Introducing a new, personal path to professional development for OD practitioners

When you hear the word “supervisor,” you might first imagine a person responsible for driving performance in the workplace.  Someone accountable for directing and evaluating other peoples’ work. That, of course, is one legitimate definition of the role.  Below, however, we’ll be viewing supervision through another lens, defining it as a role with a different purpose: sharpening professional competence.  And I’ll be inviting you to consider how a different type of supervision, professional supervision, could help you move toward mastery as an OD practitioner.

What’s the purpose of professional supervision?

Professional supervision is intended to guide both emerging and experienced OD practitioners toward mastery by clarifying and clearing the pathway to unconscious competence.

Why would an OD practitioner seek professional supervision?

  • Throughout OD’s 70-year history as an applied behavioral science, most aspiring practitioners have refined and integrated core, professional competencies with the guidance and support of a senior, experienced colleague, often their boss.  
  • This type of relationship mirrors a centuries-long tradition, most visible in those trades, crafts, and vocations whose complexities have required a long learning cycle.  New learners usually began that cycle after joining a “guild” organization and becoming apprentices to an acknowledged master, who was responsible for transmitting foundational competencies, sharing trade secrets, and embodying a commitment to rigorous standards of quality.
  • Given its origins as a hybrid discipline, when the field of OD was added to the applied behavioral and social sciences, but without a requirement for certification or licensure, people who chose to be OD professionals initially became the equivalent of apprentices in a traditional guild.  They were required to identify and rely on a “master” practitioner as their primary resource for learning theory and developing skills.   
  • However, as the field has matured, emerging generations of OD practitioners are typically introduced to OD history, philosophy, and principles of practice while a pursuing a graduate degree as students in an academic institution.
  • Nonetheless, learning to effectively apply, practice, integrate, and master core OD skills still tends to occur most successfully in the context of a professional relationship that is safe, open, and mutually-respectful. 
  • As we now encounter VUCA (i.e., volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environments and a gig economy, OD is dramatically more important and more challenging as a strategy for learning and  change.  Emerging practitioners must be committed to mastering a complex portfolio of “essential practices” (e.g., contracting, designing, facilitating, and measuring outcomes), and deploying them effectively in an increasingly-unpredictable constellation of situations. 
  • The most predictable way to master this complex repertoire of skills is by working together with a trustworthy, seasoned, sophisticated professional colleague, who is engaged to help shape, witness, and reinforce progress on the path to unconscious competence, the final stage of learning and mastery.

How does professional supervision add value?

  • Most helping professions (e.g., clinical psychology, clinical social work, speech-language pathology, occupational therapy, creative arts therapies, etc.) routinely require emerging practitioners to work with a professional supervisor.  They know that this kind of relationship is essential to make a successful transition from training and education to effective practice.
  • For all practitioners in the early stages of their careers, supervisors play a key role in the necessary evolution of professional thinking and practice.  And as a resource for learning, supervision is typically both focused and collaborative. Through careful listening and creative, precise design, a supervisor cultivates professional competence by crafting a portfolio of development activities that will meet the specific needs, personal expectations, and preferred style of each individual learner.
  • The laboratory for learning in professional supervision is thus always centered in the relationship between a seasoned, sophisticated supervisor and a curious practitioner, either recently-launched and emerging, or experienced, yet unexpectedly-challenged.
  • As professional supervision deepens an individual’s capacity for personal self-awareness, reflective practice, professional judgment, long-view thinking, and ethical decision-making, it positions practitioners to meet a range of predictable (and unpredictable) professional challenges with more clarity, comfort, and confidence.  
  • Conversations with supervisors also provide experiential opportunities to: 
  1. review relevant, practical theories of learning and change; 
  2. determine their potential impact in different situations; 
  3. identify possible strategies to apply them successfully; and 
  4. pinpoint those specific competencies that will lead to desired outcomes.

When might professional supervision be especially useful?

  • Beginning a new business relationship is a delicate, complex negotiation, requiring clarity, confidence, and sensitivity.  So contracting conversations are always the first and most important opportunity to ensure the success of an OD project. For this reason, engaging a professional supervisor would be an especially useful strategy when a practitioner anticipates or encounters a contracting conversation whose dynamics trigger personal uncertainty, anxiety, concern, or confusion. 
  • Later, challenges may also intensify or escalate.  When projects become unexpectedly complicated by conflicts, blurred boundaries, a clash of cultures, non-negotiable deadlines, power struggles, and other predictable human responses to learning and change, a professional supervisor’s experience and perspective can offer new frames for understanding. 
  • Since OD interventions often trigger such unintended consequences, a practitioner must sort through, interpret, and manage the underlying messages in such dysfunctional patterns, and a professional supervisor can help distill the possible meaning in such ambiguity.  Learning to do this effectively is one of the most valuable gifts that a supervisor can offer an emerging practitioner, since this particular skill is a necessary foundation for meeting customer expectations and for developing a successful, long-term practice.  
  • The following vignettes are offered as specific examples of complex situations where consultation with an experienced guide would clearly add welcome perspective.
  1. You are asked by a global pharmaceutical company to design and facilitate a small, strategy-development meeting of senior scientists and business leaders to market a well-known, controversial product to a new international market with the potential for sales in the billions.
  2. You are asked by the VP of R&D of a large innovative product-manufacturing company to develop an approach to integrate a newly-acquired, highly-successful team of packaging professionals into an existing creative design team. Unfortunately, the current team’s performance has been slipping and emotional outbursts have been erupting.
  3. You are asked by the founder-owner of a small, two-generation family business to develop and implement a plan to recruit and install his successor as CEO, bypassing his son.  The son has no knowledge of this plan, and other family members, including his mother, are assuming that he will be the new leader.

Of course, you get the picture!  And you can likely add examples from your own experience as well.  Regardless of the specifics, however, the key message is clear: when facing dynamics like these, it’s best to do so with a trustworthy thinking partner, who offers another set of eyes and ears.   As Kathie Dannemiller, one of the “founding mothers” of OD used to say, in complex human systems “never work alone.”  Instead, if you have an opportunity, engage a supervisor.

How would it work?

Incorporating a few, key principles, the approach to professional supervision outlined below is intended to be both effective and efficient.  To meet those goals, this process is designed to be:

  • Self-directed.  According to adult learning theory, one of the foundational pillars of OD, adults want control over what, when, and how they learn.  Given the intent of professional supervision, the first step in beginning a supervisory relationship will involve developing a contract that defines, for each person, the specific purpose for this relationship, along with goals, anticipated outcomes, the preferred process for learning and the resources needed to support it.   Depending on the situation, of course, these initial decisions and agreements may also involve input from the supervisor, but every contract will be designed to precisely articulate and meet the expectations of each individual learner-practitioner.
  • Experiential.   OD is the field that pioneered and refined the use of both “action research” and “action learning.”  These activities are framed by democratic values, and they are based on the conviction that to be both successful and sustainable, learning and change must be organized around specific dynamics, i.e., shared participation; collective, collaborative action; and individual initiative.  Mirroring these values, this approach to OD supervision will reflect an experiential, action learning framework, focusing on those topics, questions, issues, competencies, and practices that are:
  1. Relevant.   When an OD practitioner decides to use professional supervision as a strategy for self-directed learning and competency development, there’s no doubt that effort, time, and finances will be required.  To ensure that the return from this substantial investment meets expectations, it’s critical that the focus of learning—a clear intention to apply OD principles and practices effectively in this situation, with these people, at this time—has obvious meaning and value to the learner.  So while professional supervision must, of course, link theory to practice, its primary goal is fine-tuning a practitioner’s ability to achieve desired, meaningful results . . . in this moment.  
  1. Just-in-time.  Contracts for professional supervision clearly benefit from concrete goals and plans to meet them.  At the same time, it’s important to recognize that unexpected opportunities for learning and competency development may also arise in the moment.  When unpredictable circumstances suddenly point to the benefit of a deeper conversation, or a new direction, or a shift in emphasis, those options may also require a new plan for learning, in-this-moment.  Fortunately, such a pivot or a re-sequencing of expectations and goals are always possible with this approach to supervision.
  1. Tailor-made.  There are at least two ways that a learner can customize this opportunity for professional OD supervision.  One set of choices involves the structures for contact.  When, and how often, should sessions be scheduled, and how long should conversations last?  A second set of decisions will determine structures for learning.  And these choices will be reflection of a learner’s personal learning style and preferences.  For instance, would certain instruments or tools provide useful feedback to guide goal-setting?  Does a learner prefer to assimilate information through verbal  guidance, observation, reading, or hands-on experience?  How might personal self-awareness and the capacity for reflection best be deepened?  How should focus questions and conversation be integrated into the process? Eventually (and always with an opportunity for re-contracting), these decisions will crystallize into a “design for learning” that is precisely shaped to the background, situation, and needs of each individual learner.
  • Self-funded.   To underscore each individual learner’s autonomy and control as a “customer” of supervision, the responsibility for financially funding this process must lie with that person alone.  Third-party support is not part of this capacity-building model. However, to make sure that this opportunity for supervision is also accessible, session pricing will reflect the cost of a typical hour of psychotherapy or other behavioral health therapy in that person’s geography.      

And what are my qualifications for this role? 

A more extensive description of my professional background and experience is available in the documents that accompany this proposal.  However, a few highlights include:

  • Over 30 years of professional experience, in both internal and external consulting roles.
  • Work roles in military, higher education, for-profit, and not-for-profit systems.
  • Five years as a partner in Dannemiller Tyson Associates, Ann Arbor, MI.
  • Corporate consulting experience working across multiple sectors, including manufacturing, customer service, financial services, information technology, health care, insurance, pharmaceutical, professional services, and entrepreneurial start-ups.
  • Government consulting experience that includes both state and federal agencies.
  • Former Executive Director of the OD Network; former Associate Editor of the OD Practitioner; member of the NTL Institute.
  • Experience working with employees and leaders at all job levels, from entry-level to C-Suite.

Next steps?

If this learning opportunity seems potentially useful for your professional development, and you’d like to have a conversation to explore possibilities in more depth, either give me a telephone call or send me an e-mail message at: (734) 878-2900 or

I’d really enjoy talking with you!

Peter F. Norlin