Weisbord’s OD History: A Snippet supporting “Whole System”

 Getting Everyone Improving the Whole

In the 1980s, inspired by conversations with Eric Trist and Ron Lippitt, (One of  Roland’s main mentors),  I found myself seeking to marry participation to Socio-Technical principles.  A series of projects I reported in Productive Workplaces led me inexorably  toward a scary conclusion.  If we truly wanted to realize values for workplaces in which productivity rested on the bedrock of dignity, meaning and community, we needed to figure out how to get  EVERYBODY IMPROVING WHOLE SYSTEMS.  I noticed that in successful cases there was an attractive goal, a leader with an itch to scratch, and some energized people who had both expertise and commitment.

I also derived  a few “minimum critical specifications”  for effective OD:  get the whole system in the room; focus on the future rather than the problem list; and set things up so that people could do the work themselves, using the skills and experience they already had. If every human deficiency had to be remedied with training before people could implement a new workplace, nobody would ever get a new workplace.

Over time, I came to understand “whole system in the room”  as people with authority, information, resources, expertise in need. When we convene such diverse groups, we effectively redefined a system’s boundaries. That was a giant step beyond diagramming “environmental demands”  on the flipchart ( a technique Roland learned from Beckhard).  People who are each other’s environment shared what they knew. Everyone came to understand the whole in a way that no one person had done a few days earlier. Through this was a structural intervention, paradoxically, many people voluntarily change their behavior.

This  phenomenon,  I believe, is the key to the success of today’s “large group interventions.”  (ABSOLUTELY SAYS; ROLAND) These structures provide opportunities for people to act in new ways.  They tilt the power balance. Then enable fluid coalitions in real-time. Most require no training. They turn “systems thinking”  into an experiential rather than a conceptual activity. They enable everybody to discover for a few hours, or a few days or a few months, how to use what they already have on behalf of a goal larger than themselves.

I put these ideas into practice experimentally for more than 30 years. Every time I ran a workshop, I saw something I had never seen before. Sandra Janoff, my Future Search Network partner for more than two decades,  and many other colleagues ( including yours truly, Roland)  are deeply engaged in this work as I write.  Their collective efforts, and yours, constitute the present for me.



 Techniques to Match to Our Values:

An Idiosyncratic History

Of Organization Development

To be published  2015 by Sullivan, Stavros and Rothwell in Practicing Organization Development: Leading Change and Transformation, Fourth Edition

This essay iterates, paraphrases, and elaborates on themes from Productive Workplaces: Dignity, Meaning and Community in the 21st Century , 3rd Edition (2012).

Postscripts by Roland.

1.  Now that Dr. Argyris is dancing in the heavens, Marvin, in my mind, is the senior living most influential organization development professional today.

2. This is a first in a long series of excerpts from our upcoming Fourth Edition  of  Practicing   Organization Development: Leading Change and Transformation. I do so because Ron Lippitt , who is mentioned by Marvin, above told me personally that one of his predominant values was to “disseminate change knowledge freely”.  For those new to the profession, Dr. Lippitt  wrote the first book ever on organization change in 1957.




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