The Dumbing Down of Organization Development

Dumbing down is revision/change to an idea a concept or a service with the expressed goal of appealing to a target of lesser sophistication and intelligence.

Examples of dumbing down include reality television, tabloid news, many political campaigns, style of speech and the packaging of OD.

Dumbing down may appear debilitating and numbing to those who have been around for a while, yet in the present market in which the only standards that exist are commercial, dumbing down plays a great part in preserving OD albeit only for commercial interests.

The essence of OD is/was that it swims against the current, talking truth to power and serves as what the Brits and Canadians  call a loyal opposition.

Dumbed down OD swims with the current, serving as a hand maiden to exactly what OD was created to change, and that is the negative underbelly dynamic of the ineffective status quo.

Here of two real examples of dumbing down.  I stress real, not imaginary. They have both happened to me personally in the last six months.

  • Hi OD Vendor,

We have 2 engineers going to Japan in 3 days. Can you do 45 minutes of cultural training? If so, let me know and purchasing will contact you.

Gloria, EVP HR

  • Hi OD Vendor,

Our R&D and Sales departments clash all the time. Can you be a motivational speaker? We have time tomorrow at 11 am; let me know and purchasing will contact you.

Gloria, EVP HR

Several major factors which have dumbed down OD to the present level, where emails like those above are no longer even seen as an insult but rather as an opportunity.

  • There is a market and the market demands fun; any pain is “out”. Training and HR managers, fearing that the inevitable pain involved in learning will weaken their standing, commission “wow” activities. A wow activity needs to be brief and fun, with apparent and not real effectiveness. The fact that learning must be painful at times appears to be irrelevant.
  • To adapt such a market place with no professional standards except commercial supply and demand, OD practitioners became vendors who sell products not a professional service. OD vendors negotiate with same procurement officials who buy toilet paper and paper for printers who drive down the price; as a result the level of consultant hired is cheap unskilled labour using prepackaged crap.
  • The client gets what he asks for and not what he needs. Unless the consultant is senior enough, or wealthy enough, to work with the client about his real needs, the OD vendor will kiss the clients rear end graciously and give the client what he asks for, like in a restaurant. As in… “Three post-merger lectures coming up, medium rare, with baked potatoes.” If the client is “happy” and satisfied”, he will return again. And the client and the vendor will be addicted to a dysfunctional relationship.
  • An entire market place develops, and the essence of the therapeutic OD client relationship disappears. The soul of the profession not only is kidnapped, but disappears.

This is not yet a done deal and lots of very savvy clients commission very good OD. But  the ultimate dumbing of all of OD may be writing on the wall.

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25 thoughts on “The Dumbing Down of Organization Development

  1. סיבות נוספות:
    ארגון משאבי אנוש ששנים מזוהה עם האינטרסים של ההנהלה ואף מכונה ״משאבי הנהלה״. במקום להיות מעוניינת בפיתוח ארגוני אמיתי, המחלקה עסוקה בביצור מעמדו של המנהל, בתמיכה במינוי מנהלים שלא יאיימו על ההגמוניה שלו, וכן בתקשור של מסרים שנועדו לייצר שקט ולא פיתוח.

    כמו כן, חוסר ההכרה של מנהלים חסרי מודעות עצמית, שבעצמם אינם חזקים ב – soft skills, שעל מנת לייצר פיתוח או שינוי יש להשקיע רבות בליווי מנהלים ובשינויים של הלכי רוח ואלו מצריכים אנשי מקצוע טובים.

    כמו כן, אמונתם של המנהלים שאם יספקו ״לחם ושעשועים״ הדבר ייצור שקט ארגוני אמיתי. במקום להשקיע בתהליכי עומק הם משקיעים בקוסמטיקה בלבד.

  2. & maybe the fact that I haven’t done this is why I’ve been unemployed for nearly 5 years, G-d help me…

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  5. There’s a saying that “We don’t know what we don’t know.” In other words, we all are dumb. Clients and Consultants. The only way out is to Get Smart. And the only way to do that is by talking directly and improving the level of discourse and thinking. Good one, Allon!

  6. ‘The king has no clothes,’ the young boy exclaimed, much to the fear and trembling of the adults standing around, all of whom had seen the king naked for a long time. You, Allon Shevat, are that young boy. Over and over again. And we are in your debt. So is OD.
    Amy and I actually just finished a phone call with a potential client where this very issue came up. They were expecting us to think and charge like the trainers they were used to hiring and were taken aback at both the price and the process we were proposing. Rather than ‘sell out’ we stayed firm. We shall see what happens next.
    But to do that, the OD person needs to not be ‘hungry’, which is hard to do when, in fact, you ARE hungry. I confess to having sold out a few times over the years when I was getting started or in a rough patch financially.
    Thank you, Allon. I know this ‘word’ of yours may tend to isolate you from some colleagues and some clients, but I urge you to hang in there. The world needs OD which is true to its original mission of facilitating change that is able and willing to–as you point out–speak truth to power and go against the grain.
    Blessings from Warsaw (today),

  7. אלון עוד התייחסות אחת.
    שלמה גרוניך כתב מזמן.
    כולם רוצים שירים פשוטים שירים בשני אקורדים…
    מה לעשות. זה מה יש.
    אבל… וכאן השאלה שלי שאני חושב שווה התייחסות.
    אנחנו חיים בעולם עם טכנולוגיה סופר מהירה.
    המהירות הזו מחלחלת לכל תחום בחיינו.
    השאלה היא האם תחום הפיתוח הארגוני השכיל לפתח מתודולוגיות וכלים לתת מענים למהירות והאנרגיות שבהן פועל העולם העסקי.
    כל מה שאתה אומר הוא נכון, ועדיין האם עולם הייעוץ עשה את ההתאמות הנדרשות?
    אני חושש מאוד מהתשובה.

  8. If you contract with and are directed by HR, you are going to be asked or perhaps even forced to “dumb it down” or worse, paint frosting on horsesh*t and tell everyone about your beautiful cake. This is the business of HR: putting frosting on crap, spraying a lot of air freshener around, and holding a bake sale. Want to help your clients improve whole systems, including structures, ways of working, ways of thinking, processes, tools, and more, in ways that expand revenue, enhance margins, optimize cycle times, and foster sustainable growth of the organization and the people in it? Contract with the CEO and executive committee, period. These are the only stakeholders capable of developing the organization, because they are at its core. Even in the best of circumstances HR is peripheral, and it will always put its risk management objectives above its talent and organizational growth objectives. OD needs a revolution, and it has to start with a complete divorce from HR.

    • Here, here! It is however extremely hard to sell OD when you ‘go in cold’. Thank you for the tip of contracting with CEOs and Sr Executives. Many I speak to send you towards HR though. Makes you wonder who is really in charge of the organisation?

    • Absolutely right. HR and the selling out of OD to HR is the number one factor in dumbing it down! Don’t deal with them. Deal with leaders who are trying to get something done, not put on a program that will fit their budget……..HR can’t even spell Organization Development!

      • Whilst I totally agree with you on the “get away from HR” premise. But, if the organization has their OD department UNDER the HR function and we are partnering with the internal folks, there isn’t much of an option.

        It’s a challenge to not be stuck with procurement, which is rewarded on penny-pinching and not measuring quality.

  9. Hi Allon
    Thank you for this very informative and realistic assessment of what life is like in OD in the present climate. I hold to he belief that an organisation should never ‘dumb down’ because it is the first step on the slippery slope to mediocrity. Unfortunately, some organisations aspire to mediocrity. As an HR Manager/Consultant, I know what you are saying. Even though it is a challenge we in OD need to partner the decision makers and help them along the ‘right’ path, pointing out where we should swim against the current and the benefits and value that the organisation will reap. It is a commercial mind set ‘out there’ and we, in OD, have to stay faithful to OD and also be more commercially focussed in our thinking – we can and should do both.

  10. Your post is, in some ways, “sadly funny”. It brings up memories of things I have done, the source of which I have found by exploring J. Scherer’s question: “What runs me?” Your term “loyal opposition” calls for more than just a skill set on the part of an OD practitioner; it calls for what I have come to call: “Marrying the sword and the heart”: the capacity and willingness to cut through many layers of illusions on both my part and the client’s part while appreciating what those layers were attempting to protect in the first place. Your post reminds me of two sayings: “À mal nommer les choses, on ajoute à la souffrance humaine” (Albert Camus) and “It is by facing adversity that man develops” (Emmanuel Kant).

  11. Hi Allon – I’m appreciating your comments more and more… your revised edition is most appreciative.

    It reminds me of a famous quote by George Orwell:
    “In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
    … and most ‘position-based’, so-called leaders do not like revolutionaries…

    Lets talk ‘pain’ and ‘chaos’ for a moment … most ‘so-called’ OD folks do not appreciate nor prepare their clients for such … nor do they understand that what ‘needs’ to be done encompasses both, and such is the natural order of things… at a certain threshold, most will run back to the status quo to regain their normal comfort zone and say ‘things’ aren’t working, when things actually are… I begin to worry when things seem too smooth…

    OD is not a ‘project’, a ‘workshop’ nor and ‘initiative’ as you know, it is a continuous, emergent journey …

    I certainly can identify with Robin Cook’s statement …

    Your words ring loud:
    “And the client and the vendor will be addicted to a dysfunctional relationship.”
    No truer words have been spoken…

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  13. Ah Allon, truth, yet again. After being overwhelmed with the competition and plethora of OD consultants in the San Francisco area when I was getting started in the field, I “fell” into Project Management, where I did quite well – hey, I HAD managed a manufacturing plant and all external consulting DOES have a finish! But I have always tried to be true to my understanding of OD, sometimes more successfully than others.

    I do think the nature of business has changed since the late ’80s. Time has become truncated. Businesses only measure short-term financial results, (see CEO performance contracts – heaven forbid, they should make a decision for long-term benefits!). How do we even attempt to convince executives to do what’s best for the organizational culture, when they essentially lose money doing that?

    And yet, I still hold out hope of meeting a person/visionary like former Costco’s CEO Jim Senegal, who cared about employees and said $350K was enough money for him when the average CEO pay was $9.7 million. (Only wish I’d bought that stock – LOL!)

  14. Hi Allon, Speaking truth to us as usual. When I have entered in a lessor manner…for a one off training for example…it has been a wasted effort. In those instances, which have been thankfully fare, it has been someone who wants me in the system but it isn’t in the right role to truly lead the chnage they want to see. They are hoping to build a coalition of demand by beginning with what they can. I don’t totally real that out as an entry, even though the odds may be low that it leads to what I consider real OD. I have also entered through HR at times and ended up in fruitful partnerships with non-HR leaders. I’m willing to have those conversations, but I am clear with people up-front about what my OD is and what it isn’t, and what I believe the odds of success are based on the entry strategy.

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