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The Fertile Future of Organizational Development

If we’re honest – if we really take in what science is telling us – the situation humanity faces is so dire that we need every industry, every sector to lay down their tools, turn to the world and say: these are our skills and resources; how can we help?


This was my appeal in a recent article written for the tourism sector.


The March 2022 OD for Life Inquiry Circle was a search for answers to that question for the field of Organizational Development. How can we help?


It was clear that we wouldn’t be able to come up with a complete and final answer for the entire field during our two-hour Zoom call. But our insights would feed into an in-person gathering to craft a manifesto next month, and to continuing conversations beyond. And as it turned out, we generated quite a powerful vision of the future in our short time together.


WHAT WAS YOUR ORIGINAL CALLING TO THIS WORK?


Our starting point was to reconnect with what had first drawn each of us to this field. What was the original spark of love and urge to serve? The original hope to make a change in the world? We wanted to see if our profession’s highest calling is already baked into our own calling to the work.


And indeed, the answers inspired. We were drawn to help “individuals, organizations and cultures thrive” and to “unlock the potential between humans to connect in how they see the world” so that they can “have life and love at their core.” We recognized that “knowledge is relational, active and alive” and that “institutional knowledge needs to be storied [and] shared so it is alive and can be embodied.” We wanted to “support leaders to be authentic — heart and soul and all there is.” We noted that this language of love, aliveness and authenticity wasn’t available to most of us in our early days in the profession. But there has been an important shift in recent years, and there is a helpful new sense of urgency with it.


A woman named Ramona Fricke shared a particularly striking description of her own calling. In her work, she is guided by the metaphor of a lush, green forest in the moments after a strong rain shower, when all the dust has been wiped off of the leaves. The smell of rich, fertile soil fills the air, and the forest can breathe. Everything comes to life, refreshed and renewed. Now, everything can grow and thrive and reach for the sun. Now, the potential that is there can be unleashed. This is the effect she strives to have in her work.


We might not need much more of a manifesto than that!


WHERE IS ORGANIZATIONAL DEVELOPMENT NOW?


From there, we looked at the current state of the field and observed that much of the work is still held within the mechanistic, reductionist paradigm that shapes so much of our world. But there are also signs of movement and progress.


Din shared two recent frameworks that point the way forward. Each shows a progression from transactional, individualistic approaches to the more systemic, transformational and life-aligned.


In the first, Otto Scharmer calls for a deepening and broadening of the work, moving away from the conventional approach that positions us as a simple, neutral instrument of technical change. Instead, he points to the potential of learning and change as a process of co-creation, seeking to serve the health of all levels of the ecosystem.

The second model seems to depict the same progression in a different way. It presents a spectrum of principles on one axis and of purpose on the other. In the upper righthand corner, the ideal is what the authors call “positive-impact value,” what I would call “thrivability” and many call regeneration. It is to be guided by principles of caring, wholeness and connection in pursuit of the purpose of flourishing. The challenge, the authors point out, is that there is a “Big Divide” that must be crossed if we are to progress from our near-exclusive focus on efficiency, effectiveness and profit maximization. On the call, I shared my view that this Big Divide is the outer limits of the mechanistic, reductionist worldview, which tells us that those further points on the spectrum don’t exist, that they’re not feasible or reasonable.


Din also pointed to the latest issue of Organization Development Review, with a collection of scholarly articles about the more life-aligned, “net positive” future of the field. We are clearly not alone in sensing that something more is needed — and possible.


WHAT IS THE CALLING WE ARE SENSING WITHIN THE FIELD OF ORGANIZATION DEVELOPMENT?


To offer an example of sensing emergent calling, I described my work with regional and national tourism organizations, who are coming to see their work less as “managing the tourist destination” and more as “cultivating the hosting community.” Communities will continue to welcome visitors, but that activity will fall within a larger intention of healing people and place, in what is coming to be called “regenerative tourism.” That shift in intention is likely to have profound effect, transforming roles, relationships, skills, activities and outcomes.


Carrying that example forward, we playfully imagined the front-page headlines we’d love to see in the future that would let us know the field of OD had heeded its own call.


Of course, there were new tools, methods and activities in our imagined future scenarios.


But we were also clear: “it’s not about the tools.” Most of all, it’s about a shift in mindset, which might look something like this:

  • The majority of CEOs are “driven to regenerate for the future,” and to care for the “health and energy” of people within the organization.

  • The work of Organizational Development is to “speak the voice of the possible.” It is to cultivate meaning — “the meaning of life,” even.

  • The “fundamental relationships organizations rely on” have been reconceived — “from customers to members,” for example, or even “co-healers.”

  • Our organizations — even our factories — are “breathing life into communities.”

  • Nature is our explicit guide. We work “in nature, as nature.”

  • Play is recognized as “the highest form of work,” as the most powerful “evolutionary process.” Awash with “creative and participatory” methods, businesses are seen as “playgrounds” for purpose-driven work, as “practice grounds for a more thrivable world.” Here's how one headline put it:

Purposeful Businesses: The Playgrounds of the World. How Mission-Driven Businesses Are Catalysing Cultural Change for Life


The result we foresaw was significant, sweeping changes in the world. Yet at the same time, there was such a shift towards practice, learning and emergence — a shift from doing to being, as some said — that our imagined future headlines were less focused on concrete outcomes and more focused on process, progress and flow, in an unfolding celebration.


In all, we imagined that our profession would be characterized by “a feeling of alignment, of being on the path.” Of the murmuration of starlings, dancing joyfully across the sky.


At the end, though, we felt a craving for action. Shared separately as report-backs from breakout groups and snippets in the chat box, these snapshots of the future felt humble. “Is that really all we have to do?” asked one person. “Is there something more?”


But gathered together here in one image, the contrast with current reality becomes clear and stark. This is revolution we’re talking about, in a bold charge across the Big Divide that Din had pointed to. All of this — embracing regeneration as primary purpose, giving voice to what is truly meaningful, reconceiving fundamental relationships, breathing life into community, surrendering to play and process — all of it will require trust in life. In self-organization. In ourselves and each other. And that will require methods to support us all in learning and moving into that trust. It may be that this is at the heart of what our field is called to do.


If this future calls to you, too, please consider joining us May 5 & 6 in the Netherlands, where we will assemble the insights we've been discovering in this series of conversations, along with the collective wisdom that emerges from the experiences and intuitions of those who have gathered with us. Together, we will sketch out a bridge across that Big Divide.

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