Tong Yee is a bit of a legend in the Organisational Development (OD) space.
People share that his training sessions with them often make them cry, or access emotions they have never felt before.
This training session was thus something I had looked forward to for a long time, simply because most training on OD is expensive (you’re talking about $2000 at least) and not very accessible.
The inaccessibility of OD training
If you want to study OD, most courses have a requirement of you being 40, with a certain amount of life experience before you can join them. So And’s training, being specifically for youths under 35, in conjunction with National Youth Council, was certainly a welcome addition.
NYC even subsidised the cost, reducing it from the original $700 to the latter $400.
What this article is about
Don’t worry. This isn’t an article to sell you Tong Yee’s training courses.
Rather, it’s a reflection of a young person’s journey into OD, and the adventure thus far and how you can get on your own adventure pushing change through organisations.
In this article, I will share my own personal encounters with pushing change. It’s not because of my ego, but rather, I think it’s far more accurate to share from my personal lived experience than something that’s recounted.
As you read this article, one question I’d like you to think of so that you get the most out of this article is,
What is something you’re trying to change in the systems you’re part of (such as family, workplace, church, friend groups, etc.?)
If you’re trying to change things
In fact, I think OD is one of the core, necessary superpowers of any young leader looking to make change, anywhere.
Because the truth is that if you’ve wanted to change things for a while, you might face this:
- You’re pushed back, and you face deep amounts of resistance
- You’re swallowed and spat out by the system you’re trying to change, either hurt by individuals, or the larger collective group
- You want to give up.
In 2017, OD started for me as a 21-year-old, fresh-faced student, who didn’t know what he was supposed to do on the Board of Directors of the Students’ Union in the University of Nottingham.
Suddenly, we were faced with repeated concerns on the cultural divide between the elected officers and the staff of the Students’ Union. Then our CEO left, and we were supposed to pick a new one. In addition, there was a funding gap that left us having to plug a sudden 9% drop in funds.
It was like shit hit the fan, super fast, and we were forced to navigate this triumvirate of challenges, without knowing how the future would change in the face of Brexit.
Not knowing what else to do, I started writing memos reflecting on our journey, in part to process what I was seeing, and also to help the wider Board to see where we were in this journey.
But OD work for young people is few and far between
As one of the trainers rightly acknowledged that Saturday, OD work, especially for younger people below 30, can be few and far between.
Of course, it does depend on how you define OD work too. For me, OD work is
moving change through and with people.
Despite being 28, I’ve been quite fortunate to be part of some projects (beyond a single event) which I think have allowed me to see in greater detail what OD is.
I don’t say this because I wish to boast, but rather, I think it’s vital to share just how I got these projects, so you can get them too.
- 2018 – UNU (the enterprise arm of the Students’ Union) Limited Commercial Strategy
- 2019 – University of Nottingham’s Students Union Strategy Review
- 2023 – HCA Hospice’s Project on Culture and Values
- 2023 – Crohn’s & Colitis Society of Singapore Project on Visioning
- 2023 – Internal church cell project on spiritual growth
These projects came largely because of my involvement with charities, and the fortune of being at the right place at the right time.
In addition, in Singapore, consultancies like Sequoia and Facilitators’ Network Singapore are big on giving young people chances, regardless of their age.
Those might be places you want to consider to join as associates, so that you get the chance to work on these OD projects.
Agents of awareness, not agents of change
And that’s why one of the core lessons in And’s training was around how we, in OD, weren’t necessarily change agents, but agents of awareness.
In my first organisation as a full-time staff, I tried desperately to induce cultural change. One of the core moves was trying my best to push the agency to become more digitally savvy.
I would have conflicts with my operations manager about how we should move to the cloud.
I would be in everyone’s faces.
And because of these persistent conflicts, I was later issued with a performance improvement plan. My engagement plummeted, and I no longer wanted to do any work with them.
But with And, I finally realised what I’d been doing wrong. It would have been far more helpful to just gently raise the awareness of people to the problem, rather than desperately trying to push them to change.
Look at your own settings.
Rather than trying to push people to do the things you want, why not try to talk to people individually and see what they say?
But of course, change doesn’t only begin at the conversations you have with others. It needs to happen across the different levels.
Intervene at the right levels of granularity
It was Dave Snowden, another intellectual hotshot who introduced me to this idea of granularity.
And suddenly it came together at this training. Since leaving full-time work as a social worker, I had been trying many different things, at varying levels of success.
But with And’s model, combined with the idea of granularity, I finally pieced things together.
Again, I share from my personal example.
For the past two years, one of my pet causes has been
bridging the school to work transition more effectively and efficiently with clearer handles.
But if I looked at my work through the model that And provided, I finally realised that I had been intervening at multiple different levels, but with no clear idea which would work better.
Going back to the example of my first job, I had no influence there to change things. Fighting over and over again for the influence was like smacking my head against the cold, hard wall, whilst expecting things to change.
Know where you have influence, and can expand that influence
Whilst this wasn’t explicitly taught, it was what I took away. When you’re below 28, no one really takes you seriously. After all, you’re younger than most, and the strategic things you’re talking about just feels like you’re talking about things that are beyond your payscale.
Thus, working from where I already had some level of influence and authority was much more important compared to trying desperately to push a wedge through places where I had little authority.
It’s worth asking yourself.
Where do I have some level of influence?
It might be over your peers. If that is, then you might want to build alliances with them, talk to them about what you see, and slowly move change through, and with them.
Intervene across the layers of granularity
But it also means you must be comfortable moving across the different layers, rather than staying at one layer. The beauty of OD is that the practitioner is comfortable moving across intra, interpersonal, group, system, and the whole system.
In retrospect, thinking about how I pushed change through my first fulltime job, it just didn’t work well.
I was writing memos to the team about what we could do better in terms of the services we provided to our clients, without thinking about what other parts of the system I had to engage.
Build the container
In the second team I built at my company, I realised that one of the key changes I was trying was to move them away from me being the key man. I hoped that they would take on a bigger role, rather than it being me tasking them.
But my interventions seemed to fall flat.
- Strategy retreats to look at the shape of the team and how we could move forward
- Individual coaching and feedback sessions, coupled with personal memos to help them improve
But the team fell apart because I couldn’t make enough money to keep them.
I hate that.
Moving change is not that simple
OD is sexy, really sexy.
But when you work it through an organisation, with people, you will inevitably face pain.
Like me, I was chewed and spat out of the system.
And I would hate for that to happen to you.
Being able to even know what’s happening is a big first step.
Don’t miss this.