Sunday, August 14, 2011

Daydreams of an OD Mechanic

After making a living in the Organization Development (OD) field for more than a decade, I have realized that my primary role so far has been that of an 'OD Mechanic'. There is nothing inherently wrong with being an 'OD Mechanic'. Every field requires skilled technicians. It is just that it was very different from what I had set out to become.

Having started my career as an Aerospace Engineer, my objective while making the quantum jump into the Behavioral Science domain, was to become a 'Scientist' in that domain. I must admit that I had very limited understanding of what my ‘Picture of Success’ looks like (as a scientist in the HR/OD domain) – some sort of a 'Corporate Anthropologist' was my best guess!

Once I started handling real life roles in HR and OD, I more or less forgot about this. I did get fascinated by the idea of 'thought leadership' and investigated ‘Thought Leadership in HR in India’ I have also been aware of the importance of (and the difficulties in) maintaining the link between theory and practice (see 'HR professionals and Multiple Personality Disorder') and I feel that this ‘OD Mechanic’ might have emerged as a result of my attempt to avoid that ‘Multiple Personality Disorder’ (talking about behavior science theories/principles in meetings/seminars but carrying out the day-to-day work without applying any of those theories/principles). I do wonder if it has been more of a convenient compromise as opposed to being an optimal solution that emerges from constantly living in the creative tension between the two polarities. You see, creating and using tools allows me to feel that I am applying behavioral science knowledge/principles though the creation/use of tools might not necessarily need a lot of behavioral science knowledge!

Now let us take a closer look at the terms ‘Mechanic’ and ‘Scientist’. We will also look at another related term - ‘Engineer’. A Mechanic is a skilled worker who practices some trade or craft. The defining feature of a Mechanic is the high degree of skill in the use of tools. A Scientist is a person who studies any of the sciences, uses scientific methods and develops deep expertise. What characterizes the work of a Scientist is the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena. An Engineer is a person who uses scientific knowledge to solve practical problems. As Randy Pausch says, Engineering is not about perfect solutions; it is about optimizing within constraints. Engineering also has the connotation of shrewdly managing an enterprise/task (as in the phrase 'he engineered the election campaign beautifully').

Over the last decade, I have learned and applied a large number of tools and techniques in the HR/OD domain – tools and techniques for diagnosis, process facilitation, solution design, action planning, program management etc - that too in various contexts like increasing individual and team effectiveness, managing change, employee engagement/culture building, organization design, development of frameworks/systems/processes, capability building, career development etc. I have also learned to select the most appropriate tools for a particular problem, customize tools/techniques/approaches, and also to create my own tools (remember: ‘Man is a tool-making animal’!).

Of course, these tools were required and useful. Unless people saw value in what was accomplished through the use of those tools and techniques I wouldn’t have been able to survive in the field. I have also done significant amount of 'optimizing within constraints' -that is the essence of the work of an Engineer (and this activity is of at most importance in adding value in the context of business organizations). The problem is just that I haven’t done enough of ‘observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena’ that characterizes the work of a Scientist. Yes, I have done these sporadically (as reflected in some of the posts that I have written in this blog over the last 4 years). But the extent of manifestation of my 'OD Scientist self' has been significantly less as compared to my 'OD Engineer self' or 'OD Mechanic self'!!!

Considering that OD is a planned, organization-wide effort using behavioral science principles to increase an organization's effectiveness, real life OD initiatives and OD roles are likely to require a mix of Mechanic, Engineer & Scientist. My daydreams were about my attempts (and their outcomes) to significantly increase the percentage of ‘Scientist’ in the mix as I progress in my career as an OD professional.

Daydreams apart, one key part of this endeavor is to be more ‘mindful’ (in general, even while doing the 'OD Mechanic's job'!) so that I will do a better job of observing and then later reflecting on the behavior of individuals and groups in organizations. Another key part is focusing more on 'why' questions ('hypothesis generation and testing') and 'what if' questions ('thought experiments')as opposed to 'how' questions (which are the primary focus of the Mechanic). In a way, I am more clear about mission as an OD professional - to stand at the intersection of theory and practice and inform both by deriving theory from practice and practice from theory. I have discovered that this is somewhat similar to the work of (what Edgar Schein refers to as) the 'scholar practitioner' (who is more concerned about 'middle-level theory'). On a more fundamental level, I have also understood that one can't truly do OD unless one takes it as a calling and not just as a profession.

I do think that these insights might help me to identify 'leverage points' in the system and even to do 'Wisdom level consulting' (another daydream, I must say!). I feel that identifying and acting on leverage points (where a small change can create big impact on the overall system) is critical for OD professionals in order to make a tangible/significant impact on the system/organization (as opposed to doing isolated 'OD interventions' here and there!). You see, one of the 'occupational hazards' of handling a Corporate OD role is to land up in a 'mouse in a maze' kind of situation - 'running here and there (doing OD interventions here and there !), feeling extremely busy, but getting nowhere -in terms of creating a significant and lasting impact at the level of the entire organization! (Please see 'OD Managers and Court Jesters' for a detailed discussion on the occupational hazards of internal OD consultants). Considering the above discussion, my initial idea of becoming a ‘Corporate Anthropologist’ might not have been too far off the mark! May be I was right for the wrong reason!!!

Now, let us come back to daydreams. Dreams (including daydreams) are in a way 'stories that we tell ourselves'. Similar to what I had mentioned in 'Architects of meaning', I think that by analyzing my OD daydreams (stories)and by consciously introducing subtle changes to the stories (and the truths/meanings embedded in those the stories)I might be able to improve my effectiveness as an OD professional. I also think that daydreams (and 'lucid dreams') have great potential in serving as effective methods for conducting 'thought experiments' in OD. But that is another story (or shall I say, another post)!!!

Any comments/ideas?


Unknown said...

Great insight Sir. Hope one day OD professionals can do more of design thinking and behave like OD scientists :-) Ofcourse till then we are good as OD engineers and mechanics.

Prasad Kurian said...

Thanks Neeti!