My Life on the Learning Curve – by Marv Weisbord

learning curve

I never intended to become a consultant. Starting in the late 1950’s, I had parallel careers as a magazine journalist and an executive in a business forms company. I read Douglas McGregor’s The Human Side of Enterprise, and set up one of the first self-managing multi-skilled workplaces in the United States. In 1968 I left business for writing and metamorphosed by chance into an organization development (OD) consultant. For 20 years I was a partner in a consulting/training firm, a member of NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science and of the European Institute for Transnational Studies. For six years I was an associate editor of The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. Since 1992 I have co-directed an international non-profit of volunteers in 35 countries, teaching large group methods and running planning meetings around the world.

I built my practice from trying, discarding, and integrating theories, methods, and techniques. I have had the good fortune to learn from many pioneers whose work attracted me. This story reflects that journey. I will not tell you what you should do, only what works for me. There is no specific practice called “OD.” OD myths are the stories you choose to turn theory into action. There are now 60+ ways to transform systems, many of them old wine in new bottles. I discovered long ago while stocking up on change methods that less is more. You can’t do them all. Fortunately, you can make a career out of the few that excite you.

When I started consulting in 1969, business schools taught that big companies reorganized every seven years. They centralized in one cycle, decentralized in the next. To have it both ways they tried a matrix. Each structure eventually reached its limits. Either you lost creativity (too tight) or control (too loose). You had conflict in any case. That’s why organizations kept changing. I got deeply into this while consulting at Atomic Energy of Canada, Avery Label, ESSO, GE, Johnson & Johnson, Rohm & Haas, Warner-Lambert, G. D. Searle, Shell, and many icons that no longer exist, e.g. Bethlehem Steel, Digital Equipment, Scott Paper, Women’s Medical College. Indeed, I put my kids through college following up expert consulting reports advising clients to change from what no longer worked to what would (for a while). (See “Getting the Report out of the Drawer,” Case 6 in Productive Workplaces.)

A funny thing happened on the way to the future. In the early 70’s the seven year cycle became five, then three. Around 1980 baffled execs arrived at work one morning to find computer terminals on their desks. The restructuring cycle, like spring daffodils, became an annual event. When I took up with non-profits and communities in the early 1990’s change was a satellite hurtling through space at warp speed, destination unknown. You had non-stop mergers, acquisitions, down-sizings, right-sizings, re-financings, re-toolings, re-vampings, and re-visionings. Nobody could keep up. By the time you wrote a consulting report, the world changed.

A decade earlier I had already noticed that the methods I relied on to support a wife, four children, a cat, a dog, a bird, and a turtle were not working as well as they once did. When I wrote the first edition of Productive Workplaces (1987) not only had the playing field changed. So had the game, and it called for different equipment. To help people work amidst burgeoning technologies, cultural diversity, and economic uncertainty, I had restocked my kit bag. The Learning Curve, my book in brief, summarizes how I viewed the changing game.



Revisiting Lewinian Action Research

I had built my consulting practice on the action research methods of Kurt Lewin, a refugee social psychologist from Nazi Germany. Though he died when I was a teenager, I had the good fortune to work with some of his disciples, notably Eric Trist and Fred Emery (who conceptualized “socio-technical systems”) and Ronald Lippitt (who with Lewin pioneered “group dynamics”). I met Rensis Likert, Director of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, apostle of measurement and survey data. I teamed for years with Paul Lawrence, a Harvard Business School professor, helping academic medical centers learn to differentiate and integrate patient care, research, and teaching in response to their “environments.” I partnered with Peter Block and Tony Petrella, who were among the first to leave secure corporate jobs in the 1960’s for life on the OD high wire.

Lewin’s model required a collaborative diagnostic study between client and consultant to determine gaps between “what is” and “what should be.” Consultants sought to close the gaps with programs agreed to by the client. We discovered more diagnoses than stars in the galaxy. We devised more interventions than grains of sand on the beach. Every client had the same destination, a planet named “high performance.” We advocated a new kind of trip, helping to improve processes—in communications, problem-analysis, goal setting, decision-making, planning, conflict management, and cross-functional cooperation. Our most popular vehicles were team-building, intergroup meetings, survey feedback, problem-solving task forces and every genre of personal, interpersonal, trans-personal, and group skills training in the galaxy. Repeating these events became a “change strategy” that required contracting with committed leaders. We favored those who spoke of motivation, interdependence, cooperation, fun at work, and trust. Especially trust. And, by the way, higher output, better quality, lower costs.

In the 1970’s, I based my practice on three OD myths:

(1) You needed one to three years of persistent intervention to evolve self-sustaining “learning organizations;”

(2) You initiated this makeover by contracting with a committed leader, doing a diagnosis based on interviews and a feedback meeting with the top team, then training and/or or team building with as many people as possible. The objective was more satisfying work, trust, and those hoped-for financial results.

(3) You sustained results by “building in” new norms and practices. We committed to working ourselves out of jobs (eventually, not right away) by teaching people to “learn how to learn.”

Getting Ahead of the Curve

The first person to call himself a consulting engineer was Frederick W. Taylor, “the father of scientific management.” My firm followed him by 80 years at Bethlehem Steel. We found that Taylor’s remarkable solutions, repeated mindlessly for decades, were institutionalized in a sea of bitter labor-management conflict. In 1981, 400 industrial engineers timed jobs and set rates while the company lost $80 million a month. For fixing whole corporations, expert problem-solving had long since passed its “sell by” date. Using action research, Lewin and colleagues had decades earlier married democratic leadership to group dynamics, giving birth to participative management. We turned Taylorism upside down at Bethlehem by involving “everybody” to check the downward spiral.

By the 1960’s, physical scientists, notably Ludwig von Bertalanffy, had worked out a general systems theory. They demonstrated that everything under the sun is hooked to everything else. What OD consultant exposed to such a radical idea would not aspire to be a “systems thinker”? Our flip chart squiggles soon showed organizations embedded in environments that included economics and technology. We experts put “people problems” into a structural context. I took great pleasure in giving clients comprehensive blueprints for change—economics, technology, the works.

Improving systems, however, means altering dysfunctional policies, procedures, controls, methods, priorities, and structures in response to new markets and technologies. We could not make such changes training everybody in leadership, collaboration, self-awareness and straight talk. Or even systems thinking. If you had to fix the people before you could fix the system, you would fail. People had style quirks and isms galore. They feared error and retribution. You couldn’t teach people to trust each other if they couldn’t change the game. Invariably they resisted “flavors-of-the-month.” They knew they already had skills and experience they couldn’t use. What they lacked was influence on the rules. Systems had lives of their own, influenced by all that they touched, subject to the whims, needs, hopes and fears of all who touched them. Participative management rarely went beyond problem-solving. Systems performed better, we learned, when people could control and coordinate their own work. Nearly everywhere that level of participation was off limits.

Our challenge by the mid-80’s was finding methods that enabled all to share responsibility for the whole. In my 1987 book, I described two I had used successfully—having people design their own work; having all with a stake in the future involved in strategic planning (e.g. Future Search). I recall reading articles in those years about the “failure” of OD. Mostly, the failure was of our own expectations. You can’t reach outer space in a propeller-driven plane. Working with teams, training groups and task forces fell far short of involving everybody in changing the whole. Moreover, much of my work was in public companies. I found I could not build for the ages in organizations beholden to Wall Street, especially if they churned executives at the top. Everybody knows organizations reflect what leaders do, not what mission statements say. Quarterly dividends made an oxymoron of “sustainable change.” Leader turnover made a mockery of “learning organization.” People learned. Organizations had Alzheimer’s. Each generation, I concluded, must relearn for itself. You can do very good work anywhere on earth if you accept those realities. But only if you concentrate on right now, and let the cosmos manage the long run.

Capitalizing Experience

Hence I found myself early on adding people to every activity. When an executive team complained about corporate staff oppression, I asked the boss to stop the meeting and invite the person in charge to hear the stories. When a task force revising a work flow chart discovered they didn’t know what happened next, I called a break and said, “Go get the person who knows.” When a staff group attributed production delays to lazy workers, I said, “Let’s visit the factory.” There we found similar products packaged in boxes of varying size.

“Box size doesn’t matter to me,” said the package designer.

“Box size doesn’t matter to me,” said the marketing exec.

“It matters to me,” said a buyer. “Two sizes cost more than one.”

“It matters a lot to me,” said a worker blamed for slow deliveries. “It takes us eight hours to change over that line!”

No diagnosis, no consulting report, no resistance, no training. It took an hour to agree to make one size box fit two products. Within weeks work requiring eight hours was down to minutes. (You’ll never get rich doing that kind of consulting. But your clients might!) More—and this is NOT trivial—peoples’ relationships also improved! Without conflict management, style instruments, or overcoming resistance. If you had a trust meter, you’d see the light go green. For years Fred Emery had advocated getting Persons A and B to work on Problem X together instead of making their relationships the problem. That is what he meant. Elaborating on this notion at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point plant we got 2000 people visiting customers and suppliers while solving their own problems. The plant became world class before Bethlehem went belly-up in 2003.

A New Myth: Learning From Experience

 Hanging out with Eric Trist, I learned to apply socio-technical methods to work systems design, something I had done as a manager in the 1960’s without knowing it. From Trist and Fred Emery I got search processes for strategic planning. I came to understand that people could coordinate and control their work only if (a) they know what to do and (b) have the authority to do it. Skills minus authority = frustration. I came to understand that exploring the nature of the whole leads to solving clusters of problems. From Ron Lippitt, and his associates Eva Schindler-Rainman, a community development consultant, and Ed Lindaman, a futurist who had once been a NASA planning director, I learned that getting people from all levels, functions, and walks of life into the room at the same time makes possible unprecedented actions. I also learned that people motivate themselves more focusing on common ground and future dreams than on managing conflicts and problems.

Much of what we call “new paradigm” is rediscovering old wisdom. A central tenet of the 1960’s T-group movement that spawned OD was learning from experience, e.g. how others react to you in the “here-and-now.” The agony and ecstasy of human relations training was an experience many people could use but preferred not to have—hearing others’ projections on them delivered as “feedback.” By the 1980’s I became aware that we were on the verge of another form of experiential practice, changing systems thinking into systems experiencing. Do your eyes glaze over when table talk turns to “negative entropy,” “environmental demands,” and “equifinality?” That’s systems thinking. To make it operational, build on the fact that all members of any company or community are the world’s leading experts on their own experience. Each has a piece of a complex puzzle. Get them enough of them in one room and they may discover patterns none had ever seen. It is possible for every person in the room to learn more about a system in a few hours (from each other) than anyone could learn from years of coming to work. It’s possible, not inevitable. If you’re older than 45, you were born before most of the world knew how to make that happen. If you have done it, though, you know that “the whole system in the room” makes possible actions once thought unthinkable. People need not be systems thinkers to capitalize their experience.

Change My Myths, Change My Practice

I started simplifying my practice in the 1980’s. Instead of diagnosing behavior, I got people together across levels and functions to figure out what they needed to do. Instead of training everybody, I looked for ways to help people use the skills and knowledge they had. Instead of asking what’s wrong and what will fix it, I began asking what’s possible here and who cares. I discovered Robert Fritz’s The Path of Least Resistance. He had found an alternative to the diagnosis/intervention cycle. Fritz suggested, and I confirmed by doing it, that when people develop a keen appreciation of how things are now and then internalize a desirable future, they do not need gap-closing interventions. They begin to seize opportunities they had not noticed before. In this strategy, you put time into appreciating the past and present, good times and bad, and sharing future aspirations with those who can help realize them. Your purpose might be anything—a problem to solve, a system to improve, a community to heal, a corporation to renew. By the time everybody puts the puzzle together they know what to do.

I started out in 1969 doing consulting projects lasting one to three years. Since the early 90’s, I have run 2 1/2 day planning meetings and, with Sandra Janoff, co-director of Future Search Network, taught thousands of people to do likewise. I had a hard time believing at first that these short meetings enabled more constructive change than a year of training, team-building, and task forces. Colleagues on five continents, however, have reported similar results. Thus, I have given myself some startling new myths in my later years. You may find these hard to swallow—

* Little or no diagnosis is required to stimulate constructive action.

* Systems can transform their capability for action in a matter of days, not months or years.

* Little or no action planning is needed to get people acting together once they experience the whole together. Moreover, they cannot experience it any other way.

Could this be one future for OD? Well, it’s here now. I’m not saying all the other stuff I once did doesn’t work. There will always be a need for experts and group problem-solving. And, perhaps, for whatever you do now. You can’t have too much interpersonal skill, cultural competence or teamwork, so get all the training you can. If you are in the change business, though, you will never fully satisfy yourself until you learn to get everybody improving the whole. Change means doing something new. That’s what I tell clients. One three day meeting can eliminate a hundred others. If you really want “shorter, faster, cheaper,” put a little more time into what works in an age of non-stop change. You need not accept my myths. If you are curious, you can try living them and see if they work for you.

The future never comes. We carry the past around day after day, light as a feather, heavy as a stone. Some days we dream of the future. No sooner our future comes in the front door, it walks out the back. Everything happens in the present. What’s on your agenda today? The feather or the stone? Your next meeting is the best shot you will ever have for changing the world. I will not burden you with how to make that happen. The book you are reading now contains more resources than you will ever need.


About the Author

Marv Weisbord is co-director of Future Search Network, an international non-profit service organization. He also is a Distinguished Visiting Scholar, Organizational Dynamics Graduate Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, resource faculty in the Organization and Systems Renewal Program at Seattle University, and a fellow of the World Academy of Productivity Science. During 50 years as a manager, consultant, researcher and teacher he has worked with businesses, NGO’s, and medical schools. He was for more than 20 years a partner in the consulting firm Block Petrella Weisbord and a member of NTL Institute and the European Institute for Transnational Studies. He has a Lifetime Achievement award from the OD Network, which voted Productive Workplaces one of the most influential books of the past 40 years. He and his wife Dorothy Barclay Weisbord live near Philadelphia and have four children and eight grandchildren.


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Marvin Weisbord
For those who are doing class projects or are just curious, below is a summary of my life and work. I have never made much of a distinction between the personal and professional. (I was lucky to be a partner in a consulting firm where we supported each other in balancing work and family.) At present I am co-director of the non-profit Future Search Network (FSN), which Sandra Janoff and I founded in 1993 to engage consultants and local leaders in voluntary social change. We have served as unpaid co-directors since. The Network has members on every continent, collaborating to help people improve their lives in the arts, business, communities, education, environment, health care, social services, technology, and other sectors. We have trained more than 3000 people in Future Search and managing large diverse groups–in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. Sandra and I also manage Future Searches and consult with anyone who wishes to make a difference in their community or company. I intend for this web site to further the work of FSN. I am an emeritus member of the European Institute for Transnational Studies and a fellow of the World Academy of Productivity Science. Since the 1980’s I have been a resource faculty member in the Organization and Systems Renewal Program, formerly at Antioch University in Seattle and now housed at Seattle University. I also participate as visiting faculty in the doctoral program in Organization Development at Benedictine University, Lisle, IL.