Figuring Things Out: A Guide for OD Practitioners

By Barbara Cartieri Timony November 30, 2015

Among the many tools and techniques in the organizational development (OD) practitioner’s toolkit, the most essential is the ability to accurately diagnose client and organizational needs. In fact, the initial discussion is a key aspect of the methodology. It is foundational to developing targeted solutions, and it enables a detailed examination of clients’ expressed and unexpressed (potentially unknown) needs. This article guides OD practitioners through the why and how of this discussion by presenting three major process points, along with thought- and discussion-starters that can be a reference for an initial client meeting. The information can be used by OD practitioners in an internal or external practitioner/consultant role.

Slow Down to Accelerate

Although it may seem counterintuitive, taking time to work through the initial phase can eliminate guesswork and assumptions that may lead to delays or the need to redo work. A thorough analysis sets the stage for a well-reasoned approach to OD interventions. Without the information that is gleaned in a detailed discussion, the potential for finding solutions that will add value and meet business goals is, at best, uncertain.

The deliberate process allows practitioners to understand the client’s need at a deeper level. Unspoken biases and preconceived ideas about the emergent issue such as its origin, its cause, or perhaps even the expected solution can surface. Be attentive to the latter, however. If clients present their own recommendations, there may be a tacit expectation that you will act on them. The risk in doing so is being seen as an order-taker rather than a consulting partner. Pay attention to data points that help identify the type and level of support appropriate to the perceived need, rather than making assumptions or reaching unsupported conclusions.

Collaborate and Consult

A collaborative working relationship with clients is always recommended and can be effectively leveraged in the initial discussion. Establishing a strong relationship allows practitioners to consult and challenge effectively, posing the tough questions that lead to workable and practical approaches so that effective plans can be developed. Trusting relationships are realized by those who demonstrate a clear grasp of the business and are laser-focused on improving performance and achieving business goals.

Business leaders are strategic levers into the organization. At an operational level, they can provide insight into staff and organizational vulnerabilities. They are uniquely qualified to identify performance issues within their business units, and their perspectives are key to resolving them. Engage them. Get to know the business—specifically, the goals that your client’s business unit is driving toward so that you can determine what an ideal outcome would look like. Finally, help the client to ensure that staff performance is maximized to achieve those goals. This partnership is a critical element in improving individual and group performance. Whether you are an internal or external practitioner, cultivating this type of relationship with clients is a winning strategy.

When providing feedback to the client about solutions, practitioners add value when they are crystal clear about the what, how and why of their approaches. Remember to be sensitive to your client’s need for a high degree of clarity and transparency. This can be accomplished most effectively by using “plain talk”—avoiding jargon and technical terminology that is particular to your discipline. Instead, use industry- or organization-specific language when giving feedback or when discussing your conclusions and any recommendations that follow.

Probe for Clarity

Using targeted questioning techniques to clarify the client’s goals and priorities helps to illuminate the client’s main areas of concern. It also provides the practitioner with unique perspectives that may not have been apparent prior to the discussion. Probing below the surface to understand the business issues at a deeper level is critical in developing effective and measurable outcomes.

The following questions can be used as discussion-starters when meeting with your client. Build on them to get beyond topical responses—and most importantly, probe for details.

  • What is the presenting, perceived issue? Talk to your client about what is happening and why he or she needs your assistance: What is the client’s perception of the problem or what is getting in the way? What organizational change is imminent and what is the expected impact? What is the critical need or concern?

    • Be alert for signals that the client sees any intervention as a panacea for low performance.

    • Listen for signs that the client is abdicating his or her responsibility of dealing with performance issues, and is instead looking for someone to “fix” the problem.

  • What has been done so far to address the issue? Probe to focus on what the client has done to help (or hinder) progress toward improved performance.

    • Determine what the client is willing to invest in terms of time and money to resolve the issue.

    • This area of questioning connects to the issue’s criticality or urgency.

  • What does success look like? It is important to have the client articulate, in practical terms, how he or she will know that the desired organizational effectiveness goals have been reached, and how this will be measured.

    • Improvement may be expressed in qualitative and/or quantitative terms.

    • When you and the client are clear about the success criteria, you will be able to collaborate to develop a method for data-gathering and assessment.


Expert detective work separates order-takers from business-focused professionals who see their discipline as a core business process. The practitioner’s role as detective is important in providing optimum service to clients and to help the business continually focus on achieving its purpose.

Practitioners who come to the table with sound approaches for identifying emergent issues for their clients position themselves—and their clients—for success. These practitioners are keenly aware that a systematic approach, coupled with carefully crafted questions, advances their goals, which are tied to individual and organizational effectiveness. They don’t just listen to their clients’ concerns; they involve clients in problem-solving so that together they can focus on results that will have a positive impact on the organization.

Ultimately, when clients are able to see the issues from the inside out by virtue of these detailed discussions, they become part of the solution. They are better prepared and willing to reinforce the strategies and plans through on-the-job coaching, mentoring and continued collaboration with skilled practitioners.

In addition to the direct benefits, there are valuable indirect benefits when collaborating with business clients. In the short term, working with clients at this level boosts engagement and hones the working relationship. In the long term, it increases clients’ confidence in the value that OD practitioners contribute to the business.

Barbara Cartieri Timony, Ed.D.,has worked as an internal and external consultant in the global pharmaceutical, aerospace and health care fields. She is an adjunct professor in Villanova University’s human resource development degree program.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Organizational Development Network.


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