Picture of David Harkins

David Harkins

Dr. David L. Harkins is a social scientist researching the human experience in systems and culture. He is an experienced executive coach and consultant, passionate educator, and keynote speaker. Through his teachings, inspiration, and guidance, he helps individuals and organizations identify and connect with their potential to make a meaningful difference in their communities.

A culture-first perspective on Organization Development and Change

Over the last fifty years, many definitions of Organization Development (OD) have focused primarily on organizational effectiveness and performance improvements. As a behavioral science, the field’s interdisciplinary nature looked across the organization’s systems at various types of connectors and nodes that might be evaluated and collaboratively diagnosed to benefit the organization. Even in the earliest definitions of OD, individuals, and culture were recognized as essential components in the OD process [1]. As generational leadership changes, communities and organizations will likely encounter different perspectives from previous generations.

These perspectives create competition and tension within the system, which are unlikely to be resolved without focusing on individual needs, values, and expectations (NVEs) and how those NVEs inform the context of a system’s culture. I argue that focusing on a system’s culture first will likely increase adaptation and result in lasting change with most OD interventions. This essay explores this idea.


OD is an emerging interdisciplinary and interprofessional field of study and practice. Since its inception, a more common and generally agreed-upon definition of OD is that it is an applied behavioral science incorporating aspects of psychology, social psychology, anthropology, sociology, and economics. It draws upon both the research and practice of these various behavioral sciences to address the challenges of organizational systems and develop interventions to improve the capacity of a system to change in pursuit of improved performance. The interdisciplinary and interprofessional nature of the field and its emerging status open it to multiple definitions and perspectives. Additionally, the context in which OD is researched and practiced within a system may differ with the needs of each system. This context is likely to make perspectives of the field highly dependent on the context of the situation research and practice and the scholar and practitioner.

As the OD field has evolved, its definition has had many perspectives and iterations. Recent research and literature reviews have summarized those perspectives, the differences in the definitions, and the similarities [2]. Despite various definitions and viewpoints over time, culture appears to be a dominant element in many OD definitions. Specifically, Smendzuik-O’Brien & Gilpin-Jackson’s [3] literature review noted that nine of the thirty-eight definitions of OD since 1969 directly mentioned the need for a culture change. Another twelve directly incorporated a humanistic element through specific words (“people” or “individual”), which suggests the necessity of a change in an organization’s culture to accept, adapt, and sustain change for improved performance.

Not long ago, a convening of OD scholars and practitioners worked together to develop and put forth a new definition of the field, focusing it on “the disciplinary field of scholars and practitioners who work collaboratively with organizations and communities to develop their system-wide capacity for effectiveness and vitality,” with the expectation that the work of OD will begin to move further beyond organizations and into communities and other systems with a broader aim to “elevate humanity” [4]. This report, too, highlighted a need for OD to consider cultural perspectives when developing planned approaches. It further suggests that cultural implications are based not only on the system’s culture but also on the diversity of cultures outside the system (environmental) [5]. It is also likely that the many sub-cultures existing within the system (departments, groups, and teams) will affect the system, as will the cultural perspectives of the individuals who make up the system.

OD examines and diagnoses the elements of the system that impede its function and performance and, arguably, informs and is informed by its culture. With Action Research at its root, OD investigates, diagnoses, seeks from the organization, analyzes, plans, and then acts[6].  Change in OD is the process through which action shifts the culture to achieve the defined outcomes related to performance improvement. Perhaps Burke [7] summed it up best when he argued that any activity in a planned effort that does not change culture should not be considered OD.

Organization Development and Change (OD & C) uses a planned and deliberate approach to identify and diagnose system-wide performance impediments, then implements a structured process to facilitate sustainable cultural change.

The influence of systems and culture

In the context of OD, a system is created by various regularly interacting and interdependent elements that function as a single operation when working together. Ludwig von Bertalanffy [8] first proposed this concept with General Systems Theory, which suggests that complex systems, such as organizations or communities, are made up of many different smaller systems, each operating independently and together to benefit a more extensive system. In this way, the elements (smaller systems) that make up the larger system affect, and are affected by, the operation of each interacting component and the system as a whole. When operating within the larger system, the characteristics of elements appear to be new and emergent [9]. However, the competition and tension between the components may impede overall system performance. This competition and tension are likely brought about by culture and the perspectives of the individuals who comprise the culture.  The human elements of the systems and subsystems, or culture, will likely be the most critical element in a successful OD & C program.

Schein’s [10] view of culture argues that it manifests in three distinct ways: basic underlying assumptions, values, and observable artifacts. These elements of culture provide organizational cohesion for operational success and goal achievement. The uniform understanding of those within the culture automates the behaviors and responses to streamline its operation and learning. The culture that is created by these assumptions, values, and artifacts can, at the same time, serve to restrain and restrict change within a system.

An OD & C Logic Model

The OD & C logic model below provides a conceptual framework for how OD & C might be viewed with an increased focus on an organization’s culture. In this model, the planned work of OD&C starts by evaluating the resources or inputs from a people perspective that will form the basis of a program. The planned activities incorporate a culture assessment as a foundational element to understanding the organization’s current state before defining the work to be completed once the resources are acquired. The outputs show the result of the planned activities, with a significant focus on human interaction and awareness. The outcomes show what the individuals within the organization and its culture will gain. At the same time, the impact highlights how the system or organization will benefit from the OD & C program in terms of greater stakeholder satisfaction, a more robust, more resilient culture, and productivity, performance, and profitability improvements.

Figure 1: An OD & C logic model

An OD & C Logic Model


Using a defined and collaborative approach, an OD & C program research identifies, evaluates, and diagnoses the inter-organization relationships and broader organizational culture for greater alignment of values and goals between individuals, teams, groups, and the organization. The work outcome is improved collaboration, increased effectiveness, a more robust, more collaborative culture, and ultimately a healthier organization. The impact of the work typically leads to greater stakeholder satisfaction at all levels, improved performance at all levels of the organization, better competitive positioning, and increased profitability.

The OD & C logic model highlights the factors of culture and human dynamics in each step, reiterating the necessity for OD & C to address the human elements of an organization’s culture to improve performance. According to Burke [11], culture is the most challenging aspect of OD & C. Nonetheless, it is likely the most critical to the success of any OD & C initiative.

A people-centered approach to change

Organizational agility supports an organization’s ability to navigate complexity and acceptance of change [12]. Central to this effort are portfolio agility – the ability to shift resources from declining areas to growth areas—and operational agility—the ability to quickly identify revenue enhancement and cost-cutting measures [13].  Most organizations think of their portfolio as those elements that result in or directly support sales to customers – markets, products, and services [14]. This outwardly facing perspective of a portfolio has utility in measuring the throughputs or operational performance. The challenge with this perspective is that it does not consider the organization’s culture or people as a portfolio asset. If organizations considered people and culture as portfolio assets, their approach to change might be different. If the organization’s people are considered a vital element of the portfolio, investing in them to facilitate growth in the face of decline might, as Kesler and Kates [15] described, provide a completely different level of portfolio agility. However, with this approach, organizational leaders would be required to seek an extra level of understanding of the complexities of individual needs, values, and expectations (NVEs) and how these factors of individual personal readiness inform and affect an organization’s ability to change.

Culture and change: All change is personal

Focusing on basic underlying assumptions in Schein’s [16] perspective of culture, it seems the argument that people’s interpretations of the system from within the system create collaboration or tension for OD & C initiatives. A perception of values congruence between the culture and individual might create greater cooperation for change. In contrast, a values incongruence might result in greater tension and resistance due to the very personal nature of values [17]. The NVEs of every point in the system and subsystems will likely be highlighted as the organization moves toward a future state. In this way, all change is personal.

Individuals’ ability to accept, adapt, and change is affected by their past and informed by their present. Their personal values have deep roots in their history. Core values are difficult for many individuals to shift regardless of any new information in a present-day context that might shift their perspectives if they remain open to new input and ideas. Therefore, getting to the future is harder for some than others. It may be that those who struggle the most with change focus too much on hindsight and not enough on foresight. The over-reliance on hindsight often makes understanding the contextual nuances too difficult [18]. It becomes difficult to change if one cannot see the need to change, nor the current or future benefits of our actions.

This personal aspect of change also suggests that change is moderated by time, cause, and speed, as noted in Figure 2: Moderators of individual tolerance and ability for change. Specifically, the ability to adapt is affected by when change occurs, how it occurs, and how fast it needs to occur. For example, an external change request will likely disrupt the things going on in one’s life at any given time. For some, such a request will create significant personal challenges.

Similarly, the cause of the change affects acceptance and adaptation, too. If change is forced, some may adjust to the new standard more quickly out of necessity. Some may also choose to ignore it in hopes that it will go away. Again, it is a personal response borne from an individual’s past and present perspectives. Therefore, it is likely that some individuals will have stronger resistance to change than others.

Finally, every individual will adapt to the forces of change in their own time. This timeline may not align with the timeframe of the requested change. Asking one to adapt faster can create tension and stress and increase resistance. Most individuals cannot change any more quickly than their personal experiences will allow.

Figure 2: Moderators of individual tolerance and ability for change

Circular model of Moderators of Individual Tolerance and Ability for Change

The ability or inability of an individual to change has far-reaching impacts on the ability of a system to achieve the desired change. Organizational behavior supporting change is shaped by the resistance of individual behavior, specifically, the values and meanings associated with the required change [19]. Personal dynamics influence group dynamics, which affect ownership, adaptation, learning, and integration of required change behaviors [20]. The people-centric nature of an organization, as it relates to the formation of its culture, may result in higher levels of tension and resistance to change as leadership tries to balance the NVEs of the organization’s stakeholders.

Benefits of a culture-first approach to change

A culture-first approach to OD & C allows an organization’s leaders to look at the NVEs of individual stakeholders and the effect of culture on the system before implementing a planned change. With an understanding and placement of the culture first, the organization’s leaders can better understand how the system works together. It also allows leaders to more clearly understand how the change impacts individuals within the system and where problems might arise that could cause resistance. It opens the door to a greater understanding of the meaning and relationships between the nodes in the system. [21]

In any change program, ownership of the change by the involved individuals, and ultimately the culture, is critical for success. Everyone must be aligned and moving in the same direction to achieve collective ownership. For this reason, it is also essential to have a defined approach and structure for the change and focus on the change program’s humanist components. Organizations can be designed and ordered to function in the desired way; however, failure to focus on the personal nature of change for the affected individual will typically result in resistance and often the change initiative’s failure. All organizations are dependent on people to deliver products and services. And people form a culture that will enable or dissuade change. Refusing to address the culture is not an option for OD &C [22]. Therefore, remembering to keep people and culture at the center of the OD & C process should result in faster emergence, adaption, and acceptance of change.



Works Cited

[1] Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge and Linda Holbeche, Organization Development: A Practitioner’s Guide for OD and HR, 3rd ed. (London: Kogan Page Limited, 2021);
[2] Julie Smendzuik-O’Brien and Yabome Gilpin-Jackson, “What Is the Definition of OD?,” Organization Development Review 53, no. 1 (2021): 12–20.
[3] “What Is the Definition of OD?”
[4] “Moving the OD Field Forward,” Research Report (OD Gathering, 2021), 9, 11, http://www.odgathering.com.
[5] “Moving the OD Field Forward.”
[6] W. Warner Burke and Debra A. Noumair, Organization Development: A Process of Learning and Changing, 3rd edition (Indianapolis, IN: Pearson, 2015).
[7] Burke, W. W. “A Comparison of Management Development and Organization Development.” The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 7, no. 5 (September 1971): 569–79. https://doi.org/10.1177/002188637100700505.
[8] Bertalanffy, Ludwig von. General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. G. Braziller, 1969.
[9] Bertalanffy.
[10] Schein, Edgar H. “Organizational Culture.” American Psychologist 45, no. 2 (1990): 109–19. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.45.2.109.
[11] W. Warner Burke, Organization Change: Theory and Practice, 5th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2018).
[12] Gregory Kesler and Amy Kates, Leading Organization Design: How to Make Organization Design Decisions to Drive the Results You Want, 1st edition (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011).
[13] Kesler and Kates.
[14] Kesler and Kates.
[15]  Kesler and Kates.
[16] “Organizational Culture”
[17] Harkins, David L. “The Boy Scouts of America: How Society’s Changing Attitudes Affect Nonprofit Culture.” Organization Development Journal 39, no. 2 (2021): 83–96. https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.15383.29609.
[18] Matthew Kutz, Contextual Intelligence: How Thinking in 3D Can Help Resolve Complexity, Uncertainty, and Ambiguity, Softcover reprint of the original 1st ed. 2017 edition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
[19] Annabel Beerel, Leadership and Change Management, 1st edition (Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2009).
[21] Beerel.
[22] “A Comparison of Management Development and Organization Development.”

Image source: Mike Kononov on Unsplash

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: This content is protected.
Scroll to Top