How to do OD consulting with a startup

This post will address how to go about doing OD with start ups and their founders.

At face level, there is a good match between the value proposition of OD and the needs of startups.

  • Startups have talent, flexibility, a high level of engagement and do not suffer from the chronic ailments of older organizations.
  • OD provides a development platform (mindset, concepts, skills) to support the new technologies/products which are being created. Sounds like a dream world to me.

However, founders are generally not receptive to OD. The very qualities of the founders that enabled them to become founders, prevent them from proper leverage of OD. The founder, who essence is breaking down the barriers of innovation, often views “organizational issues” in one of two ways:

1) Organizational issues are banal, ‘a matter of common sense”, (meaning the common sense of the founder.)

2) Organizational issues are a chance to reinvent human nature; “I will create an organization which will change the way people organize.”

The constraining forces inhibiting growth of a startup are often organizational and behavioural. Startups have ideas, technologies and great people; frequently they have a detailed road map of the development of the technological solution they are engineering. Yet founders of startups do not generally address the issue:” what type of organization do I need to develop to support these great ideas?”

Founders often react poorly to OD consultants. Not only are many founders arrogant, many OD practitioners lack the technical savvy to gain respect.  OD consultants tend to be much older than founders, which add more complexity since the OD consultant can be seen as the “parent”. (I am 71 and many of my clients are in their twenties).

Generally founders appoint the admin to be the first HR manager, along with facilities and car rental! That certainly closes the HR route to work with startups at an early stage.

Often, investors who want their founders to get grey haired organizational development support put OD consultants on the Board, or attach some strings to the money that they invest making OD “compulsory”. This approach certainly limits the trust that will develop between the founder and the OD consultant, although I remember two cases when that approach worked.

OD in startups generally begins when the founder steps aside to becomes CTO and brings on a professional CEO . The struggle between the founder and the new CEO is a great place to start an OD project. 98% of the work I do in startups began this way.

Once a project starts, I suggest the following emphases:

1-Ensure that the development of the organization parallels the development of the organization 6 months down the road

2-Develop a dialogue and an action plan around developing scalability. (Anyone who wants to know how this is done should leave contact details below).

3-Develop a plan whereby the organization does not need to either enslave itself to the initial group of employees, nor push them aside. There are many ways of doing so.

4-Develop a life cycle dialogue and action plan about people, skills, “mores” and structuring.

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13 thoughts on “How to do OD consulting with a startup

  1. Your last paragraph resonates deeply with my own experience also. Over the course of my 40 year experience as an OD consultant, I have developed the following construct to help me grasp organizational culture and how its factors apply to what I call: “The Father-Founder Culture”. I chose the term “Father-Founder” from Jungs’ typology and not to suggest that the founder can only be a male.

    So, here is my construct of the factors that define organizational culture and how it applies to what I term “THE FATHER-FOUNDER CULTURE”.

    CRITERIA OF SUCCESS: Arbitrarily defined by the Father-Founder
    MAJOR CONCERN: Flexibility and adaptability from others to the Father-Founder as the tribal chief.
    DIVISION OF LABOR: Vertical, imposed superior subordinate distinction
    COORDINATION MECHANISM: Direct from the tribal chief and his/her chosen ones.
    INFORMATION FLOW: Centralized and arbitrary.
    POWER BASE: Ownership (I have seen cases where the “chosen ones” even dressed up like the Father-Founder figure.)
    CAREER AND PROMOTIONS: Boss decided.
    CONFLICTS: Boss identifies and solves.


  2. Spot on, as usual. It takes a real visionary for a startup leader to recognize the need for OD. But then, especially in this economy, isn’t that universally true?

    & all of this despite the considerable anecdotal evidence that startups which pay attention to & consciously create their cultures have a higher success rate…

    & then there are the founders like the one with the .com that hired me in 2000. He said all the right things, seemed to get it, & then was always too busy to participate in any of the culture building activities I designed & facilitated.

  3. I worked in two start ups early in my career. In the first one I asked the founder/CEO – what are you doing about culture and he laughed. His organization failed.
    I the second one the organizational culture was taken seriously and was clear – though it changed over time as the organization grew. This organization was successful.

  4. Good day! This article is very helpful to someone like me who wanted to pursue on becoming an OD consultant. Is it okay to know further how the ‘action plan around developing scalability’ (the one mentioned earlier in your article) works? Thank you for imparting your knowledge in regards to this topic. Have a nice day!

  5. I once posed the question – Is Business Development on the outside the same as OD on the inside of organisations? OD tends to improve internal markets by improving relationships and joining people and ideas. it appears that Business development does the same but with external markets and relationships? Would slightly rebranding OD to BD assist us engaging with entrepreneurs and start-ups?

  6. Hello Allon,
    I am so glad to have come across this blog!!! I am re-oriented part of my OD practice to include start-ups. I am just beginning to work with one now – two co-founders. They are almost half my age. Any resources, tips and “send me to” sites/information you could recommend would be most appreciated!

    Thank you

  7. Pingback: The outdated profession of organization development-an example | Allon Shevat

  8. Another excellent post, Allon. Again, I am reminded of one of my experiences. Back in the 90’s, I joined a telecom company that was ten years old since its start-up days. At some point in those early years, the CIO had introduced an OD consultant to the company. This consultant helped the C-team to craft a culture framework (based on speed, customer focus, innovation, teamwork, and a few other core values) and install it.

    When, as a newbie, I attended the initial training, three full days were spent on the culture. The CEO stopped by to talk about the values of the company, as did the head of Sales and the head of Engineering. They illustrated their remarks with actual success stories from the first ten years.

    I was impressed by the commitment!

    The CEO was fond of saying “Our secret weapon is our culture. And the key to that is the commitment of our people to the principles that have helped us to grow.”

    Over the next five years, until the company got acquired, that commitment to culture never faltered.

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