A MEMOIR ON CHANGES IN THE FIELD OF OD: THE ADVENT OF ORGANIZATION TRANSFORMATION, Part2
By John D. Adams
Now, let’s return to the aforementioned band of fellow travelers ca. 1980, to find out what was cooking with them. Beginning in about 1978, and picking up momentum in the early 1980s, individuals and small groups of consultants, often somewhat peripheral to mainstream OD, began to think, talk, teach, and write differently about Organization Development – bringing “vision,” “purpose,” “spirit,” “systems dynamics,” into their explorations and work.
As examples, Peter Senge and Charles Kiefer, from the MIT Systems Dynamics Group, along with music composer Robert Fritz, founded Innovation Associates, which provided training programs in Leadership and Mastery and in Visionary Leadership. One central aspect of this training was called Structural Tension, which suggested that if a person held a vision of an ideal outcome simultaneous with a true statement of present reality, that person’s subconscious would support actions that would move the situation from the current reality towards the vision. What was amazing and new to people was the importance placed on having a clear vision of an ideal future, plus a belief that our subconscious processes would support us in realizing the ideal state – we could influence our own futures! And by extension, organizations could influence their future directions through alignment around organizational vision.
On the more “popular” front, Marilyn Ferguson published The Brain Revolution in 1973 and the more widely read The Aquarian Conspiracy in 1980. These books were based on the findings of brain research, as she separately had tracked in her Brain Mind Bulletin newsletter, which essentially also echoed and perhaps influenced Senge, Kiefer, and Fritz. The idea was being established that our subconscious processes can and do influence our conscious choices. We can indeed influence what we will “get” in the future. She also cautiously introduced the notion that society was in need of a “transformation” if it was to survive.
Other individual professionals, both in and outside of OD, across the USA and in Europe (at least), began using the notions of “visions” and “transformation” in their work – true synchronicity! Where “Development” and “Transition” were seen as working with first order improvements (e.g., tune ups & moving to identifiable “new” states), “Transformation” was used to designate needed changes when the present state was becoming unviable, and the desired new state wasn’t yet knowable. These professionals included Roger Harrison, Willis Harman, David Gershon, Gail Straub, David Nicoll, Karen Wilhelm Buckley, Dani Perkins, Juanita Brown, David Isaacs, Saul Eisen, Chandra Stephens, Diana Whitney, Charlotte Kraft, Roger Allen, Jim Channon. The Washington, DC area was home to additional “Transformation” practitioners: myself (initially as related to personal visions of health and self-empowerment), Linda Ackerman, Harrison Owen, Lawrence DiBivort, Peter Vaill, Frank Burns, Linda Nelson, and others.
When the DC cadre discovered each other sharing similar thoughts, a meeting was held in Harrison Owen’s office in Arlington, VA, to explore “what is going on here?” Three momentous decisions were made at this and subsequent meetings. First, regular monthly gatherings were scheduled to “dialogue” (not “discuss”) about transformational ideas, needs and possibilities. These meetings were always well attended. Second, the “First Annual International Symposium on Organizational Transformation” was scheduled for the July 4th weekend of 1982 at the University of New Hampshire. And third, I offered to solicit papers from all the people we could identify who were sharing these thoughts and ideas, and serve as the editor of an anthology on Organization Transformation – leading to the publication in 1984 of Transforming Work, and in 1986 of Transforming Leadership. Also in 1986, Noel Tichy published The Transformational Leader. As far as I know, these were the first three books published that explored transformational change in the workplace.
The regular monthly DC area dialogues were sponsored by our local cadre, under the name of TWG, which was the letterhead on some unused stationery Harrison Owen had in his office. Meeting notices were mailed out on this stationery. TWG was generally referred to as “The Washington Group,” but was later often referred to as “Transformation With Grace.” These meetings continued fairly regularly and enthusiastically for the next two years (Ca. 1981-1983).
A planning committee, organized into the usual subcommittees, designed the first two “International Symposia,” even though they had an august, grandiose, and provocative title, in a traditional conference fashion. Proposals for presentations were solicited, selected, and rejected. Catering was planned and registrations were received. A parallel track agenda was published. Plenary events were designed. Just like the OD Network! Between 150 and 200 people attended each of these gatherings (1982 in NH and 1983 in Columbia, MD), which generated high energy and much enthusiasm.
When it was time to prepare for the third “International Symposium,” Harrison Owen had had enough of design committee meetings and endless bickering over details and sought to run the third gathering (by now familiarly called OT-3) by developing some of his “self-organizing” ideas – which he called “Open Space.” Because of the newness of the idea, OT-3 welcomed only about 65 participants to the Asilomar Conference Center in Monterrey, CA. OT-3 was a huge success and Open Space became the default design all the way through OT-23, which was the final OT (Open Space rule: “When it’s over, it’s over!) plus several years of Open Space OT gatherings in Europe and Russia from 1987 through 2000. By now, probably all the readers of this reflection piece have participated in an open space conference, or at least heard of them!
It took the original organizers of the OT series two years to realize that we had been trying initially to produce a new paradigm conference using old paradigm organizing ideas!
By the time OT-2 happened in 1983, I had collected and edited virtually all of the chapters that ended up in Transforming Work. The challenge was in finding a publisher. All the major “business and management” publishers turned down my proposals. When any reason was given, it was that the ideas were too “wacky,” that OD and management people would never buy a book that was based on vision, purpose, systems dynamics and transformational change.
At a TWG meeting in early 1983, I met a woman named Peg Paul, who had a publishing business in Alexandria, VA, that specialized in subcontracting the graphics work for big publishers’ school geometry texts. She had also created a second company, called Miles River Press, where she had published a couple books she had written. She was very interested in Transforming Work, and offered to publish it. However, when it came time to go to press, she became worried that it wouldn’t sell and backed out. So I borrowed from my IRA, and the IRA of a friend, and footed the entire bill for a press run of 3,000 books. I well recall driving back and forth between Alexandria and my home in Arlington about 16 times during April 1984, completely filling my garage with the full inventory!
I then posted the book’s availability on The MetaNet, sent emails to those few friends and colleagues who had email addresses, sent a handful of fliers to each author, and mailed fliers to all my friends and colleagues who were not on email yet. In two weeks, I had enough orders to take a box of packed up books to the post office for mailing. Soon I was taking two or three boxes of books to be mailed every Saturday morning. In July, at least two cartons of books were sold at OT-2. During August, I offered the book for sale in the bookstore of the World Future Society’s general convention, and sold two full cartons to the attendees. Within six months the first press run was gone and Peg Paul enthusiastically financed a second printing, and thereafter paid me a royalty.
Even before Transforming Work was published, I had begun collecting chapters for a second edited anthology, called Transforming Leadership. Miles River Press also published this book. It had far better quality chapters – more experience based, more implementable, and more coherent. However, it never matched the original book in popularity! Transforming Work, with the Open Space annual OT gatherings, are what generated the paradigm shift. By the end of the 1980s, organizational transformation was becoming a fundamental part of OD.
Peg and I did second editions of both books in 1998. After Peg had closed her business and retired, both second editions were republished in 2006 by Cosimo in New York, from whom I still receive royalty checks 30 years after they were first produced.
Now let us return to OD in the early 1980s, in light of the rapidly growing enthusiasm for understanding transformational change.
When proposals were solicited for the1983 OD Network conference, Linda Ackerman and I submitted a session proposal to share what we had been learning via TWG gatherings, the early submissions for Transforming Work, and our experiences of OT-1. Even though Jean Houston was a keynote speaker at that meeting, our proposal was rejected. I was told, on arrival at Lake Geneva, WI, for the conference, that the selection team didn’t see how our organizational transformation proposal was related to OD. Several other “OD leaders” repeated this message over the ensuing days.
Being somewhat chagrined about this, Linda and I went to the hotel management and secured a meeting room for 7:00 am the next day – before breakfast. We hung a few signs around the hotel announcing this informal gathering and were astounded to find a room overflowing with enthusiastic folks when we showed up rubbing the sleep from our eyes!
The following year (1984) the ODN conference was held in Washington DC. This time our proposal was accepted and we ran a daylong workshop on Organizational Transformation, which was a big success. But we again frequently heard the message we weren’t “related to OD.” One senior OD person even told me we were only given a pre-conference session because we were local. Copies of Transforming Work were in the OD bookstore, but few copies were sold, in marked contrast to the OT-1 and World Future Society’s sales two months earlier! Notably, however, James Kouzes was offering a pre-conference session on leadership across the hall, in which he shared survey data about the importance of developing a vision to effective leadership – so even though the OD leadership wasn’t overly enthusiastic about us, the momentum started to pick up.
At the 1985 ODN conference in Pasadena, my proposal for a session on OT was accepted, and a small but fairly enthusiastic group of relatively senior OD folks attended and expressed support for the ideas. By the early 1990s, OT was fairly widely accepted as a part of OD – vision, purpose, systems dynamics, spirit in the workplace, open space conferencing, etc., were on their way to becoming commonplace in OD practices. During this period I, and many others, published several “OT” articles and chapters in OD publications that received good reviews.
But by this time, however, I had shifted my focus to sustainability in the workplace, arising from my deep early 1990s involvement with The World Business Academy. I was invited to create a two and a half hour keynote event on this topic for the 1993 San Francisco ODN Conference, called “Working Today as if Tomorrow Mattered.”
Focuses of this session included understanding exponential growth, wealth inequality (a fraction of the numbers today), economic vulnerability, resource depletion, climate change, environmental degradation, global population growth, visualization of a possible/desirable future, and a class of third graders each coming to the microphone to share their hopes for 30 years in the future (i.e., 2023). The bottom line message was that emerging groups everywhere were working on these issues and sorely needed OD skills and knowledge to be effective. Interestingly, these movements have since invented their own skills and processes in the absence of much OD involvement.
While that event received a long, standing ovation from most of the 1,500 in attendance, some resistances were reminiscent of the early OT days a decade earlier. Some people decided the presentation was racist since I predicted that population growth, religious intolerance, and oil extraction would before long create social problems in Nigeria. A senior OD practitioner suspected that I had stolen my material from a sustainability group at Deloitte Touche ( in fact, one of the Deloitte Touche consultants had supported my presentation by photocopying, assembling, and donating the handout sheets).
As was the case in the early 1980s, several OD leaders now told me in the 1990s that sustainability had no relationship to OD. So once again, a resistance to new ideas that OD could consider. And OD isn’t unique here. It happens whenever and wherever new ideas are brought into an existing system. William James said,
First a new theory is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim they themselves discovered it. (citation?)
(For about 60 additional similar quotes about paradigm shifting innovations, go to http://creatingminds.org/quotes/resistance.htm).
To fast forward to today, the OD Practitioner has ceased to print paper copies (unaffordable), and ODN annual conferences are experiencing declining attendance. Membership in the network has also declined. Could it be that OD could revitalize itself by encouraging conference meetings, at least occasionally, to feature radically new and different ideas – trial balloons and half baked processes – in an open-source R&D mode such as in the early years?
Adams, J.D. (2016). In W. J. Rothwell, J. M. Stavros, R. L. Sullivan, & J. D. Vogelsang (Eds.), Organization Development in Practice (pp. 12 – 21). Washington, DC: OD Network. Retrieved from: https://odnetwork.site-ym.com/store/ViewProduct.aspx?id=5788638
John D. Adams
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