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Adult Development and OD Practice

August 11, 2020
Shauna Fenwick and Michael Keller
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What might be possible if we used a development lens?

Many leaders and Organizational Development (OD) practitioners are at the edge of their current understandings and need to learn new ways of approaching organizational change. Developmental theory suggests the next step isn’t necessarily more courses on how-to, but a broadened mindset and the ability to truly work from a systems perspective.

Despite escalating changes in workplace conditions, little has changed in the ways leaders and organizations respond and manage these conditions. While leaders are working harder, the strategies they were using were not always successful in addressing the emerging complexity.

To learn more, we embarked on a series of inquiries with leaders and change agents who shared an interest in better engaging with changework and in developing change agency.

What our inquiries revealed...

Leaders repeatedly jumped to quick conclusions to define and then fix problems. They attempted to resolve their discomfort with the unfamiliar prematurely before the situation could catalyze new perspectives and approaches. Requests for OD assistance were often for fast solutions and were rarely successful.

Overall, leaders and change agents reported working harder in more demanding and stressful workplace conditions. They identified learning needs for themselves and for the people in the systems in which they work.

Personal learning needs more often related to challenges about who to “be” in the system. Learning needs related to acting in complex systems included: navigating the system, responding to dysfunction, aligning across power structures and scale, influencing strategic thinkers and doers, designing to grow learning capacity and improving collaboration.

Our inquiries suggested that traditional ways and frameworks of responding to change have not adequately developed our capacity to navigate shifting VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) demands. Something more is needed, something beyond competencies, to support people's capabilities to respond and thereby build their adaptive capacity and resilience.

We believe insights from developmental theory can significantly improve leadership and OD practice in complex environments.                                       

Adult development theorists such as Kegan (1994), Cook-Greuter (2004), Rooke and Torbert (2005), Joiner and Josephs (2007), Garvey Berger (2012) and others recognized adults hold a potential to continue to expand their frame of mind (Kegan) or action logics (Rooke & Torbert) throughout their life. Each developmental stage represents an increased capability of our brains to see and understand new challenges and our personal abilities to match our insights with effective responses. Personal growth is needed to learn and lead effectively in each successive developmental stage.

We assert that becoming aware of your own developmental capacity as a practitioner, being able to recognize how it operates in yourself and relationally with others, enables more appropriate and effective ways of engaging a complex, emerging future.

In VUCA conditions, no matter your level of development, individuals and their relationships are under increased levels of stress, as is the system.  Leaders benefit from recognizing how their developmental lens can best align with and serve the presenting individual and collective needs so as to design effective engagement for change processes and systemic outcomes.

What might be possible if a developmental lens was used for learning and leadership development?

Using developmental lenses in leadership development enables faculty to more strategically aim their curriculum at the needs of learners and organizations. A developmental lens can support learners to maximize their potential at their current stage and progress effectively to the next, when appropriate.

This post is a summary of Shauna and Michael’s new article:

Fenwick, S., & Keller, M. (2020). Adult Development and OD Practice. OD Practitioner, 52(2), 35–42. 

Shauna and Michael are long-term associates of the School of Leadership Studies. Find out more about their work here:




Cook-Greuter, S.R. (2004). Making the case for a developmental perspective. Industrial and Commercial Training, 36(7), 275–81.

Garvey Berger, J. (2012). Changing on the job: Developing leaders for a complex world. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Joiner, W. B., & Josephs, S. A. (2007). Leadership agility: Five levels of mastery for anticipating and initiating change. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge MA.: Harvard University Press.

Rooke, D., Torbert, W. R. (2005). 7 transformations of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 83(4), 66–77.