OD & Startups (Pt. 1)

Early stage startups could benefit immensely from the wisdom of organization development (OD) principles and practices, yet OD consultants rely on certain core concepts with related jargon which function as a barrier to helping such clients.

On many counts, organization development (OD) consultants and startups in the seed and development stages appear to be an unlikely couple. Early stage startups (ESSs) have limited cash flow that often must be focused urgently on basic operating functions. Founders of ESSs often possess the character traits of audacity and self confidence, which might diminish their openness or even awareness of the possibility of receiving help (again, especially outside of a core business function). Finally, the field of OD was developed over decades of trial and error most frequently within the context of large organizations, and in doing so has evolved largely to meet the needs of those organizations (Dyer, 1997 p. 1).

On the other hand, ESSs have a unique opportunity to avoid repeating the mistakes of their predecessors and to showcase a generation’s hard-earned wisdom through new and more integrated sociotechnical systems. Just as no parent wants for their child a mediocre life of juggling basic needs, no founder wants their organization to plateau at the level of “getting by.” As the scope of work in the 21st century continue to trend towards complexity and fast paced change, managing for thrival (not a word, but should be?) is increasingly imperative (Matai, 2011).

OD consultants offer a suite of insights and processes tailored to thrival, but given the previously mentioned barriers to collaboration, what can the consultant who is seeking to provide help in this environment do to set the stage for the helping relationship to flourish? A small but significant improvement is revealed on the basis of challenging and subsequently expanding upon two core and generally helpful concepts of OD: the intervention, and joint diagnosis.

Shifting Language to Fit the Context of the Early Stage Startup

The term intervention is about as synonymous and inseparable from the field of OD as could be, and is closely tied to Kurt Lewin’s concept of change as three steps (CATS) -- unfreezing, moving, refreezing -- described in Human Relations’ first article of their first issue (Lewin, 1947, p. 34). While the CATS model of change has proved to be foundational to the field of OD and others interested in theories of change (Cummings, Bridgman & Brown, 2016, p. 34), it firmly if inadvertently suggests that the consultant’s usefulness is with the client with an existing problem to be fixed. In other words, the preeminence of the term “intervention” in the language of OD professionals precludes the consultants role in prevention, as would be helpful in the ESS which hasn’t yet encountered many of the problems OD consultants often find themselves engaged in identifying and solving.

A common manner in which OD consultants are advised to engage their clients, namely joint diagnosis of the problem (Schein, 1999, chap. 1) also rests upon the assumption of at least a presenting problem, and therefore also bears diminished relevance in the early stage organization. While ESSs may face a litany of technical challenges, they are less likely to feel the painful effects of poorly integrated social and technical systems for which consultants are often called in. This does not mean however, that such problems are not right around the corner, or that they cannot and should not be averted. Education and joint exploration of potential problems, as well as provocation of appropriate degrees of concern emerge as alternative processes available to the consultant which would benefit from the OD community’s further research and theoretical development.


Early stage startups have a need for organization development expertise but language, processes and timing utilized by the consultant play a fundamental role in determining the formation and success of a helping relationship. OD consultants with an interest in helping clients within this context would benefit from further research and theoretical development of the role of prevention, education, and provocation as helpful processes.


  1. Dyer, W. G. (1997). Organization Development in the Entrepreneurial Firm. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 33(2), 190-208. doi:10.1177/0021886397332008
  2. Matai, D. (2011, March 30). What Is The Key To Survival In A Constantly Changing Environment? Retrieved October 19, 2017, from http://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-the-key-to-survival-in-a-constantly-changing-environment-2011-3
  3. Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in Group Dynamics. Human Relations, 1(1), 5-41. doi:10.1177/001872674700100103
  4. Cummings, S., Bridgman, T., & Brown, K. G. (2016). Unfreezing change as three steps: Rethinking Kurt Lewin’s legacy for change management. Human Relations, 69(1), 33-60. doi:10.1177/0018726715577707
  5. Schein, E. H. (1999) Process consultation revisited: building the helping relationship. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.
Corey Morrowstartup