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

  1. Pingback: The moment you understand what you have learnt doesn’t work-The Case of the OD meatball | Allon Shevat-אלון שבט

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