What is ‘organizational development’ really about?

Organizational development suffers from the same core business problem as many things — it’s hard to measure. Here’s the basic deal with many jobs: even though senior leaders usually aren’t very good at analyzing data in the context of decision-making, they nonetheless still believe that the only things deserving of their attention are measurable things. This comes from an all-consuming focus by many top dogs on financial metrics — which can be measured and neatly arranged in spreadsheets, yes — and causes concepts like employee engagement (harder to measure) to fall by the wayside (same with “talent strategy”).

Organizational development falls into this camp. It’s one of those things that you kinda maybe sorta know or think is important, but you don’t really have time to focus on it because you gotta spend all your time focusing on making money instead, and/or sitting in meetings and hopping on calls to chase a new revenue play. That’s organizational development, right? Making money? Growth?

Not exactly. There are actually about 2 billion ways to think of organizational development, and 94% of all articles written about it will no doubt contain at least 17 instances of one of these buzzwords:

In reality, there’s one logical and effective way to look at organizational development and see how successful it is.

Organizational development and internal movement

No one really understands how promotions work at most jobs — or what they’re based on, honestly — but the sheer fact of the matter is that whenever we run around bellowing about ‘the future of work,’ all we’re actually discussing is two things:

We bake all that into 347 different generalizations about millennials — most of which aren’t even true — and a host of other bullsh*t, but effective work (and thus, effective organizational development) typically comes down to two factors: respect and opportunity. That’s what people want, and that’s sussed out in a variety of different studies, surveys, and interviews. Now, you can balk and say people really want a fat paycheck — which is probably true — but don’t believe they should say that on a survey, which is why ‘respect’ rises to the top. There might be some validity there.

If you believe ‘respect’ and ‘opportunity’ are two important aspects of organizational development, though — even if you think they’re not No. 1 with a bullet — then you begin to see how organizations can be evaluated in terms of those. It’s hard to track and measure ‘respect’ — hell, 60 percent of managers in one study said they ‘didn’t have time’ to respect their employees, so it’s clearly something we all need to do a better job putting on our Outlook calendars. But you can track and measure ‘opportunities for growth,’ and that’s important.

I recently worked at a place that had a high degree of homophily, or a bunch of people who’ve been working together for a long time. That’s good in one sense — feels like family! — but very bad in another sense, because every idea is always “No, we do it this way!” and people catch each other’s backs because, well, we’ve always done it this way. That’s how we do it!

Despite a bunch of people having been there 10+ years, there were only two people who had gotten to the top levels internally. Everyone else had come from somewhere else into the top levels. So you have all these people working a decade-plus and hitting targets, right? But when it comes time to figure out who’s gonna be the top brass … they go outside and poach someone? It never made sense to me, and seemed like poor organizational development. That all partially inspired this post.

Organizational development and clarity around work

A lot of this comes back to lack of clarity about various issues surrounding work, which is fairly common — if you lined up 100 people and asked them to explain what work is in the broadest sense, you’d probably get about 226 different answers. No one really knows, and everyone contextualizes it differently — and you’ve got a mix of ‘work is virtue’ people all over, plus a mix of slackers, target-chasers, etc. It’s funny to me that we wonder sometimes why organizational priorities are often so f**ked up, when in reality that’s fairly logical: everyone thinks they’re doing something different, so how the hell will anyone align around anything other than “Let’s make some money?”

Here’s the big thing: at work, people often want to be taken care of. That’s the major reason to go work for a corporation, in my eyes — and in the eyes of many others. You can yelp to a survey-taker that you joined that company because of its “mission,” but in most cases that’s total horsesh*t. You joined because you wanted a paycheck every two weeks, you wanted the general idea that those paychecks would keep coming, you wanted health insurance, you wanted some work travel, and you wanted to be around people during the day because I mean, isn’t this what adults do?

The idea of ‘wanting to be taken care of’ ties to ‘opportunities for growth,’ and it also ties to something else: job-hopping. Most business journalism assigns the idea of job-hopping to ‘the millennials,’ but that’s missing the broader picture. Job-hopping became a bigger deal when corporations stopped taking care of people the way they used to. It’s less a generational thing and much more a ‘companies started focusing exclusively on the bottom line and viewed people as interchangeable towards that goal’ thing. The Gold Watch Era died. So people started hopping around.

The true reality is that if you want to make more money, you almost have to job-hop in the modern age — because you probably ain’t getting promoted that much at your current gig, which is my whole point about organizational development.

So what’s effective organizational development then?

Putting aside as much pie-in-the-sky bullsh*t as possible, here’s what I got:

  • Value people
  • Understand that good ideas can come from anywhere, not just the top dogs
  • Treat people like adults
  • Promote them and allow them to work on different projects if they’d like

That’s effective organizational development — it’s not rushing around bellowing about your core values, which ultimately means absolutely nothing. It’s letting people be adults, contribute ideas, feel like a part of something broader — and then rewarding them for doing well.

Opportunities for growth.

That’s what organizational development comes down to.

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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