Long-term organizational development versus daily distractions: the wellness conundrum

by Ashley Kasprzak, JVA Consulting

When new friends and acquaintances ask me what I do, I share that I work in organizational development. I often get a blank stare. Many nod, but I often feel like they are unsure what I do. Organizational development, or as some in the field say, OD, is a bit abstract—in part because it can cover so many areas of management, program implementation, evaluation, marketing and much more.

To get a handle on how to better describe OD, I refer to business guru Carter McNamara, who gives multiple definitions of OD. Below is a description I like from McNamara’s site (quoted from consultant Matt Minahan):

Organization Development is a body of knowledge and practice that enhances organizational performance and individual development, viewing the organization as a complex system of systems that exist within a larger system, each of which has its own attributes and degrees of alignment. OD interventions in these systems are inclusive methodologies and approaches to strategic planning, organization design, leadership development, change management, performance management, coaching, diversity, and work/life balance.

As its complicated definition demonstrates, helping organizations with OD can be a hefty responsibility, but one that I love. It’s exciting to bring to light all of the things going well in an organization as well as areas for potential growth. Here at JVA, we use a quantitative tool that analyzes qualitative data called the Comprehensive Organizational Assessment (COA 3.0). Our team developed it over the course of two years in 2002–2003, and periodically works to update and improve it. COA 3.0 has a robust reporting feature that’s very informative to our clients.

At present, I am in the midst of assessing five organizations. Some leaders who receive a report that indicates much needed growth get discouraged. When this happens, I can see a parallel to my own life as I try to work on personal health and increasing the time I spend working out. My inner voice often yells, “How am I supposed to fit in a bike ride when I really need to finish a report or do laundry? Why should I get up when my body just wants to sleep more? Is it worthwhile to go on a jog when I should be helping my son read?”

Questions that an executive director faces are similar: “Why should I spur my board members to engage in strategic planning when I just need everyone fundraising? How can I spend time crafting policy with the board chair when I have staff members who need to talk? Why systematize my work when my clients need me now?”

With so many daily pressures facing leaders of social change organizations, it can be challenging to make time for OD. This is the wellness conundrum, and it forces us to ask: “How can I work on long-term wellness when I have pressing issues right in front of me?”

These questions may subside when you look at organizations that have dedicated time to OD. A colleague and friend named Sara Gilbert, Executive Director of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Northern Colorado and Southeastern Wyoming (CCCS), recently sat with me for two hours as I peppered her with questions for their COA 3.0. I was inspired by how strong her organization is. As a financial consultant for those in need, CCCS is mandated to have strict policies and procedures for things like: responsiveness to clients, grievances, insurance protection, data storage, marketing and much more. In particular, I was struck by two of CCCS’ qualities: 1.) Dedication to planning for sustainability, and, 2.) interest in optimal performance. These qualities ooze from the entire organization—from the board to volunteers.

Instead of treating OD as a thorn in her side, Sara reminded me of why it pays to constantly work on OD: Once foundational elements are in place, an organization can be proactive, deliberate and serve its clients effectively. I wish Sara’s group luck as they tackle pressing issues. I thank them for inspiring me to help others and myself develop wellness!


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