makes decisions; Nathan says yes and then sabotages. No client is willing to meet with Sherman and Nathan’s sales may plunge within a year, or may not. But the heat between them reached HQ.

A traditional OD consultant was called in to “jump start” their relationship. The consultant, armed with the corporate values of “focus on implementation” and his own preference for openness/transparency and “meeting in the middle”, soon lost Nathan’s trust by force-feeding transparency. In parallel, the consultant lost Sherman’s trust for slowing things down and sloganeering.

Elan is yet another consultant who was hired after the first consultant failed. Elan  sat with both parties separately and then together; he explained that they need to find a way to mutually adapt to one another. This may mean compromise; overpowering one another; cutting a deal, backstabbing, helping one another look good. Whatever. But the consultant says he has no preference. “Find a way to adapt; I can work with each of you together, or separately, or you can figure it out on your own.”

Then Elan sat with both parties separately, and explained the world view of the other party is his own words, removing nuances which could aggravate mutual adaptation.

Nathan called Elan to have supper and explained to him that he, Nathan, was fearful of losing a key government account if he took too many risks. Sherman had a drink with Elan at midnight and asked Elan to “tell me what I need to do to move this thing forward”.

Elan’s approach was to pressure each side to assume ownership of adapting to the other. At times, but rarely, he offered a compromise when both sides agreed up front to accept it because they were stuck.

Since the prognosis for mutual adaptation is hampered when one party is more powerful than the other in role, power, or the way power is used, the use of “mutual adaptation” must be modified given a gap in power differential. Elan either sets ground-rules up front  and/or abandons the technique and reverts to a more executive type of  OD intervention. And thanks to Peter Altschul for pointing out the need to clarify the impact of power differential on the dynamic.






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Who pays the bill, Phil?


You have been offered an OD project to improve the information flow between management and employees in an unionized shop. The entire shop is unionized except for customer service reps which is an outsourced service. The union opposes the project. What are your alternatives?

This post includes a short article clarifying the relationship between OD in a unionized shop as well as a quiz!

By OD, I am not referring to training, outdoor training, personal coaching or anything else that masquerades as an OD effort, but rather to OD as a system intervention aimed to remove non tangible barriers to change.

The relationship is not all complex, as long as we keep our thinking straight and don’t inhale our own smoke. Let’s look a few axioms.

  • Management pays for OD efforts. That says a lot, does it not!?
  • Unions are legitimate, elected representatives of the employees. The unions represent the interests of the employees, and if the employees do not feel represented, they vote the Union out of office.
  • OD practitioners may feel that the Union should/could/must be represented or not be represented in OD activities. Yet, this is not for the OD practitioner  to comment on, because it gets him, or even her, involved in political intrigues between management and union, with management paying the bills.
  • OD as a profession is neither pro nor anti -Union. It is agnostic on this issue, however it is not perceived as such because our bills are paid by management, and we try to build trust and direct communication between management and employee, which may not be in the Union’s interest.

Now that I have put forward my axioms, here are a few tips.

  • Avoid becoming a player/mediator in any interaction between management and union.
  • Avoid commenting/addressing any controversy or disputes whose etiology is a political struggle.
  • Answer all questions that you may be asked with by a union representative with full honesty.
  • Think of each and every intervention you do as something which may have political ramifications, and then reconsider if you want to risk an entire project for one naïve move.
  • Introduction of technology, systems, AI and whatever are not agnostic in the power balance between union and management. Again, do not be naïve.
  • Now a comment to my American brethren: Since OD’s “traditional” values are so much aligned with democracy, remember that Union representatives are elected and management are appointed.


Management is revamping the performance evaluation system and the union steward from the IT department calls you to ask how much “weight” be given to seniority. He asks to meet you. My answer: Meet with him/her along with a manager and provide your honest assessment.


You have been asked to lecture the software team on “Critical Success Factors of Team Work when working from Home”. Of the 50 team members, only 6 show up because the union has boycotted all OD and Training  due to management’s decision to cut benefits of staff who work from home. My answer: I would not give the lecture if it’s being boycotted, or girl-cotted.

You witnessed an incident where one employee cursed another using an ethic slur. There is pre-dismissal hearing and since you were the only witness, you have been asked to state what you heard. The curser was a member of the union. My answer: Of course I would not. I’m not internal. But I would informally leak what I heard, and leaked that I’ve leaked.







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