Coping with very severe organization problems-Primum non nocere

The commercialization and productization of OD (as performed by magicians or wonder-consultants)  has masked some of the real issues that an OD practitioner faces. The OD “vendors” are reticent to discuss the hardest issues they face, like a surgeon who does not want to discuss how many died under his or her knife.

This is not a blog written to promote my profession, so I allow myself to deal with the “dirt under the finger nails”.  So……

Strategies for dealing with very difficult organizational problems which are almost insoluble are the subject of this post.

First I shall illustrate two such problems.

  • A senior team has been in place for 12 years with more or less the same leaders. They are located in 3 continents. There is a low level of transparency, very poor teamwork, and having worked together for so long, there is a lot of mutual contempt. The company that they run is very profitable.
  • There is constant bad blood between Customer Service and Development teams. Due to market conditions, a company has released a very immature product to the market, against the recommendation of the Development Team. The clients are furious. Customer Service does not know how to handle customer complaints, so they demand that the Development Team deal with the customers. The developers refuse to see customer demanding that management must “give us time to write the bloody code, not deal with customers who are justifiably angry.”

Now let’s look at a few strategies.

First there is a matter of mindset. 

  • The superman “I can fix it all” mindset which many snake oil consultants use leads to nowhere, except great revenue for the consultant.
  • The mindset of impotence and despair, whilst rationally justified perhaps, obviously makes no sense. The appropriate mindset is being pragmatic, avoid wow-wowing to maintain credibility and risk mitigation.

Now let’s address the question of how much intervention is needed. My suggestion is that for very difficult organizational problems, the best intervention is of low intensity spread over a long time, as opposed to intense happenings, like a quarterly offsite.

The role of the consultant in such a mess is primum non nocere (“foremost do no harm”. ) Great damage can be inflicted by applying snake oil to severe problems. For example, a teamwork session for the senior team mentioned above is counter-indicated.

I also  suggest a focus on containment of pain with compassion and humour, if possible  addressing issues whilst managing appropriate expectations and keeping things from getting much worse.


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8 thoughts on “Coping with very severe organization problems-Primum non nocere

  1. Very good. OD like radical medicines rather than long low volume long intervention.
    Also you can’t teach old dogs (12 years team) new tricks

  2. Right on, Allon. I have been called in by the most senior member of a “dysfunctional team” such as the one described in your post. The previous consultant had attempted executive team building based on personnality typologies. The team successfully used the typology to justify behaviors.

    I went with direct observation of the team at work coupled with working in private with the CEO and the members of the team. I noticed improvements when I merely shared my observations and less progress when I colonized people’s minds with my own solutions.

    I believe Shakespeare said something like “in some cases only you can cure yourself”. If someone can remind me of the quote, that would be neat.

  3. Ouch! Allon; I agree with your appoaches to intervene- try to lighten the perceived emotional loads, and lift spirits. They are doing good. And, have lots to be thankful for.

  4. Sorry, not enough information to identify an effective intervention that is designed ‘in partnership’ for long term ‘under the iceberg’ emergent learning and development. There may be opportunity for an ‘opening’ for effective engagement for short term, acute work to prepare organization for deeper and more dynamic longer term work.

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