Doing the work of organization development takes courage as we attempt to shift a culture that does not want to shift. In particular, the diversity work (as an aspect of OD) takes particular courage as there are sharp emotions in play which give rise to fear. When we act forthrightly in the presence of fear, we are called courageous. What, then, helps create courage? Principle! “Principles are the main ingredient of courage. A (person) with principles can get the better of fear.” This is from a Scott Turow character in his novel Ordinary Heroes.
Why else would we act in a direction other than where our fear would point us?
Critical Interventions: A New Take on the Stages of Planned Change
Most OD literature has some version of the stages or steps of planned change. They go something like contracting, data gathering, intervention, evaluation, and disengagement. Various authors have their own variations on this theme without significant deviation. I have problems with this framework in that each item in it is an intervention while intervention comes after data gathering. In addition, evaluation includes data gathering along with some analysis. Further, in real life the sequencing that it suggests does not account for the fact that any of the items can trigger any of the other items. For example, data gathering often leads to re-contracting as might any other intervention. This makes the framework both confusing and unwieldy, therefore, not as useful as it could be.
An alternative approach I am calling “Critical Interventions” which acknowledges that all of the items are interventions and does not suggest any particular ordering though the order in which they are offered may have some value.
From the perspective of applied behavioral science an intervention is an action within a human system that is intended to move that system toward some specified planned change. More specifically, our interventions are designed to move the support for the specified goal toward critical mass through engendering collaboration dynamics such as mutual understanding and the willingness to learn from differences.
Seven Critical Interventions
• Creating Possibility
• Contracting for Collaboration
• Feedback as a Learning Process
• Clear Consequences
Any planned change venture is triggered by some event that offers data about a real or potential impact on the human system at hand. More often, then not even more data must be gathered to verify, amplify, and otherwise, flesh-out the existing information. Organization development practitioners do this starting with the first meeting with a potential client. This is a most significant intervention in that the data-gathered can significantly shift the perspective of the practitioner. More importantly, when done well, this initial data-gathering session is very much a value-added intervention that is helpful to the client.
The information gathered may trigger client beliefs that the situation as only limited remedies such as training when a more systemic approach is needed. Or, that the problem is not remedial at all, as many believe “personality conflicts” to be. Often, the client simply wants an end to the personal or organizational pain being experienced when a more vision-oriented approach would be useful. In any of these cases, the organization development practitioner must create a greater sense of what is possible. Educational conversation about root-cause, systemic problem-solving; sharing past experiences of broader solutions; and inquiring how the situation is impacting movement toward an organizational or personal vision can all be useful toward support the client to create a greater sense of possibility.
Contracting for Collaboration
Based upon the newly generated data and sense of possibility, can occur to define agreement about goals, collaborative strategies, roles, relationship behaviors, and next steps. Contracting are core interventions in this sense is they actual building of the needed support systems toward critical mass and institute a deeper quality of relationship with the system that portends greater effectiveness and efficiency as related to the work of the system. Starting with the contract between the practitioner and the client and proceeding to the agreements for support needed between the client with the others members of the system whose agreement and support are needed, contracting interventions are critical.
Contracting defines what is to be done; i.e., ed. The agreements of the contracts mean nothing if the actions called for are not implemented. Organizations hold many retreats since produce prodigious and much needed agreements that are never implemented as the attendees return to business as usual. To support effective implementation, one of the last things I do at the end of a meeting where there has been significant contracting, I insist on a review of the agreements for explicitness, identification of the individual(s) who have agreed to accomplish the action, and the date by which the action is be accomplished.
Feedback as a Learning Process
At some date subsequent to implementation a follow-up session to needed to see how things went or didn’t go. The question being addressed here is what impact have the agreed upon and implemented actions had? Extensive attention must be paid to the systemic feedback that is always present. Systemic feedback is the systems response to whatever action that has (or hasn’t) occurred. Systemic feedback tells us if the system has moved in the desired direction or not. Undertaken as a learning process, feedback helps us refine strategies and tactics as necessary until the goal of the change initiative has been reached. Feedback is also needed to inform those with actions to carryout what they did that worked and what could be improved—again a learning process. Feedback as a learning process is effective as dialogic process during which the give and take of the dialogue increases the database of all present to the point of mutual understanding about effective action at all levels of human systems—personal, interpersonal, group, and organizational. This is in sharp contrast to processes of anonymous feedback where there is no opportunity to work our way through connotative definitions, misunderstanding, and conflicts needing resolution.
Consequences are motivational. We do what we believe will get us what we want. We also do what we believe will consequentially help us avoid getting what we do not want. Change in human systems is driven often by the consequences of not changing, such as potential productivity and revenue loss, loss of key employees, loss of job, and loss of the business itself. Occasionally, change is driven by a vision or a dream whose reality will occur as a consequence of the some change process. This holds true at the individual and group level as well though many system do not make clear such consequences. When all parties to the agreements reached in the contracting interventions are clear about the consequences at all levels of following through with their agreements and of not following through. For many the consequences of accomplishing goals and fulfilling agreements are sufficient motivation. For others that is not enough and further support is needed. That could take the form of additional coaching, disapproval, loss of status, loss of position, even loss of job. What will work depends entirely on what any individual chooses to perceive as motivating. Many failed change efforts fail from a notable absence of clear, motivating consequences.
When sufficient iterations of data-gathering, contracting, implementation, feedback, and consequences have occurred, we, hopefully, have found ourselves having attained the critical mass of support needed and the goals of the change initiative have been accomplished. At this point it is time to acknowledge the accomplishments of individuals, team, and the organization. It is time celebrate. It is time to let go of that project and its processes so that we can move on to whatever is next. What we do not let go of we not move on from. This is true even when we have decided to cease putting energy into the process that taking more time and energy than seems worthy. Again, whatever effort has been expended needs to be acknowledged, learnings need to be identified, and good-by must be said. Such is the nature of letting go, of disengagement so that we might move on to our next project where we will be better prepared to succeed.
The nature of systems is that anything and everything we do or don’t do within that system has an impact to which the system responds. Accordingly, we can see that anything and everything we do is an intervention whether we are planful about it or not. To make the best of our human systems—whether for improved productivity or greater satisfaction and pleasure—we can become more effective by using these six critical interventions.
Michael F. Broom, Ph.D.