Navigating the White Space- What is Organizational Development?

Co-written with guest contributor: Louisa Marziali


What is Organizational Development?

Trying to explain what we do for a living, Organizational Development (OD), is often a challenge.  This nebulous field involves both human and organizational systems, and as such, the variables are both complex and endless.

One client described OD as “navigating the white space in an organization” as it often deals with what you don’t consciously see –the interactions, constraints, causal impacts between humans connected to each other and to the organizational systems  (i.e., processes, policies, departmental structures, feedback loops, customers, politics, leadership, etc.).

A more theoretical definition of this field might be that OD is the alignment of people, processes, structures, and practices to facilitate the growth and development of an organization.  The over-arching goal is to support organizations in improving their performance and delivering on their desired outcomes.

The work itself can range from strategic such as visioning, business process design, organizational design and system change to coaching, facilitation, leadership / team development and assessments.

As a relatively new field, popularized in the 1950s, OD has its roots in:

  • Cybernetics
  • Behavioural Psychology
  • Systems Theory
  • Ontology, and
  • Action Research

Thought leaders in this field include: Stafford Beer (Cybernetics), Peter Senge (Systems Theory) and philosphers such as Plato (Ontology).

So how do we answer the question “What is it you do?”

We focus on helping people who work in organizations perform the best they can – that means helping people to communicate effectively (straight, clear talk), gain clarity about what is expected of them, and receive specific and constructive feedback so they know how they are doing. We also help people identify strengths that can be harnessed, resources or tools that could be impeding their ability to perform and identify skills and knowledge gaps that may be missing so they can contribute fully to their work environment.

Example of OD in Action:

A typical client request may sound like “My team is not performing and I’m not seeing the results I want”.

To ensure objectivity and a broader perspective, we begin with an organizational scan to determine what is supporting (strengths) and what’s getting in the way (barriers) of their performance.

Themes that emerged from recent organizational scans include:

  • Trust
  • Culture
  • Team
  • Leadership
  • Organizational structures
  • Vision
  • Change & Communication
  • Feedback

As you can see, performance is often not specific to one individual or team but rather due to several factors (formal and informal) that enhance or impede the health of an organization (i.e., department, team, company).

To help clients address factors that limit or enable healthy growth involves different interventions and an integrated/ systems-approach.

We call this the ‘art’ of OD. As one leader in our field stated “You are the intervention”.  In other words – bringing yourself into the dynamic is contributing to the changes that occur for the group (hopefully positive ones!)

Organizational Development is the combination of examining the system components, knowing which ‘threads’ to pull and most importantly, paying attention to what’s occurring in the organizational system resulting from the intervention so that one can be responsive to the system feedback.

A simple analogy would be like a doctor who is trying to provide medications to his patient and adjusting and adding meds based on how the patient responds.

OD truly is a combination of art and science – drawing on best practice research from multiple fields and relying on the practitioner to draw on the various fields as she sees fit to best meet the needs of the client.

If you are considering bringing in an OD practitioner to help you with your team or organizational challenges, here are some questions you may be asked:

  • How would you describe the leadership?
  • If I were to walk through the organization, what might I discern as its norms? What would I see?
  • What is the organization’s vision & mission? How are they doing in achieving this? Are these known across the organization?
  • How is conflict handled?
  • How is change introduced? How do people respond to change?
  • How clear are people about what is expected of them?
  • Describe the culture?
  • How is decision-making done in the organization?

To learn more about the evolving field of Organizational Development check out Erica Groschler’s website at, Louisa Marziali on Linked In.


(Thank you to Susan Good, Director of OD and People Development at Fraser Health Authority for influencing this article with her comment about navigating the white space.)

11 Responses

  1. Great article Erica. Explains the field of OD, and answered questions I’ve had for a long time, very well.

    1. Thanks Inge
      I could go on an on 🙂 as you can see linked it to HPT and there is more around the change and systems view but that would become a book 🙂

  2. Hi Erica – a great post! You mentioned in your description above re: defining OD as:

    “A more theoretical definition of this field might be that OD is the alignment of people, processes, structures, and practices to facilitate the growth and development of an organization. The over-arching goal is to support organizations in improving their performance and delivering on their desired outcomes.“

    I wonder how you would describe the role of OD in the strategy piece of organizational design and development. The STAR model described by Galbraith, Downey and Kates (2002) outlines organizational design as being related to strategy, structure, lateral capability and process, performance monitoring and rewards&recognition and people development. I think you`ve nicely covered all of those, except strategy. In my experience, we don`t use OD for strategic planning as much as we should, so wondering about your perspectives 🙂

    1. Completely agree with you Scott. When you are considering strategy you should actually be thinking about all of those elements to ensure alignment – and there’s probably more and more opportunities. One article I recently was introduced to that I’ve loved and I think you could relate to how you look at this from strategy as well as OD together is by G. Bolman and Terrence Deal. “Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice & Leadership”. It’s really shifted how I’m looking at things and influencing the conversations I’m encouraging from my clients! Email me if you want an interpretation of the article that the Barrett’s consultant shared with us!

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