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  • Writer's pictureDr Kiran Chitta

It's time to be ‘deliberately developmental’

“….the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-fainthearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one's potentialities. It involves the courage to be.

Carl Rogers

Research led by the Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Kegan, indicates that financial success and adaptability in an organization is built on very close attention to human growth. He and his colleagues refer to organizations that put human development at the heart of their business operations as ‘deliberately developmental’.

In this post I explore what a deliberately developmental organization does and how this might support organizational agility, at a time when many L&D budgets are being slashed.

Organization development (‘OD’) practice is informed by various schools of thought. A dominant approach over many decades positioned OD as an enabler of execution of strategy, business change, or technology adoption. Aligning closely with strategists, process architects, and technologists has been a way to be relevant in the world of business. OD is a field easily associated with eccentricity and impractical idealism. The field is heavily populated with performance artists who can help people have nourishing ‘warm-bath’ experiences (virtual or in person) outside the pressures of real work.

Despite some of the practical limitations of humanistic forms of OD theory and practice, I have reservations about the strength of the association between corporate OD and traditional strategy execution. I have explored this tension in depth in my books. 2020 has shown me that for OD to remain relevant, it must combine real-world pragmatism, grown-up idealism (a term coined by the moral philosopher Susan Neiman), and a strong psychological grounding.

Many companies who might have had strategic plans and corporate visions that were supposed to come to ultimate fruition this year (e.g. ‘Vision 2020’ …) have had to let go of such plans. Everyone has had to ‘pivot’ fast to adapt to new realities. While strategic planning and execution must be linear to some extent, to allow businesses to function, OD ensures readiness for change. People pivot faster when the situation demands if they are in a workplace that values them, treats them fairly, and helps them grow.

Divergent organizational and national responses to COVID show that human development must be woven into the fabric of everything that governments and businesses do. Development should not be an add-on, or synonymous with a line item in an HR budget. This year has made it clear that organizational agility has personal growth at all levels at its core, as an intrinsic element of running a business. Effective organizational learning and change does not have to depend on how much money is thrown at it. The psychologist Robert Kegan and his colleagues have explored how this is achieved, coining the term ‘deliberately developmental’.

In a 2014 white paper, Kegan and his collaborators argue that a deliberately developmental workplace is ‘organized around the deceptively simple but radical conviction that organizations will best prosper when they are deeply aligned with people’s strongest motive, which is to grow.’

Using U.S. corporate case studies, the authors argue that ‘deep alignment…. requires something more than making “a big commitment to our people’s growth,” admirable as that may be.’ They emphasize ‘fashioning an organizational culture in which support to people’s ongoing development is woven into the daily fabric of working life, visible in the company’s regular operations, day-to-day routines, and conversations.’

Some of the principles arising from these case studies - albeit derived from the U.S. - are relevant to an understanding of agility in the face of global disruptions such as COVID. These include design of workplaces in which ‘adults can grow’, where ‘everyone is HR’, ‘destabilization can be constructive’, ‘everyone builds the culture’ and ‘interior life is part of what is managed’. This last statement might sound slightly totalitarian. Who wants to have their ‘interior life’ ‘managed’? The point of it is that colleagues and managers try to understand and work with what people are really thinking and feeling, to help each other address what might be self-limiting beliefs.

A deliberately developmental organization does not reinforce ‘impression management’ at work. Setting out to conceal vulnerability, or weakness, to try constantly to create a positive impression, can be a consequence of working in a culture that focuses so much on power, or perfection, that it feels too risky to be transparent. However, the downside of a need for ‘radical transparency’ is that it might feel intrusive to some, or, if enacted without adequate skill, it might feel disrespectful.

For organizations to be able to be adaptive and agile, individuals need to work in a climate which is free from personal judgement, psychological manipulation, and fear. This is possible even if performance standards are high, and feedback is frequent, and direct. It strikes me that in the context of an ongoing crisis, although positive psychology, and an emphasis on strengths has its place, ignoring our vulnerabilities, especially in leadership, can be disastrous.

A deliberately developmental workplace helps to expose and address sources of vulnerability in individuals, teams and in the whole enterprise. It does this in a way that helps people grow, rather than makes them feel insecure or inadequate. An intentional and properly integrated approach to people development would also support diversity, inclusion and equity.

Healthy transparency at work, and a more conscious approach to development, is likely to help businesses get through this crisis intact, while also helping to ensure readiness for the next one.

What does the idea of an organization being ‘deliberately developmental’ mean to you and how might it support agility at a collective level?

See also -

Kegan, R. & Lahey, L.L. (2016). An Everyone Culture: Becoming a deliberately developmental organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Kegan, R., Lahey, L., Fleming, A., Miller, M., & Markus, I. (2014). The Deliberately Developmental Organization. White paper. Available at

My books are available on Amazon:

Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world

Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose

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