Did Douglas McGregor put OD on the wrong track back in 1960 with his landmark book, The Human side of Enterprise?

  • 05 Jan 2010
  • 4:00 PM - 6:30 PM
  • University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis, MOH 201


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Peter Vaill.JPG
Presenter: Dr. Peter Vaill


In Peter's words:

This session will reexamine the foundations of OD for the purpose of better understanding its current and near-term future situation. OD people are somewhat in the positions of the blind men and women and the elephant. Each has hold of a different part (perhaps not knowing it) and thinks he/she knows what it really, really is. The goal is for participants to leave with a stronger sense of what the issues are, with what some possible future directions may be, and how their own practice of OD can be enriched and energized by these questions.


There are four propositions which I think it is safe to say they Chris Argyris, Douglas McGregor, Robert Blake, Rensis Likert, Bob Tannenbaum, and Dick Beckhard among others, subscribed to: first, that organizations’ problems lay chiefly in, to use McGregor’s phrase, “the human side of enterprise.” And second, that management’s job is to somehow take fuller account of the needs, feelings, hopes, and energies that people bring to the workplace. Moreover, these founders believed, some much more fervently than others, that leaders need to have a profound life-changing experience like that found in a T group (aka “sensitivity training” aka an Encounter group) in order to perceive the nature and value of their own and others’ deeper attitudes and feelings. Finally, I think they all believed in the need for a helping relationship between a consultant and the leadership of organization or piece thereof in order for “planned change” in the needed directions to occur.


This thinking, which began just after World War II and was essentially complete by 1965, launched the OD profession and has been extraordinarily fruitful. Today’s OD professionals, whether very aware of it or not, have inherited the vision and energy of the founders. Certainly today’s professionals have their own perspectives, but I think it is also true that today’s OD continues to draw inspiration and content from the founders’ work.


It has been my privilege to observe these trends and events from the inside since 1958. Yet there is also trouble in the contemporary OD world. In the last decade there have been many calls to reexamine OD, make it more relevant, align it more with organizational operations, get the woo-woo, touchy-feely stuff out of it, link it more to the organization’s real strategic needs and opportunities. The result at present is that there seems to be less agreement than ever about what OD is and what role it should play.


Peter Vaill is Senior Scholar and Professor Emeritus of Management in the Ph.D. program in Leadership and Change of Antioch University. Prior to joining the Antioch faculty he held the Distinguished Endowed Chair in Management Education at the University of St. Thomas, and before that was for many years Professor of Human Systems at George Washington University. He has MBA and DBA degrees from Harvard University. He has consulted widely with corporations and non-profits as well as with most of the departments of the Federal Government. His publications deal principally with the extremely turbulent and unstable environments within which all organizations are functioning – what he calls “permanent white water” -and with the implications of these conditions for managerial leaders. His most recent books are Managing as a Performing Art (1989), Learning as a Way of Being (1996), and Spirited Leading and Learning (1998). He is a member of the Academy of Management, the Organizational Behavior Teaching Society, the Organization Development Network as well as its Minnesota chapter, and the International Leadership Association. In 2003 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the ODNetwork, and in 2007 was the recipient of the first Peter Frost Award for Mentorship from the Organizational Behavior Teaching Society. His current writing focuses on leading and managing in “permanent white water,” with special attention to the personal qualities this work seems to invite.


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