Reflections on organisational development during Covid-19: restoring purpose and driving change

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The King’s Fund’s Advanced Organisational Development (OD) programme brings together experienced OD, leadership and HR professionals to develop OD capability in the health and care system. During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, we hosted bi-weekly meetings with alumni participants of the programme, offering the group space to make sense of their experience.

Some of the reflections we heard are shared in this blog – the unexpected outcomes of the pandemic, which, amid the disruption, served to remind the group that change really can happen; the crucial future focus for OD; and the determination for OD to create a future based on social justice.

Unfreezing, liminality, surprising new possibilities

The group described how they bore witness to changes that had been talked about for years happening suddenly before their very eyes. One spoke of the, ‘effortless, rapid transition to new ways of working. Embraced with minimal resistance by the people working in the field. This is not the norm.’ We heard their wonder at the speed of leadership decision-making and examples of collaboration – with police, education, social care – flattening silos and blurring boundaries, aspirations that had been part of unattainable change programmes for as long as they had been OD practitioners. Some told us that you simply don’t realise just how stuck you feel until something shifts. They found themselves witnessing the ‘unfreezing’ that is written about in the text books. Experiencing it for real is another matter.

Key themes we heard from the alumni were:

  • a determination to hold on to their renewal of belief in what’s possible, for staff and for patients
  • a desire to encourage learning from the Covid-19 experience
  • the need to ‘learn with compassion, not blame’, locally in their own organisations and across the system at large.

A case study in creating purpose, increasing trust and motivation

We heard from the group about the impact of the overnight removal of red tape, giving frontline workers a new lease of life, as if they suddenly had permission to work differently, innovatively and enthusiastically. They offered stories of people reconnecting with their motivation to work in public service roles. One said, ‘Governance and risk management are necessary, but very few people were inspired to become public servants for the paperwork and spreadsheets. It’s important to reach back into that inspiration.’ Another commented, ‘I was surprised and heartened by the willingness to trust our workforce with the answers to the issues on the ground.’ All spoke of teams galvanising around a common purpose and noticed that, where trust existed among frontline teams, they were equipped to really motor, to cope with conflict, freed up from concerns about fragility in their relationships, and to deliver the best of what was possible in impossible circumstances.

This experience reminded the group of the crucial role OD must play in creating the conditions for people to do their best work. Key themes for the role of OD included:

  • developing relational skills and supporting teams to build trust is at the heart of what OD does and has enormous impact on the wellbeing of staff and the care of patients
  • as health care systems become more complex, less bounded, so relationships must be the key anchor
  • one of the group commented, ‘We know now, more than ever before, that we need leaders for the future to be psychologically savvy’, and it is the OD function that holds expertise in unlocking those skills.

Inequality from which we cannot hide

At the peak of the pandemic, the group talked in one session about the rising death rate in areas of deprivation, noting how Covid-19 seemed to repeat the patterns of existing health inequalities, as well as its disproportionate impact on the health of ethnic minority populations. For some, the impact on their own colleagues mirrored these countrywide patterns, bringing the issue into even starker reality. We discussed what this meant for us as a group of OD practitioners. We asked how often we simply fail to pay attention to what is happening around us, and lose our ability to ‘look with fresh eyes’. The group expressed their delight in a reflection exercise that reconnected them with their ability to pause and pay attention in the moment. They also remarked on the discomfort of confronting their own unintended sloppiness, perhaps biases, in what they choose to ignore, privilege and prioritise.

By the following session the group agreed that the reminder to be alert and vigilant was their greatest route to influence: to accept that, if we’re prepared to notice and speak up, individually and collectively, we, OD practitioners, can create a powerful and unrelenting social movement to influence the system. They made plans to:

  • hold each other to account, making each everyday decision as ethically as possible, paying attention to power and politics and to supporting each other in doing so
  • reconnect with their sense of agency, with one commenting: ‘We are experts in how to get the best out of people; we’ve had a profile during Covid-19 which we don’t want to lose.’
  • create a collective force as an alumni group, using The King’s Fund as a platform for their voice
  • develop an OD practice with social justice at the heart of everything that is said or done.

The King’s Fund will continue to support its alumni network, hosting meetings, offering input and challenge, to develop thinking and support action across the health care system to make their aspiration a reality.

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