What can OD offer D&I?

After spending two days at the ODN Europe conference last week, my answer to that question is – lots!  Admittedly, I went to the event looking for new insights into organisational change from theorists and practitioners at the cutting edge of OD.  And it’s easy to feel evangelical after a stimulating conference with great speakers, interesting participants, convivial networking.  But from the opening address onwards, I was hooked.  With each speaker, workshop, conversation, paper, I heard a bit more about current thinking on how change in organisations happens – or doesn’t.  And with that dawned a new perspective on why progress on diversity and inclusion is so slow.  Let me give you an example.

The first speaker at the conference was Professor Ralph Stacey from the University of Hertfordshire, talking about complexity and change.  The main message that I took from his hour-long talk (given without notes, slides or a microphone) was about the potential of tiny changes in organisations to make a huge difference.  Now there’s nothing massively radical or innovative about that you might think, but in delivering the message he contrasted that approach with one which relies on a top-down, plan-driven prescription for change – a prescription which often enough is shown to be ineffective in practice, but which people continue to act out in the service of the change they are hoping to bring about.  And why don’t such plans work?  Because, he argued, the control and order which having a plan implies is a fiction.  Because at a deep and personal level we all have different plans, spoken or unspoken, and what actually happens happens at the ‘interplay of all our different plans and intentions’; because change at the macro level emerges and is made real at the local level, at the unpredictable, messy, emotional level of identity and human relationships – and conversations.

As Stacey said all this, I couldn’t help thinking about how we in the D&I profession also appear to rely on what feels increasingly like ‘sparse and repetitive thinking’ (his words) about how change happens.  You probably know what I mean – the oft-repeated formula of a compelling business case linked to organisational objectives, senior level commitment, clarity about accountabilities and responsibilities, communication, networks, sponsorship, development programmes etc etc.  The thing is – this top-down thinking and planning may be theoretically right, but in practice it’s not having the effect we’d hoped on diversity and inclusion, any more than it’s working for other kinds of change.  Stacey helped me visualise another approach, which challenges and refreshes the somewhat jaded conversations about diversity in many of our organisations, and encourages a much more energetic, complex, messy, local approach.  I don’t mind admitting, I’m not yet sure what this really looks like in practice – but I’m now on a mission to find out!

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