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The OD Gathering: From the Founders to the Future

by Matt Minahan, OD Network Member

So, what happens when you invite 125 OD people to talk about the roots of OD, the future of work and the future of the field?  

We did exactly that in December in Baltimore and found it to be a rich and rewarding three days of stimulating interaction. It was called From the Founders to the Future: A Gathering to Build OD for Tomorrow's World. The three days were full of provocative propositions, great interactions, and some wonderful insights and challenges for ourselves and our field. And we plan to do something similar two more times.

The “we” here is made up mostly of OD Network members, former board members, award winners, and a chair: Fred Miller, Judith Katz, Bob Marshak, Norm Jones, Ilene Wassermann, Bridget O’Brien, and myself. Among us, there were at least 7 OD Network awards received. Most of the current OD Network board members were there as were dozens of members.

The idea was to complement the annual OD Network conferences with something smaller, more intimate, less fully structured, with more open space in the moment to focus on the roots of OD and how they support our future. Our goal was to bring people together to discuss the direction of the field of OD, with hopes that the collective thinking of all will help to shape the field as it moves forward.

“The Founders” topic began with a diverse panel who spoke about some of the early thinkers and founders in the field who influence their thinking and their work today. We heard about Bob Tannenbaum, Edie Seashore, Charlie Seashore, Elsie Cross, Kurt Lewin, Khalil Jamieson, Herb Shepard, Lee Butler, Don Klein, and others.

Across the three days, there were only two actual presenters; everything else grew out of dialogue and conversation in the room and in the dozens of breakout sessions that arose from the open space.

One of the speakers addressed the future of work. Jens Ulrik Hansen (http://futureassociates.com) from Switzerland shared his knowledge of business transformation with an eye toward digital maturity. He spoke about the ten megashifts that are shaping work and influencing our lives across ecosystems: the cloud, mobilization, personalization, datafication, cognification, automation, anticipation, augmentation, disintermediation, platformization, virtualization, and robotization.

He said that, on an individual level, each of us can hugely benefit from strengthening our mindset, skillset and behaviors – especially those related to humbleness, curiosity, diversity, inclusion, impact on others, being in service of a greater purpose and our personal why. On a collective basis, we are moving from being interconnected mainly through classical organizations towards being mainly connected through open networks. This opens up a vast arena of new possibilities that we need to learn how to navigate, explore and benefit from.

Some of the strategic challenges that every organization, private business and government agency will need to understand and work with are: platform as a business mode; orchestration & participation across ecosystems; operating in open networks; products and services aided by AI & AR; and always being careful to avoid the competency trap, the ecosystem trap, the talent trap, and what he called the metrics trap.

Jens’ presentation sparked almost ten different breakout group discussions created in the moment based on the interests and curiosity of the participants in the room, all of which rolled up into a rich conversation and some final comments from Jens about the future of work.

The other presenter was Gervase Bushe (www.gervasebushe.ca), Professor of Leadership and Organization Development at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, where he has one foot in the world of scholarship and the other in the world of practice, particularly in leadership development and consulting. He and Bob Marshak have written several articles and edited a book on Dialogic OD, though that’s not what we asked him to address. We asked Gervase to challenge our beliefs and assumptions about OD. He did not fail!

He said that leaders everywhere are hungry to know how to cope with a complex and ever changing environment, how to manage the interdependencies across organizations, how to meaningfully engage employees, how to create inclusive work culture, how to build adaptive continuous learning cultures, how to rapidly create and disband high performing teams, and what skills and perspectives are needed in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world.

His provocative proposition was that we’ve trapped ourselves in an image that no longer serves us, namely that OD is about change. What? Isn’t that exactly what we’re about? He says that the problem with OD’s embrace of change is that we are seen as all about the journey and not about the destination, all about process and not enough about substance. He says that we can’t actually implement what leaders want, which causes the OD brand to take a hit. He said that rather than being in the conversation about what the change ought to be, we are called in once those decisions are made, and that therefore we’ve devolved into specialist providers of specific interventions (team building, appreciative inquiry, open space, future search, etc.) rather than strategic partners in identifying the destination and how to get there.

He said that the generative image for OD ought to be “OD is about creating great teams and organizations.” There were several hours of small group discussions coming out of Gervase’s presentation and a rich convergence conversation at the end of the day.

The last half day was about “Building Our Field for the Future,” including where we’ve been and what’s emerging for the future.

Those of us conveners were thrilled that our intention for the event were so richly fulfilled. We were intentional about inviting a diverse cross section of participants, including students, younger professionals and scholars, internals and externals, academics and practitioners, and we found the mix was perfect for sparking the kinds of conversations that we were hungering to have. We’ve committed next year to adding even more scholarships for students and those needing financial support, and building an even more diverse and international group for next year’s event.

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