What is Ours to Do?

Before we look at what is ours to do, we first need to think about what is Organisational Development (OD) in this context?  I think of it as connecting organisational strategy, policy, process, people, and their development in order that organisations thrive through their people and culture.  When we think of it like this then OD is everyone’s responsibility.  However, structurally it is often situated in HR&OD departments, maybe because of the focus on people and because roles in these departments have the benefit of working holistically across the organisation with a clear line of sight across the connects and disconnects.  However, other roles and responsibilities can also have the advantage of this line of sight: leadership roles, those working on strategy or projects, coaches and business analysts for example.

In our community of OD practitioners across the UK, OD is conceived of differently in different organisations and our responsibilities and intended outcomes can vary.  However, some of what connects us is our ability to see what is disconnected, the skills that we have developed, and our passion for people and culture.

In our recent conversations on learning from the first few weeks of the disruptive period of the COVID-19 pandemic we paused to think of ourselves as ‘an instrument’ in the organisation, noting that where we added value before the pandemic may not be where we need to be adding value now. This does not negate what went before, or what may come afterwards.  However, as with OD generally it is about seizing opportunities – not in a responsive way, but with a recognition of something that would add value to the organisation is now at its most appropriate point.  I often think of this as an idea, action, or initiative whose ‘moment has arrived’.  We also noted how we are missing the opportunistic conversations that we have as we move across campus, that help us to connect and smooth and even disrupt, all key to the ways in which we undertake our roles.

Some are leading teams who are feeling ‘unhinged’ because the things that they had been working on before the pandemic do not have the same imperative during this crisis.  We recognise that it does not mean that just because something that was important before is not important now, it just means that ‘its moment has shifted’ and in many cases is likely to return later.  This helps us to recognise our role as supporting and encouraging our teams not to ‘create unnecessary noise’, inviting them to ‘let go’ and to support them in their transition to reflecting on how and where they can best add value at this time.

In our discussions this prompted us to ask: What are people seeing when they look at OD practitioners at this time? And who do we want people to see when they look at us?    It also begged the question who do others want or need us to be?

In turn this encouraged us think about ‘what is ours to do’ and how we can use our skills, abilities, opportunities, and insights to add the best value.  Whilst some of our colleagues are ‘head down’ in the urgent, immediate, operational challenges of moving to remote working, furlough etc, some of us have the advantage of being able to take a ‘helicopter’ view of what is going on, what we can learn from it, what we can contribute and how we can add value – and that is what prompted many of us to join this discussion.

Rumi, the Persian poet once said: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.  Today I am wise, so I am changing myself”.   We discussed the role of OD as ‘awareness agents’ and not as ‘change agents’, here to build great organisations

We saw then our role as making time for learning, for sense-making, carving out time to be reflective in the midst of a huge operational brief, the need to pause and take a helicopter view of what is going on and to move into ‘big thinking’ space.   We saw also that we need to be interrupting the thinking of others who are also caught up in the urgent, immediate and operational, who should perhaps now be extracting themselves to think more into the medium and long term – after all if we and they are not doing this, then who is?  It made us think what are the questions we should be asking of others?

We were prompted to challenge and stretch our minds to think about who we could be in this space and who others may need us to be.  And that who they need us to be is not necessarily the same as who they want us to be. Yes, that feels a little scary.  May Sarton, the Belgian-American poet said: “We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”

So, we developed a series of questions.  Let us find just ten minutes a day to think about how we respond to one or more of these questions, or maybe discuss it with others. Then capture it, commit to it, and make some use of it this week.

  • What am I noticing at this time?  What can I learn from it?
  • What are people seeing when they look at OD practitioners during this time?
  • What do I want them to see?
  • Who do I need to be?  Who do people need me to be?
  • How does this shift my purpose? My contribution?
  • How do I use myself as an instrument?
  • What new personal and work practices can help me?
  • How do I increase my powers of ‘noticing’? How shall I use this to look for new ways of doing and adapting?
  • When and where am I creating space for others to think past the urgent, immediate, operational?
  • What story would I like to tell about this time?

Look out for the next blog in this series.

Dr Colleen Harding, Bournemouth University, together with colleagues from the Learning from Disruption sessions that took place in April 2020 during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and lock-down:

Caroline Bryant, Regent’s University London; Lisa Stevenson, Sheffield Hallam University; Bethany Hyman, Brunel University; David Wallace, Queen Mary University of London; Rosemary Benson, London Metropolitan University; Laura Brown, University of London; Simon Inger, University of Bath; Sophie Lovejoy, Organisational Development in Higher Education Network (ODHE); Daniela Bultoc, University College, London; Sam McVaigh, Manchester Metropolitan University; Lisa Anderson, University of Dundee; Sophie Sowerby, Durham University; Sara Corcoran, University of Suffolk; Annette Robinson, Lancaster University; Susan Kane, University of York; Saire Jones, University of Westminster; Trudie Donnelly, University of Warwick; Ailbhe Lynch, City, University of London; Sarah Akhtar, Sheffield Hallam University; Colleen Harding, Bournemouth University.

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