The Developmental Psychology of Organizations

Organizations start change somewhere

Every living thing has a journey that starts somewhere and ends eventually. Our ability to see this, understand it, and apply what we know about how humans grow and develop (as individuals and organizations) is what helps us determine how this journey unfolds and where it ends up.

The psychology of individuals is a complicated affair that involves understanding a variety of matters from personal and family history, genetics, cultural context, education, and social situating. While all of these contribute to who we are as people, the degree of influence and mix is different from person to person. It means that we are all a product of a collection of forces that combine together in various ways that make understanding how we change a challenge because of this holistic complexity.

For example, some of us might have behaviours and preferences associated with a certain personality type (extroverted and introverted) and find that quality to be relatively stable across the lifespan. While there are times we might exhibit qualities of another type, those are more situational than stable. For those who are more of an ambivert, identification with a particular preference might be more challenging. Whatever investment you place in this kind of personality assessment, what is important is that the stability and consistency of certain characteristics are what largely shapes our identity to others (and ourselves). It’s what makes us ‘us’.

From Individuals to Organizations

It has been argued that organizations exhibit much of the same kind of characteristic habits on their own while providing an aggregation of the characteristics of those within them and leading them to various degrees. Personality theory has been applied to organizational behaviour as a means of understanding how it is that certain actions, activities, habits, and patterns form from within organizations and their implications. This involves taking ideas developed for individuals and applying them to groups and the implications of this are considerable.

If we are to consider organizations similar to humans seriously, it can have significant implications for the way in which we engage in organizational change efforts. Much of the research on organizational change is tied to the development and implementation of a strategy. Strategy, in most conventional applications, is an expression of intent manifest through specific choices of focus and action. This approach rests largely on a cognitive rational model of change (pdf) where information (e.g., data, ‘facts’, perceptions, beliefs, and opinion) guides an assessment of the situation that forms the basis for a plan of action. The idea is that we see and learn things and plan and act according to that knowledge.

Most individual behaviour change models are founded on this approach that has thinking preceding action in a relatively rational, logical manner based on an objective assessment of the facts and evidence (with some emotional contributions here and there to make life interesting). So if we tie organizational change to the similar kind of mechanisms and models that we use to understand individuals, should we not apply similar modes of change facilitation? We do — but its how we do it that might be the problem.

Change Theory to Change Reality

One of the most vexing (and little discussed) issues for behavioural scientists is that the application of the cognitive rational model to personal, organizational, and social change has a rather unimpressive track record. A look at how people change finds that relatively little change comes from rationally reviewing a threat or opportunity and planning out a strategy (nevermind executing the planned strategy as envisioned). Even when the effects are modest, factors such as the match between the person, technique or intervention approach, and the problem being addressed continues to mediate the outcomes.

What happens when our theories and our practices don’t really work? Or at least don’t work as well as we think they do?

The answer — using the very argument that we are looking to disprove — is that we will address the matter as many individuals might: disagreement, resistance, and denial.

The field of organizational decision-making and innovation is littered with case studies that show how, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, organizations (like many individuals) resist change. Whether it was the speed at which those on the Titanic accepted the fact that their ship would sink after hitting the iceberg (nevermind the perception that the ship was invulnerable, to begin with) or companies who persist with a strategy that doesn’t match with changing times (e.g., Kodak and it’s photographic film business, Sears and its retail model), the inability to see, unwillingness to perceive or accept changing situations has led to major problems.

These problems are a matter of failing to change or adapt. To quote from The Leopard:

If want things to stay as they are, things will have to change

Change is something we need to do even if that is simply to maintain the status quo.

Person-Centred Organizational Change

Erik Eriksen, the Austrian-American psychoanalyst whose work focused on identity formation and development, was among the few to challenge the belief that people’s essential character was immutable and resistant to change. (The dominant view was that thinking and behaviour could change, but not ‘how one was’ as a person). He did, however, acknowledge that our ability to change who we are was not easy and takes a lifetime. This flies in the face of the dominant thinking in Western societies that we can make dramatic changes in an instant.

While talk-shows and popular self-books are filled with stories of dramatic transformation and inspiration about how you can change everything in an instant, the truth is that these cases are outliers (and often exaggerations) or misrepresentations. Much like the artist who ‘breaks out’ and becomes an ‘overnight sensation’ the journey to stardom is usually a long one that follows a Pareto distribution (that is a long, slow climb over time followed by very quick punctuation at the end). What is misread into these success stories is that the rapid change is a factor of a long, protracted build-up.

While there are some things that do follow this pattern much change is also linear and progressive. We see this in the work of another Ericsson: Anders Ericsson. His work is widely cited (and mis-cited) as being behind the ‘10,000 Hour Rule’ that suggests that expertise — a change from an unskilled novice to a skilled expert — is developed over that much time of practice. While the time itself is important, what is often missed in the citation of this work is that the key is on deliberative practice (pdf), which makes all the difference.

If we extrapolate from the work of both Eriksen/Ericsson’s we might develop a model of behaviour change that looks quite different than we have at present. Instead of trying 5-year plans, strategic goals, and inspirational visions of the future, we might be better off delving into an organization’s past, it’s formation, it’s core beliefs and personality, and spend more time looking at what it is already doing than what it seeks to do.

Developmental Organizations

We might then find what it seeks to deliberate on day-in-and-out and emphasize the ways in which to amplify the feedback that helps people learn deliberately and consistently. We might take these lessons — much like those small, tiny adjustments that expert violinists, athletes, and surgeons make to hone their craft — and make them visible and build on them. We would look upon organizations as developing organizations using approaches that fit with them developmentally (e.g., developmental evaluation). We would treat organizations like we would people.

Which is kind of funny because organizations are made of people. That’s some change.

Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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