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Our job is to help people transform

Our job is to help people transform

Creating space for staff to pause, reflect and innovate is hard, but essential for organisations to adapt says Paul Taylor-Pitt, assistant director, organisational development at NHS Employers

The real skill is in mapping out the nature of the problem and giving people the time, space and opportunity to develop innovative methods of resolving it.

Good organisational development can be both invisible and tangible. It should give everyone the chance to improvise, collaborate and think differently about their work, even if they don’t realise organisational development has helped to create that opportunity.

In 1974, one research paper declared: “The advantages of alleviating the behavioural problems of organisations are likely to become so beneficial that the organisational development function may equal or exceed the importance of traditional line operations such as finance and manufacturing.”

Almost half a century later, organisational development has made immense progress as a field of practice, but we are still working towards that goal. There are still some who regard OD as a kind of magic pixie dust that resolves difficult situations in teams.

To be fair, the profession hasn’t always done the best job of making a case for itself and we need to explore how we can make our impact more visible at all levels of the system. There is a growing recognition that organisational development can help organisations ensure they deliver on the promises they make to customers by building the capability needed to achieve their strategic goals.

In the NHS, it helps shape the culture, develop our leaders and engage staff to fulfil our primary strategic purpose: to improve the quality and safety of patient care.

The understanding of organisational development has evolved in line with the way we think about organisations. Historically, we regarded them as a machine to fulfil a function, then we saw them as an employer (a place for people to thrive) and more recently they have become a way of managing complexity, agility and flexibility.

Traditional and contemporary organisational development (which we would call diagnostic and dialogic) has been used to improve the ways organisations function. Today, certainly in the NHS, we see the discipline’s role as enabling people to transform systems and operate in a more dynamic way.

As one of the world’s largest employers, we have a lot of people – around 1.3 million – who deliver fantastic care every day. The NHS is a complex system characterised by increasing pressure and perpetual motion, which makes it harder for us to create the space we need for our staff to slow down, think, reflect and be curious about new ways of working. Organisational development can help people think more deeply and make stronger connections to each other.

The challenge for the NHS is to balance what the Human Systems Dynamic Institute calls the ‘finite games’ – things that need to be done today, this week, this month or this year – and the ‘infinite’ things that need to be done to ensure the organisation succeeds in the longer term.

We can help manage that balance by connecting organisational development practitioners across the NHS, so they can share learning between themselves and the organisations they work with. Yet as we share, we must also remember that context is critical. We can’t solve complex problems with simple solutions and best practice should not become a ‘one size fits all’ fix. In large organisations, the real skill is in mapping out the nature of the problem and giving people the time, space and opportunity to develop innovative methods of resolving it.

That process will be most effective if people have the time, opportunity and encouragement to ask questions. This helps build empathy and cooperation. If staff treat each other better, they will deliver a better quality of patient care. When it was founded 70 years ago, the NHS was a typical top-down, command and control organisation. What I see happening now is a move beyond traditional consultation and engagement to a situation where organisations are co-creating their values with their staff and patients.

In an organisation where change is no longer an acute episode but a chronic condition, organisational development has to be – and help people become – comfortable with uncertainty, messiness and ambiguity. We must all accept the fact that we can’t navigate through the complexity of our work unless we remain curious, adaptable and appreciative of our existing strengths.

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