Center for Human Systems > Resources > Articles > The Paradox of Practicing Organization Development

Articles | The Paradox of Practicing Organization Development

Organization Development Is A Paradox of Clashing of Paradigms: A Double-Loop Exploration of The Field

Michael F. Broom, Ph.D.

Organization development is the most powerful tool we have for effecting change in human systems. It also has proven itself over the past 50 years to be a discipline and profession both difficult to practice and difficult to teach to others. The concepts are not difficult: contract to collaborate with your clients, gather sound and current data before you intervene, focus on the system rather then the individuals. Putting these simple concepts into practice, however, does seem to be difficult for many practitioners. An initial difficulty may lie in not recognizing the paradox that OD presents when we attempt to practice it within the context of the traditional organization. Even with recognition of the paradox, we have little knowledge or skill in resolving dilemmas such as paradoxes. To at least begin moving against this front, we will be exploring the paradox of practicing OD with traditional human systems and some thoughts about its resolution on behalf of more effective practice.


  1. A paradox is a statement of apparent truth with seemingly contradictory components.
  2. A paradigm is a system of mutually reinforcing and complementary beliefs about the nature of reality.

In the realm of human systems, paradigms are systems of beliefs held by social and organizational systems that guide the thought processes, speech patterns, feelings, and behaviors of their members. Our sense of personal, social, and organizational identity and esteem are often tied up in these belief systems. They define who wins and who loses or the need for winners and losers at all.

We often deny the existence of paradoxes.

To identify our constituent beliefs and to document our assertion the OD belief system can include the traditional, let's take a look at the table below abstracted from Broom and Klein's Power, The Infinite Game (Sea Otter Press, 1995). It identifies and contrasts the constituent beliefs of the finite, traditional paradigm with the infinite, organizational development paradigm regarding their relative power dynamics and change management efficacy.

Finite (Traditional) Paradigm Infinite (Organizational Development) Paradigm
Fundamental supposition: Power is scarce Fundamental supposition: Power is abundant
Power is a zero-sum game. No one can win in the long run. Power is a positive-sum game. Everyone wins.
The purpose is to establish who is winner and who is loser. The purpose is to maintain the game and the players.
Changing people is a strategy of choice. Changing systems is the strategy of choice.
Differences are used to determine who wins and who loses. Differences are cause for curiosity and learning.
Being different is viewed as dangerous; conforming to and collusion with authority is the route to safety. Being different is valued and safe; conformity is a matter of personal choice. Authority is a matter of function, not superiority.
Diversity leads to adversity. Diversity leads to learning and synergy.
Partnerships and teamwork are difficult because of distrust and hostility. Collaboration is difficult, provisional, and short-term. Partnerships and teamwork are supported by curiosity and learning from differences. Ease of collaboration is only a matter of practice.
Doing to others is valued over doing with others. Doing with others is valued. Doing to others is not.
Knowing what you're doing, often with little real data, is preferred over being seen as ignorant. Ignorance is valued as a necessary precursor to curiosity, learning, and increased knowledge.
Doing is more important than being. Speed is essential. Being is seen as the path to effective doing. Taking time is essential.
A game to be played very seriously when individual or group identity is perceived as at stake. A game to be played well and joyfully as no one's survival is at stake
A self-fulfilling prophecy because potential partnerships are temporary and limited. A self-fulfilling prophecy because potential partnerships are secure and unlimited.
The paradigm of choice when survival is a moment-to-moment issue. The paradigm of choice when growth and learning are primary goals.

Regarding the question of which paradigm is inclusive of the other: certainly the infinite OD perspective can include the finite, traditional perspective, whereas the finite cannot include the infinite. As logical as this may be, the perceived pervasiveness and sense of dominance of the traditional, finite paradigm all too often leads potentially effective OD practitioners to conform to and collude with the culture they are ostensibly trying to change. These practitioners may also fall into the trap of believing they are operating from the infinite perspective while judging poorly those they view as operating finitely. Such pitfalls result from irresolution of the paradox at hand. Effective practitioners, therefore, must make peace with the idea that the two perspectives are not oppositional, but inclusive. The OD perspective can include and understand—without judgment—the traditional perspective though the opposite is not true. To collaborate effectively—a core component of OD—we must be able to approach our finitely oriented clients without judgment.

Developing a sense of understanding of and rootedness within the OD paradigm will support practitioners to maintain the systemic, non-judgmental perspective necessary to use the differences between our clients and ourselves for the learning and synergy needed to collaboratively invent an effective change process. Given our socialized propensity toward operating from the finite perspective, this is easier said than done. Again, the infinite perspective is of help as it allows us the freedom to have strong and long-lasting partnerships and teams we need to support us in returning to the OD perspective. This is crucial when stress moves us swiftly and automatically back to the traditional, win/lose, judgmental way of operating.

From the traditional perspective, organizational development is often seen as an impractical, touchy–feely tale of goodness and light. Yet, of necessity, clients and client systems are willing to explore the journey to being sure that everyone is taken care of. They have begun to understand, as we must, that in the long-run win/lose always turns into lose/lose. This recognition is being forced by their need for more productivity from fewer people without knowing how. Nor do we OD practitioners know how for any particular client or organization. Such mutual ignorance reframed, as the space of curiosity, listening, learning, and synergy becomes our saving grace as the ground for collaborative learning and synergy rather than embarrassment.

Reframing is a key skill that successful OD practitioners must have if we are to maintain the power of the infinite perspective and support our client's movement in the same direction. The process of reframing has to do with seeing a particular thing or phenomenon from a different perspective and, hence, changing its perceived value. Ignorance is the state of not knowing something. The finite perspective puts a negative slant on ignorance because it values „knowing as a means of being right and winning. This has nothing to do with whatever intrinsic value ignorance might have if it weren't negatively connoted. The infinite perspective takes away adverse connotation and leaves space to discover its value; i.e., the space for curiosity and learning from whatever might be different. Shifting paradigms and resolving paradoxes is, in its essence, a process of reframing enough of the constituent elements of a belief system until a critical mass of reframed elements shifts the entire paradigm.

Through identifying and accepting a paradox, we can identify its seemingly contradictory belief systems. Knowing and understanding the paradigms allows the discovery of which might be inclusive of the other and to ascertain the constituent elements of each. Now we can begin the process of reframing, starting wherever the client happens to be, until the entire paradigm has shifted and the paradox is resolved. Piece of cake!