Design School: Mastering OD Design Principles Outside the Guild Experience

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“Rarely do we hear an analysis or exploration of arguably the most critical dimension that determines the success of any intervention that delivers meaningful, sustainable impact: design thinking, and the process of translating that thinking into a blueprint for change.”

By Peter Norlin and Judy Vogel

Learning and Change: The Case for Design

We have noticed during our many years of practice and colleagueship that conversations about OD, whether in person or print, tend to focus on either the desired outcomes achieved during a change initiative, or those theories, models, or frameworks used to achieve them. Rarely do we hear an analysis or exploration of arguably the most critical dimension that determines the success of any intervention that delivers meaningful, sustainable impact: design thinking, and the process of translating that thinking into a blueprint for change. Does this omission make a difference? We think it does, and this article represents our effort to make the case for the power and value of design thinking in our portfolio of professional competencies, and to consider how we can consciously become more skilled designers of human process. Inevitably, to decide how we might learn design skills in the future, we also need to consider OD’s past emergence as a professional field and earlier sources of practitioner design competency.

Design, as the key activity that drives learning and change in human systems, occurs whether practitioners identify it consciously or not. Why do we make this assertion? Because if we really want something to be different, if we have a clear idea about what needs to change, and if we think about the specific steps and activities that will lead to the outcome we seek, then we are in the act of designing. Every human experience that culminates in something changing is built on a conscious design process and using some type of design thinking. And so, from this perspective, all aspects of our work require the use of design, i.e., planning requires designing, influencing requires designing, and improving requires designing. Thus, we see design as the activity that initiates and guides all change, intentional or not; unfortunately, we also believe that because design is so easy to take for granted, it has been overlooked or undervalued in most of our professional literature.

As we have expanded our own awareness of the purpose and value of design in OD, we have become especially curious about how we acquire and refine our design thinking and design skills. That led us first, to initiate a dialogue with a small cohort of trusted, highly-experienced professional colleagues; then, to continue our own dialogue about the learning cycle in our professional relationship with one another; third, to begin to develop a list of proposed OD design principles and guidelines; and finally, to consider how these principles and guidelines are best learned, especially in a progressively virtual world. The results of these separate streams of inquiry are the focus of the rest of this article.

Serving Our Customers: The Role of Design Intelligence

In the past few years, we have come to the conclusion that our work is more effective and satisfying if we openly acknowledge that the act of designing resides at the very center of OD practice. To underscore this importance, we, as OD professionals, are now explicitly defining our work as the design and facilitation of processes, structures, and relationships that enable people in human systems to learn, change, achieve their goals, and fulfill their purpose. We are convinced that our work will have more focus, power, and impact if we frame our professional challenges, and the solutions we develop to meet them, as opportunities to use our skills as designers. How, specifically, are we likely to play this role?

Answering this question begins by noticing obvious connections between the organization development and traditional design communities. As an example, some years ago we realized that like other practitioners in the applied behavioral sciences (e.g., psychologists and other therapists), we were in the “business of help.” When we frame our role from this perspective, OD practitioners must always identify the multiple layers of expectations that are typically embedded in our contracts for service with our clients. Because deeply understanding client experience and needs is also the foundation for success in the world of product and service design, whether or not we explicitly specify design thinking in our own, personal theory-ofpractice, we must clearly use the same customer-focused approach as our designer colleagues to fulfill our own clients’ expectations.

Also, the recent surge in the publication of resources that articulate the purpose, dimensions, and cycles of design thinking (e.g., Lockwood, 2009) in the traditional arenas of visual, product, and service design have also encouraged applied behavioral scientists to acknowledge the natural connection between our different thought worlds, based on the use of a designing mind or design intelligence. We assume that such a design intelligence is a condition for successful practice in both our disciplines, either product and service design, or OD.

Effective strategies for change and the emergence of specific, desired outcomes are both the external products of an internal, design-oriented mindset; and our ability either to successfully create a new product or to launch a new team will be determined first, by the way we think about that process, and then, by the way we construct and implement it. With this perspective, our differences as “design professionals” are reflections more of differences in points of application rather than in our intentions to serve as professional helpers.

For OD professionals, we propose that design represents the human systems equivalent of drawing an architectural ­blueprint. It involves pinpointing, creating, and shaping precisely-focused processes, structures, and relationships as scaffolding to guide and encourage people to learn and change. Examples of such processes and structures include activities, action sequences, procedures, interactions, agendas, conversations, discussions, scenarios, events, etc.

We design such applications in a variety of roles: as consultants, during system-wide change initiatives; as coaches, in developmental assignments with executive clients; as trainers, delivering programs to develop precisely-targeted skills; and as facilitators, guiding and supporting groups’ progress through process. Whether we define them as clients, coaching partners, participants, or learners, in all such situations we are always designing for people in a particular relational field, all of us in some type of reciprocal, interdependent role. And this reinforces an awareness that all of our design choices, as for all human experience, will be determined by the context.

What we offer in the next section of this conversation represents our best effort to distill our collective experience into a list of those design principles and guidelines we have learned to respect and use. Because we have tested them personally throughout our professional lives, we trust them; and we offer them to our colleagues as a stimulus for further investigation. The focus of our discussion will be limited to the design of small, face-to-face group experiences; therefore, we must be cautious in extrapolating them to other group contexts. We hope, nonetheless, that you find your own experience represented in this initial list.

Designing for Change: Principles and Guidelines

In this section, we intend to probe explicitly into the underlying principles of OD design that relate to small group process work, and that may be ineffectively applied during a design process, because they lie outside a consultant’s conscious awareness or because they are only partially understood. This lack of clarity and possible fuzzy application may be further compounded because, unfortunately, some of our colleagues have also told us they tend to design primarily intuitively. While we recognize that intuition is a rich channel for guidance, we believe it is insufficient as a source of truly powerful design; intuition in all helping professions must be focused and confirmed with precise, disciplined clarity about the needs of the client before any design can be deemed professional.

Before articulating these Principles and Guidelines, however, we need to acknowledge a set of overarching, contextual Factors that describe dynamics typically surrounding small group experience, and that must be managed, regardless of the agenda or hopedfor results. Because they affect critical decisions in a design process, they need to be considered thoughtfully. These Factors include:

  • Role Shift. You will likely be engaged in a complex transition from designer to facilitator, and your conscious use-of-self becomes a moment-to-moment challenge. And this shift will, of course, be complicated further when you are working with a co-designer or co–facilitator.
  • Time Constraints. There is a limited arc of time during which the group can work with an awareness of itself as a group, and a limited opportunity for it to make choices about what it will accomplish during this period.
  • Group Membership. The group will need to recognize and access its diversity of resources, mobilize its ability to identify and engage needed skills and relationships, and learn to appreciate and use its members’ personal differences.
  • Performance Accountability. Group members will need to manage predictable dynamics as they negotiate issues of group membership, authority, and a shifting hierarchy of roles, task goals, and specific criteria for performance.
  • Polarity Management. The group will need to recognize and wisely manage certain inevitable, ongoing polarities, such as consistency/stability vs. flexibility/opportunity.
  • Shadow Sponsorship. Also in the group will be the shadow presence of key individuals in the organization, who are not physically present in the current process, but who will be critical in determining the success of its results, and whose indirect participation must be managed.
  • Resource Constraints. The group will need to deal pragmatically with the reality of limited resources of many kinds, and to make choices conscious of those intended and unintended consequences that might be linked to this resource profile. In our experience, these overarching dynamics will shape a designer’s decisions about how to deploy the following small group Design Principles. We have found that these Principles differentiate ineffective designs from those that drive truly powerful, sustainable learning and change. Each Principle is followed by Guidelines that specify its implementation.

PRINCIPLE 1. At the beginning, and throughout the design process, be clear with yourself about the arc of the learning experience.


  • Articulate and maintain a clear path to intended outcomes.
  • Design with the end of the learning and change process in mind, and track backward to confirm that progress toward that endpoint is precise and coherent.
  • Within the agenda, maintain a coherent relationship between topics by orchestrating transitions that build and reinforce participants’ understanding.
  • Before introducing new information, whenever possible ensure that participants are familiar with core issues by accessing their own past, relevant experience.
  • Include sufficiently-frequent, thoughtfully-timed opportunities for people to reflect on and integrate new information.

These Guidelines create a strong architecture for discovery, learning, and change, regardless of the specific goals of the process or items on the agenda. In your role as designer, it is useful to ask yourself repeatedly how the sequence of the agenda is working for you personally. Is it clear for you? If you were a participant, would the ideas make sense as you engaged with them? While this check does not guarantee success for others, if the design’s flow or the logic of its ideas is confusing or incoherent for you, it will likely be so for them as well.

PRINCIPLE 2. Engage participants as individuals early in the design and help them to connect with each other.


  • Begin with activities that encourage people to make interpersonal connections and initiate relevant conversations.
  • Encourage participants to publicly voice their hopes and expectations, and perhaps their fears or concerns, for the outcomes of the collective experience.

These Guidelines reflect the belief that because each participant adds value to the experience, the design should enable them to connect with each other in a meaningful way and provide an initial opportunity to highlight their unique, personal resources. Such an early exchange, often in the form of a brainstorm, focuses everyone on the task at hand and identifies any differences in expectations so the facilitator can clarify the agenda or perhaps modify it to fulfill their expectations.

It often proves useful to ask participants to identify their prior experience with the issues at hand, especially those occasions when they have been successful. These appreciative recollections help them to connect to available resources in their repertoire and to surface positive expectations for the current work, which can strengthen their engagement in the process beginning to unfold.

PRINCIPLE 3. Ensure that the design utilizes participants’ diverse resources and accommodates multiple preferences and styles of participating and learning.


  • Use activities and strategies that engage participants at different levels of perspective, including individual reflection, small-group interaction, and large-group discussion.
  • Use a variety of instructional modalities or experiential strategies to engage a full range of participants’ communication preferences.
  • Mindfully attend to human needs for safety, choice, and respect.
  • Plan and calibrate the rhythm of participant engagement by consciously and creatively varying the pace and timing of the steps in the process.
  • Consciously use the meeting space itself to contain, support, and influence the process in positive ways.

The core principles of adult learning, as outlined by Malcolm Knowles and other authors in the mid-twentieth century, assert that people learn and understand ideas using different cognitive and behavioral modes; thus it is important to use a variety of learning structures, including small group conversations, large group discussions, solo reflection, Design School: Mastering OD Design Principles Outside the Guild Experience 23 role playing, visual technologies, etc., to encourage their active, productive involvement. Such variety provides a stimulating learning environment, which also keeps people engaged and aware that they are being consciously served. Skilled designers thoughtfully match the timing of meeting content with strategies for learner participation in order to optimize learning, decision-making, or other intended outcomes.

PRINCIPLE 4. Model shared leadership with participants.


  • Include deliberate (and anticipate spontaneous) opportunities to publicly demonstrate appropriate collaboration in leadership and authority between yourself and participants.
  • Maintain transparency of purpose, agenda, and intended outcomes for participants at every stage in the process.
  • Choose consciously whether to tell participants key ideas or let them discover these through direct experience in the session.
  • Include periodic opportunities to solicit feedback from participants in real time about the impact of the design on their immediate experience and overall learning.

OD values require a stance of shared leadership whenever possible. Thus, effective designs include distance-reducing approaches, such as bystanding, asking the group about its preference or perspective, confirming agreements and next steps, and, when appropriate, creating in-the-moment adjustments based on its feedback.

A designer also needs to make conscious and disciplined decisions in advance about what content to present directly, and what information to allow the group to discover for itself. And of course, we must also to be prepared to modify those assumptions in real time as the learning and change process unfolds. While facilitators can be easily seduced into presenting “juicy” ideas, we believe that a group’s learning experience and its commitment to new ways of working will be much deeper when it wrestles with an issue and discovers a path forward for itself. As Galileo observed, “We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover it within themselves.”

While we strongly encourage OD professionals to include post-intervention assessment and feedback in their formal contracts, based on the Action Research framework in classical OD, we also believe that inviting participants to evaluate the impact of a process in real time is extremely useful and powerful. Participants benefit in two ways: first, they must pause and reflect, which will deepen their learning in the present moment, and reinforce the value of such reflective practice in many other settings. Second, it also provides the consultant with important information about “how we’re doing,” and allows choices to be made in-the-moment about whether to adjust any of the many dimensions of the design.

PRINCIPLE 5. Promote awareness, appreciation, and inclusion of different participant cultures and resources in the room.


  • Recognize the different characteristics, dynamics, expectations, and needs in participants’ specific backgrounds, cultures, and work systems; and customize designs accordingly to facilitate awareness and inclusion.
  • To increase both depth of participant engagement and quality of outcome, whenever possible increase participants’ access to a diversity of views, values, and experiences, and frame emerging conflict as a potential positive resource.

Another principle of adult learning includes a commitment to involving the learners in processes that respect and engage their autonomy, life wisdom, and unique, personal backgrounds. Honoring this commitment requires designing a learning process that is transparent and explicitly accepted by all participants. This requires designing with an inclusive mindset.

Although learning and change occur within the individual participant, effective OD designs typically use a group structure as the vibrant container where new understanding is created and new approaches are adopted. The process occurs most successfully when participants can become conscious of the values, needs, cultures, and experiences of the others in the room, and especially those differences that exist between them. When such explorations are genuine, well-timed, and respectful, a group can often make new decisions based on a more inclusive understanding of their different backgrounds; and this inevitably proves to be a more productive framework for future work than the perspective individuals bring to their first conversations.

Especially if you are an external consultant, and not a member of the client system, it is critical to seek to understand learners’ thought worlds, cultures, and values, and to use this information to craft designs that clearly express your respect for their unique attributes and characteristics.

PRINCIPLE 6. Orient participants to their progress and accomplishments during the process of learning and change.


  • Anticipate and create natural opportunities for participants to acknowledge the impact of their progress, and to celebrate their contributions and achievements.
  • Create a specific, concrete ending process that confirms participants’ understanding of decisions made and that cultivates commitment for agreed-to next steps.

Groups frequently rush out of a session before taking a breath, without acknowledging their accomplishments, or confirming the next steps for action; since these are key activities, it is important to design them into the agenda and invest them with adequate time and attention. While we must, of course, design and facilitate a customized agenda to meet a group’s expectations and ensure a desired result, we have found that applying these foregoing Principles and Guidelines helps to ensure the success of any design of small group process.

Joining the Guild: The Way We Learned

As far as we have been able to discover, this current articulation of small group design Principles and Guidelines has little precedent in the OD literature, and so what we have just proposed may begin to close this apparent gap. However, it is important that we be clear here about the nature of the gap we see.

As mentioned in our introduction, when we have asked colleagues whether they are aware of existing materials that describe the use of design intelligence and specific design principles in OD practice, their responses confirmed our impression. If such materials exist, they seem to be remarkably well-hidden. There is no question, though, that what appear to be reliably available to OD professionals are resources that frequently present us with already-completed designs. Such designs are often included in case study reports; in field books that describe the processes used to put specific approaches into practice; resource anthologies that provide a collection of completed designs to meet specific learning needs; and journal articles that outline the steps required to achieve a specific type of change. In whatever context, a reader is presented with a process that is already designed. What we ourselves have failed to find are those resources that bring us into the mind of the designer, that show us how design intelligence is actually deployed to create a powerful, effective design. In other words, we are not aware of a set of materials that documents the process, rather than the product, of OD design. Why should this be so?

The explanation, we think, lies not in what we have learned on our journey to practitioner competence; it lies, instead, in how we have learned it. And to understand how the relationship between OD and design thinking has remained both strong, and yet apparently covert, we must first acknowledge a dynamic that has enabled the field itself to mature during the last 60 years. We realized that while we ourselves felt we knew a great deal about design and design thinking, most of our knowing was tacit, submerged in that familiar, final stage in skill acquisition: unconscious competence.

Like most practitioners of our generation, our unconscious professional competence developed slowly, largely through carefully orchestrated and monitored experience, and this hands-on, trial-and-error experience was guided through conversations with a series of older, seasoned, and successful colleagues and mentors. Their involvement in our learning was high touch, labor intensive, and intimate. Feedback was immediate and continuous; and along with specific skills and practices, we were also exposed to a set of professional values, strongly expressed and clearly lived. On reflection, we realized that organization development—as a field committed to managing the “socio-technical” polarity— has been built and maintained by practitioners whose heads, hands, and hearts have been trained in a contemporary version of a guild, itself built and maintained by several generations of masters.

In fact, until recently, when formal, university-based programs were more available to educate aspiring practitioners and “pracademics,” the only option for acquiring and refining OD competencies was through some version of the guild model. Guilds have been a principle container for competency development for millennia. They have been responsible for training generations of carpenters, goldsmiths, stonemasons, weavers, and other highly-skilled trades, where an integration of art and craft was expected. In fact, the guild culture resembles our own contemporary communities of practice. Fortunately, the guild approach to skill mastery is also compatible with one of our core principles-of-practice: the use-of-self as an instrument of influence.

The foundation of guild learning is the largely oral transmission to a learner, an apprentice, of both specific expertise and core principles-of-practice, which are demonstrated by a working professional, an acknowledged master practitioner. Through both presence and practice, the master embodies excellence at the highest possible levels, and apprentices absorb a constellation of lessons that simultaneously build competence and confidence. The guild was also based on a clear and unassailable hierarchy of roles and responsibilities, and through the process of learning and mastering a specific set of skills, the learner’s character was also transformed. Alchemy occurred.

Our inability to identify written material that documents OD design principles indirectly supports our premise that OD, particularly design expertise, was built on guild learning. We believe that most OD professionals learned to design and to cultivate their own design intelligence through some variation of that experience. We are certain that we did; and we have heard from many colleagues in our own generation (and beyond as well) that they, too, had valuable relationships with master practitioners who personally guided them toward their own, eventual mastery. The question we face at this juncture in our evolution as a field is whether this type of experiential learning can continue in this familiar frame.

Beyond the Guild Experience: The Future of OD Design School

During the interviews we conducted, a colleague mentioned that one of her own professional mentors advised her to make sure that whenever possible in her designs, she create opportunities for learners to “go to school on their own experience.” In other words, to encourage people to plumb their own personal biographies and  backgrounds to confirm the fact that they had already had experience that reinforced, in some way, what they were now learning.

As we have stated, we experienced the value of that advice in our own professional relationship, and so have underscored its importance in our current articulation of OD design principles. At the same time, we realize that we had the opportunity and privilege of “going to school” several decades ago, when most of our professional work with leaders and organizations, and also our own learning, was conducted through face-to-face contact. Organizational environments (and our customers’ expectations) have experienced a dramatic shift in recent years, however. Technological innovations have exploded, creating new options for “virtual” contact. This evolving capacity has coincided with the economic turbulence that drove the recent global recession, which required many leaders and organizations to cut their budgets for global and transcontinental travel. Just as this occurred, however, a set of wireless, e-learning, virtual portals for planning, collaborating, and learning opened simultaneously.

For us, as learning and change professionals, this has proved to be a trend with more perplexing implications. The key question, while simple, is still bedeviling: as OD professionals, how do we both learn and apply design skills in virtual settings? And this question, of course, opens its own set of nested Russian dolls. For instance, if what we seek is mastery in our own professional role, can our specialized type of design and design thinking be learned with limited or no contexts for face-to-face demonstration, guidance, and feedback? How will we learn to identify and use the hallmarks of “good” design and avoid the consequences of less effective design without observing them directly, “on the ground?” Can we learn a set of applied principles and practices virtually? And can we design truly powerful, successful small group learning experiences for customers when they are in different geographies and time zones?

While it seems very tempting to answer these questions with a sour, “it can’t be done,” as a field we cannot afford to do so. Just as our customers are having to shape and adjust their expectations to 21st century VUCA (i.e., volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) realities, so must we. As OD professionals, we ourselves must accept and master these changing realities. For many of us, practitioners “of a certain age,” this is obviously neither an easy nor comfortable assignment, but hopefully a new generation of “masters” is poised to answer these difficult questions. Fortunately, since many of our younger colleagues are now joining the profession with significant virtual learning experience themselves, they seem well-positioned to integrate the future with the past. Based on our experience with these younger colleagues, we are confident and relieved that they seem up to the challenge. And so we expect that a 21st century Design School for OD professionals will ultimately emerge: an evolving, contemporary learning environment where we can ultimately master those virtual design skills now required to enable our customers to learn and change in virtual classrooms.

About the Authors

Peter F. Norlin, PhD, Principal of Peter Norlin ∆ ChangeGuides, and formerly the Executive Director of the Organization Development Network, has spent over 30 years in the field of OD, serving a range of customers from two-person partnerships to Fortune 100 companies. His teaching experience includes faculty appointments at Vanderbilt University, Johns Hopkins University, and Georgetown University. Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he is also a professional member of the NTL Institute and the Treasurer of IODA.

Judy Vogel, MA, Partner in Vogel Glaser & Associates, has been an external OD consultant since 1987, before that she was Director of OD and HRD for several corporations and large nonprofits. She is on the instructional team for American University’s MSOD program and Coordinator of Learning Community Time’s facilitators for each cohort of learners. She is a professional member of NTL Institute and is active in community-based efforts both in Columbia, MD and Fort Lauderdale, FL.