Why Government Needs Organization Development

After World War II, psychologists at MIT turned to studying the behavior of groups. Driven by revulsion and bewilderment at the actions of the Nazis, a German-born Jewish refugee named Kurt Lewin and his graduate students ventured into a new domain of scientific inquiry. They called it “group dynamics,” and later, “Organization Development (OD).” 70 years on, OD remains a cutting edge field. The qualities that make this field unique also make it uniquely suited to government organizations. So what distinguishes OD from other fields, and why does government need it?

Government Organization Development Benefits:

  1. Democratic Values – Owing to its post-WWII origins, the OD field is defined by the values of democracy. It is driven by a fundamental belief in human worth, and that people deserve a voice in decisions that govern them. The OD professional has a deep well of expertise in human behavior, but is ethically bound to apply it only in ways that honor human dignity.
  2. Data-Driven – “Action research” is the term coined by Kurt Lewin to describe the merging of study with action that defines the OD approach. In working through a problem, the OD practitioner engages in a cycle of hypothesizing then checking. Often, leaders will “diagnose” an organizational problem, then seek help implementing a pre-determined solution. An OD consultant treats these managerial conclusions as data, rather than an edict. She will test assumptions by gathering valid data from within the organization, and then act based on what is learned.
  3. Holistic – Organizations are complex human systems. Trying to make a change without understanding and respecting the system you’re working in is a recipe for failure. This is why so many organizational change efforts led by “expert” consultants fail. OD practitioners are systems-thinkers. They partner with the client to improve the organization. This participatory approach – known as Process Consulting – greatly improves the odds of success. Moreover, by actively participating in the change effort the client organization grows its capacity to solve problems on its own. Taking on a project with the goal of making the organization dependent on your services is a classic government contracting move, but it’s antithetical to OD.

The traditional management consulting model – the doctor/patient format that places all the expertise and responsibility in the hands of the contractor – remains popular in government. It usually requires less effort for leaders, yet often results in nothing more than a report left in a binder gathering dust.

Organization development is a fresh alternative. The values of democracy at the heart of the field are perfectly suited to democratic institutions like federal agencies. By relying not on assumptions but on valid data, OD ensures agencies don’t waste time and money on misguided change efforts. Instead of fostering dependence (and thus a perpetual contract), OD consultants aim to grow the organization’s own capabilities, increasing sustainability.

It’s time for government to embrace organizational development.

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