Organisational development: diagnostic or dialogic?

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25th Aug 2016

Organisational development practice is always evolving and in my view one of the most interesting recent developments in the field has been the evolution of dialogic OD (in contrast to the more conventional diagnostic approach). The main champions of the dialogic approach are Gervase Bush and Robert Marshak, authors of ‘Dialogic Organization Development: The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change’. Their DialogicOD website has lots of really useful resources and I have found it to be an excellent starting point for exploring the subject.

Although not explicitly about OD, the possibility-focused ideas underpinning the recent bestselling Reinventing Organisations by Frederic Laloux (now available in an engaging illustrated version that calls to mind the inspiring Barefoot Guide series) are remarkably closely aligned with those of Bush and Marshak. The two books together provide some really stimulating ideas for OD practitioners.

Some of my recent OD-focused work with clients has helped me to recognise the importance for OD practitioners of being able to explain to those controlling resources how an investment in organisational development contributes to the ability of their organisation to achieve its strategic goals and be an innovative and energising place in which to work. Two things seem to be helpful here – and they are linked. The first is providing senior managers with compelling stories that illustrate how OD plays an important part in the strategic success of their organisation. To tell these stories convincingly, we as OD practitioners need to have a very clear mental map of the inter-linkages between organisational development and the effectiveness and creativity of our organisations. So the second thing we need could be called a ‘theory of change for organisational development’. In other words a conceptual map that helps us understand and explain our practice – thereby enabling us to tell more compelling stories.

Whilst dialogic OD is clearly on the ascendant we should be careful not to be too critical of diagnostic OD. The more conventional diagnostic approach to OD has served us well in many situations in the past and I’m sure will continue to do so in the future. And in any case organisational development in civil society organisations has never been the fully mechanistic problem-focused process that some proponents of dialogic OD use to characterise the diagnostic approach. In civil society organisations – particularly those underpinned by people-centred values – organisational development practice has usually reflected those values by encouraging participation; valuing diverse perspectives; appreciating strengths; taking a holistic approach to organisations and their development; and recognising that even when things don’t always go according to plan, there is always something to be learned.

I think both approaches to OD have an important part to play in contemporary organisational development practice, so our theory of change for OD should embrace both dialogic and diagnostic OD. The challenge for us as OD practitioners is not so much a question of ‘choosing the best approach’ for the circumstances or even ‘getting the balance right’ between diagnostic and dialogic OD. The real challenge is being alert to what each approach can bring to our organisations and creating a dynamic interplay between them.


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