Personal Or Organisational Development – Which Matters More?

Much has been made in the past 15 years of the importance of Organisation Development. In that time, we have seen a plethora of ‘OD specialists’, along with endless debates about the role of OD within the Human Resources (HR) function. A whole terminology that wasn’t there before is now present. Anyone heard of systemic change? Systems thinking? The idea is that, if we want change in organisations, be it cultural, structural, or just a change in direction, then adopting a systemic approach is vital if change is to take root successfully. A whole academic strata has emerged to develop the OD proposition and its transformative qualities.

As a result, it has become trendy to promote organisation wide interventions, organisation development, and organisational consulting, or whatever label is preferred. At the same time, the idea of personal development has been denigrated, or at least demoted. After all, what’s the point of developing a few people when it’s the organisation, stupid!

Got that? Okay. Now I’m going to challenge the whole basis of OD. I believe that OD is NOT the way to build transformational change in organisations, or at the very least is wildly overrated. Investing in personal development, in comparison, is much more productive. The aim of this paper is to convince you of this case. Of course, an army of OD specialists and consultants will argue the opposite. But they would, wouldn’t they. As you read this article, bear in mind that I am a consultant, and much of my career has been in OD. It’s just that I’ve seen a light, and opted to take some notice of it. Are you ready? Then here goes….let’s debunk some modern myths……

How organisation culture evolves

Before you can change something, there has to be something there in the first place. During my career, I have observed, been part of, and played an active role in, attempts to change some aspect or other of organisation culture. It might be about empowering people, holding more rigorous performance conversations, encouraging people to be more creative and innovative, or whatever. types of organisational culture 

But how did that organisation’s culture get to where it did in the first place? Usually, the answer included the following:

  • People in key positions during history behaved in certain ways, or did certain things, and that hugely impacted on culture, or ‘the way we do things around here’. Look no further than the likes of Henry Ford, Bill Gates, or Sir Fred Goodwin. For good, ill, or somewhere in between, the cultures of Fords, Microsoft and RBS were heavily impacted by these people and the way they behaved.
  • ‘Stories’ and ‘legends’ that are told by people, again and again. These stories are of deeds done and things said in the past, at key moments in the organisation’s history. They shaped what happened, and impacted on culture. Courageous actions, decisions to take the business in a different direction, and the like were pivotal moments, and the way the story is told down the line makes their impact even greater. The dragon may have been a 4 foot midget when it was faced down at the time, but with time and embellishment it soon becomes a 20-foot fire breather.


What this says is that culture primarily is the result of individual actions. Indeed, organisational change takes place at a fundamental level due to the actions of key individuals, and not as a result of any planned organisational development intervention.



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