All together now

Question: “I enjoyed your ‘Leadership Transition’ column in the Sept. 2 issue of BizTimes Milwaukee magazine. The idea of an assimilation exercise for new managers sounds fascinating. My question is, can this be done in a nonprofit organization, too? Thanks.”


Thanks for the feedback on the column! The short answer to your question is, “Yes, an assimilation exercise can be deployed in any organizational context.” Any organization that wishes to help a manager enter into a new assignment with a clear foundation of expectations is advised to make use of such an activity. Extending the implications of your question, in this column, I will spend some time talking about the applicability of organization development (OD) interventions to organizations of all kinds and all sectors.

Organization development is an interdisciplinary field that has emerged over the past 50-plus years, largely from the behavioral sciences. According to venerated OD researchers French and Bell, the field has been influenced by a variety of disciplines and perspectives including industrial/organizational psychology, social psychology, clinical psychology, psychiatry, military psychology, family group therapy, ethnography, theater/dramatic arts, general semantics, social work, systems theory, mathematics and physics, philosophy, survey methodology, experimental and action research, human resources management, organizational behavior, management theory, and large conference management.

The goal of OD is to use behavioral science approaches to achieve planned change for individuals, teams, and the organization as a whole. The organization is the ultimate unit of analysis within an OD approach. Is the organization on a course of sustained performance? What fine tuning adjustments must be made? What roadblocks, barriers, or hurdles must be removed or cleared? And so on. OD practitioners make use of individual (e.g., coaching), dyad/triad (e.g., role clarification), team (e.g., team building), intergroup relations (e.g., partnering or collaborating), and total organization (e.g., structure/design) approaches to maximize individual and collective performance.

These techniques and approaches are germane to any organization that wants to improve. In my opinion, OD is a vital cog in developing a comprehensive strategy in addressing the economic situation with which we are currently confronted. Any organization that operates today must confront the brutal reality of cut-throat competition (and the corresponding need to differentiate from it) while simultaneously making optimal use of precious resources (i.e., money, time, people, raw materials, tools, technology, etc.).

I believe that in these challenging times, an organization must pursue growth, renewal, adaptation, and innovation or run the risk of becoming irrelevant and extinct, like the Great Auk. Which organizations am I talking about? From my vantage point, K-12 schools, churches, human service organizations, convenience stores, retail establishments, manufacturing companies, technology firms, banks and financial institutions, law firms, hospitals and health care organizations, colleges and universities, governments and associated programs and services, consulting firms, professional associations, restaurants, hotels/motels/inns, animal shelters, food pantries, neighborhood associations, and media groups (to name just a few) can benefit from planned, systematic efforts to encourage individual development and organizational effectiveness (i.e., OD).

Success must be defined

To move in the direction of growth and renewal and away from status quo approaches, organizations, driven by top leaders who are architects of the organization and stewards of its continued excellence, must have a reckoning with how success is defined. Is success defined by a sole criterion, the bottom line? Or, is a more robust and nuanced definition forged, one that highlights the critical contribution offered by the organization’s other bottom line, its corporate culture (i.e., how we do things around here)? By clarifying both the means that are sought (i.e., the what) and the methods used to attain them (i.e., the how), a richer and more compelling reason for existing emerges (i.e., the why).

To broaden the success perspective means clarifying the dynamic relationship between the external environment in which the organization operates (i.e., the “Three Cs” – Constituents, Competition, and Change) and its internal environment (i.e., the “Three Ps” – Purpose, Partnership, and Process). To do so, the metrics that are used as success indicators must evolve from a single point of data (i.e., profit) to a “triple bottom line” of sustainability encompassing people (i.e., corporate social responsibility), planet (i.e., environmental responsibility), and profit (i.e., financial responsibility) that takes into account key performance indicators (i.e., KPIs) in the area of employee contributions, process/operations efficiencies and effectiveness, customer experiences and excitement, and financial impact and returns.

Beyond self-interests

If we haven’t learned anything over the past few years, it is that behavior that is solely self-serving (i.e., “I want mine…I couldn’t care less about the other guy…”) has consequences, sometimes highly unpleasant ones. No less an authority on this topic is the noted economist Milton Friedman, who observed, “The primary challenge for any organizing system (including capitalism, I might observe) is to arrange circumstances in which greed does the least amount of harm.”

To move beyond hedonistic self-interest, we have to adopt a shared interest perspective. We need to think in terms of the multiple stakeholders that attach to the organization (e.g., employees, employees’ families, vendors/suppliers, customers, community members, region, state, nation, world, etc.).

We need to link and align our efforts so that we do the best possible job of meeting the interests of the involved parties. “Either-or” thinking needs to be replaced with “and” thinking.

Do you want to move from struggling to get by to good to great, and ultimately to staying great? Do you want to create an environment of peak performance and maximum enthusiasm where employees feel like owners rather than renters? Then, pursue systemic and systematic OD-based approaches to maximize the contributions of the organization’s most valuable and precious assets … its people!

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