CIPD OD Conference reflections: What is OD?

Earlier this month I attended the CIPD Organisational Development (OD) Conference 2016. It was an insightful and interesting day. We heard from a variety of different speakers who were all kind enough to share with us their experiences and insights into the world of OD.

I was part of a two-person Blog Squad alongside Meg Peppin. Meg and I tweeted like crazy through the day and Meg also live blogged a couple of the sessions. To catch up on the shares from the day, you can check out the Twitter hashtag #cipdOD16 and blogs via Meg’s website.

Here are a number of shares from the day:

Prof Cliff Oswick (Cass Business School) shared that change happens best in organisations when it is treated as an ongoing process and not one off initiatives.

“The manager’s role to give responsibility to others but stay close for support” this quote invited a lot of discussion and debate in the room and outside of it on the day.

Vilma Nikolaidou (Tate) said in her experience it is a good idea to pay attention to the micro cultures within your organisation, all the different stories around your organisation can add so much.

Group discussions highlighted the importance for us to make sure we measure what’s changing and not just the change

And finally, Paul Taylor and Karen Dumain (NHS) introduced us to the NHS ‘Do OD’ app that has been developed and is available free to download.

I really enjoyed the openness and reflection that delegates on the day were having. As I’ve been reflecting on the conference I realised that a few people said to me throughout the day that they were still trying to get their head round the concept of OD and what it means to them.

So to help with this I’ve asked my good friend and colleague Alison Germain who works in the OD space, to share with us how she describes OD.

Ali is the former OD Director for NBCU International, and previously worked in OD at the BBC.  Ali is an independent OD Consultant and Executive Coach, specialising in “femininity in leadership”.  

Thanks Fi. I can imagine going to an OD conference and still not feeling like I really get what OD is.  I know a lot of people who have worked in OD for many years who are still trying to get their head around it and what it means to them so the first thing to do is relax.  You are not alone if you feel like you don’t get it. By its nature it is a complicated thing.  I will have a go at explaining what it means for me.  

When you are new to OD it can be helpful to think of it in two ways; what it does and how it does it.  What Organisation Development does is “make stuff better”. How it does that comes down to “you and me”.  

“Making Stuff Better”

Organisations are made up of lots of component parts or ingredients. As OD practitioners we work hard to take a holistic view of all of these aspects that make up the way the organisation works and the impact it has.  Like cooking a Sunday roast.  We know we have different ingredients that will all be tasting delicious and at their best if we are able to cook them to the right temperature and to the right time, and in the right order.  When we look at organisations we consider all the pieces and how they fit, or don’t fit, together.  Systems, processes, KPIs, financial rhythms, behaviours, rules written and unwritten, the way we get things done, for example.  They are our carrots, peas, Yorkshire puddings, gravy (complicated), meat and condiments.  Once we have researched the organisation and understood these parts, we can consider all of the data we have gathered and start to form insights that inform what we do next.  We can begin to recommend areas where we can make improvements to “make stuff better”.  

Nobody likes potatoes that have dried out from overcooking, and if it is happening 75% of the time we cook the roast, what would we recommend to avoid this in the future and make sure we reduce the %age rate to a more acceptable 10%?  What if 95% reports suggest that everyone is going to stop eating meat in the next 5-10 years?  What adjustments need to be made now?  What does that mean for our systems, processes, structures and investments in the learning and development of our leaders?

The recommendations, or interventions, that you design can work at different scales.  You might bring in a coach to drive the performance of a talented executive on a one to one basis, a facilitator to design and facilitate a team getting from A to B, or an organisation wide intervention such as a leadership development program or a new accounting system. You might do all of those things.

Another way of looking at it is to imagine a piano keyboard with all of the keys stretching out before you.   If I press these three keys I know I will make a specific sound.  If I press these other two keys and hold a pedal down with my foot then I will get a different sound.  OD is like that. We have to remember that everything is connected and that if we change one part, it will have an impact on other connected parts.  That is where taking a holistic view is helpful when you are considering which intervention might drive the results you want and make sure you get the most bang for your buck.   

“OD is you and me”

How successful you are as you go about observing, sharing your observations and feedback, influencing others and designing and implementing any interventions is, in my view, largely down to how you show up.  I think it is about how you choose to show up and how you are with me. There is a phrase in OD which is “self as instrument” and I am a big fan. I take it to mean that we, ourselves, are the work. How I am, is how my work is.   

You can imagine the reaction of a room when a facilitator walks in with big waving arms and a loud cheery voice shouting “Morning all” whilst grinning from ear to ear.  Now imagine a person walking slowly in to the room, carrying a notepad, who sits down quietly to the side without meeting anyone’s eye.  Those two different ways of showing up have impact on others in the room.  They create a response in the room and influence the dynamic between us all.

All things considered, organisations are made up of just us.  You and me, doing our jobs and using different systems and processes and written and unwritten rules to get them done.  How we show up has a direct impact on the world around us and then in turn, how we experience that world / room / meeting / desk buddy.

So a good place to start with OD is with you.  You could take a moment to answer these questions:

How am I feeling?  What am I thinking?  What do I notice around me when I use my senses to listen / look / feel?

As you raise your self-awareness, you may also start to notice your impact on others.  When you start to notice what is around you more and more, you can make choices about how you show up so you can “make stuff better” too.  And that makes for an adventurous day at work!

Recommended reading:

Google “Do OD” – a great toolkit for all things OD on the NHS website

“Organisation development: a practitioner’s guide for OD and HR” Mee Yan Cheung-Judge

Your own journal – You may start to notice themes in what you write which could help you raise your self-awareness.


Thanks Ali. I always learn so much when hearing others perspectives on topics like this. I hope the reader find this useful and if anyone has comments to add to this blog that would be very welcome.

Ali enjoys discussing and debating all things L&OD.  You can contact Ali via email or via Twitter.

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