3 Strengths and 3 Weaknesses of OD

Three Cool and Three Not So Cool Things about Organization Development — Intro to OD 101: Part II

Picking up where I left off in Organization Development: Intro to OD 101 , I am offering my point of view in Part II on a few areas of OD. First I will outline three areas of OD that I think are very important. They happen to originate with Kurt Lewin by the way… There are other areas of OD that I think are cool but these rise to the top for me. Although this post is geared toward current OD practitioners, it is my hope it may also be informative for those in other disciplines as well.

Next I jump into three areas of OD that to me are not so cool. Call them pet peeves, or call them major concerns but I view them as trouble for an awesome field. In part three of the series I will propose a couple of ways to move forward. In the meantime, feel free to let me know the areas of OD you love, and the areas you might find a little cringe worthy! Please do comment here on medium, hit me up on twitter (or LinkedIn), or send me an email.

Three Cool Things about Organization Development

  1. Force Field Analysis

One area of OD I have liked since I was first introduced to it is Force Field Analysis by Kurt Lewin. It is so simple yet very articulate in understanding
A. Forces for change, and 
B. Forces opposed to change.

I had not really looked at “field theory” in depth before, but have used the Force Field Analysis as an exercise. I now have a deeper appreciation for the information that Lewin intended to have Group Dynamics, Action Research, and Force Field Analysis all working together in one framework. Some would add in the three-step model to the other three as well (Burnes, 2004).

Courtesy of Dr David Jamieson

2. Action Research

While discussing Lewin, I have always been fascinated by “action research”. What is Action Research?

  • Process of integrating research and action in a collaborative method
  • Cyclical process of data, sense-making, action & reflection
  • Can conduct specific change in an organization and learn from the ‘research’ component

In a way, my own area of professional expertise in organizational surveys is like action research. At one point in time I considered using action research in my master’s thesis project. I think that action research is misunderstood, mis-applied or just not used enough in today’s business world. Used in conjunction with group dynamics and force field analysis it could indeed be a powerful but not overly complicated method to move an organization toward it’s goals. I have used all three of these, but never truly together in an integrated fashion.

Action Research

3. Group Dynamics

I am looking forward to learning more about group dynamics and applying them in a systematic fashion. One article that really reinforces this is “Organizational Psychology Then and Now: Some Observations” by Dr. Edgar Schein. I liked this 2015 Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior article so much I have read it twice and written a short blog post (2017) summarizing key points from it. As a person who was reading Yalom in the 1980s during their clinical career and receiving extensive training in running groups this article resonated with me. If you run two groups a day for several years, you see a lot of group dynamics!

Schein (2015) makes a very compelling case for a refocusing on group dynamics in research and practice. He addresses how a lack of a systemic view will hurt the field and how going forward — group dynamics are needed more in the current century than in the last century:

“We, as a culture, are hooked on individual accountability. Many of my clients have told me about how their companies are now espousing teamwork, but I have yet to find one that pays groups or that lets groups decide whom to promote.”

Three Not So Cool Things about OD

(3 Questions, Concerns, and Areas For Improvement?)

With that said, I must admit I have concerns about the field….

  1. T-Groups? in 2017? Really?

I have been surprised to find that OD practitioners still use T-groups in some quarters. My memory was that they were found to not be very effective by the 1980s and ran their course. I remember reading articles in the 1990’s that treated T-groups completely as an historical footnote, not as a current practice. I would like to learn more about their use, how they have changed over the years and if they are effective. I would love to find a meta-analysis on the topic within the last three decades. I have done some short searches looking for peer-reviewed outcomes research on this topic and did not find any for the last decade. I asked in a few forums including the 50,000 member strong ODN LinkedIn group. After more than a month and > 50 replies it is apparent that t-groups have left the world of research outcomes in the past 2 decades. I will keep searching. What is your experience? Have you been in T-groups? Are you familiar with those who still offer t-groups?


BTW I learned quite a bit from the responses to this group thread. There some very informative pieces about the history, methods, and a couple of barriers to research. If you are a member, you can view the thread of discussion for yourself.

I believe the question becomes, not so much are T-Groups effective, but effective at what? Interpersonal communication? Self-awareness? If T-groups are effective for personal growth, then is there a direct line to improving business outcomes? Or are T-groups more effective at developing relationships with team members. I have many more questions than answers about T-groups. Have there been Randomized Controlled Trials (RCT) with T-Groups? Likely not but maybe some quasi experimental designs. Hopefully at least longitudinal studies…. How was effectiveness evaluated historically? What kind of evaluation is done currently? There are some who report T-groups evolved into the team-building aspect within OD or at least heavily influenced current team building practices. This too is a two sided coin.

What if we took OD methods like T-Groups and studied them with modern style team research methods? There have been substantial updates in the last few years to how to study human interaction. These include sentiment analysis, experience sampling methodology (ESM), facial mapping, Social Network Analysis (SNA), statistical methods like Hierarchical Linear Modeling (HLM), and so on. I know that National Training Laboratories (NTL), Stanford, and others still offer T-group training in their human interaction labs etc. But have they updated their methods to study human interactions? This seems like an area very rich with research and practical application opportunities. If not publishing articles on the outcomes, then this slowing down the advance of the field.

2. Theory vs Research

Articles on OD models, theories, and conceptualizations are great. I thoroughly enjoy reading a good piece on theories. We certainly need people who can be innovative and put together new more helpful ways to look at organizational issues. However, just because an article cites a few a books or peer reviewed pieces does not mean it is new original research. It seems there is some confusion in the field as I will hear OD practitioners talk about new research when what they are citing is a new “thought piece” in the OD Practitioner or similar publication. As I said, these pieces are also valuable but they are not new research. As scholar-practitioners (or practitioner-scholars?) we need to be helping others in the field to differentiate these two different types of publications.

Some OD publications seem to focus on theory. However, the people I talk to seem to seldom attempt to keep up with relevant research. Either they read some in college and have not attempted to keep up, or their exposure is very low so they may practice outdated techniques that have been debunked or just been replaced with more modern and effective methods. The Myers-Briggs comes to mind. I have found no rigorous evidence that the MBTI has substantial organizational outcomes. Maybe it can help build rapport and a couple of other minor benefits that could be achieved without an assessment. Yet OD practitioners continue to use it with abandon often making claims well beyond its means.

There is a gap between research, practice, and theory in many fields. OD is not alone in this issue. It is just so visible when it is a practice in the workplace. Yes, sometimes practitioners are ahead of researchers. And sometimes researchers are sitting on decades of good research that practitioners are unaware of. Hopefully this gap will become less with better collaboration and partnerships. However the rewards system(s) need to promote this instead of hinder. A blog for another day possibly. . . .

3. Models Models Models

Models are good and certainly can be very helpful in OD work. However, how much effort is put into empirically validating OD models? Even OD standard expressions like the original change formula, and all the derivations since then do not have a great deal of research to help back them up. Which leads to discussion of the three-step model by Lewin. Although he is often attributed to this wide-spread model there are new indications that it has posthumously been built into much (much) more than its original intentions. He did indeed describe the steps of 1. unfreeze, 2. change and 3. freeze. However, it was in the one writing in 1947, almost more of a theory at the time than a full-blown data-driven work like his others (Cummings et al 2016). If the refreezing step ever existed it is not nearly as relevant now in today’s world of continuous change. Plus, as originally conceptualized, Lewin saw the model as applied to levels of group performance as opposed to overall organizational change (Bartunek et al 2015).

So there we have it, a few of the things I love about OD and a few that are my pet peeves. There are many other assets to OD (OD values, systems thinking, organization design, building high performing teams, polarity thinking, etc) as well as other areas for improvement. This would be a very long blog if I tried to cover everything! Stay tuned for part three coming out in late September!

In the meantime, please use the comments section to add your thoughts. Thank you!