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A Conversation with Dana Gaines Robinson, author of Performance Consulting and Strategic Business Partner

January 27, 2011

Linkage’s Seth Resler sat down with Dana Gaines Robinson, keynote speaker at the 2010 Best of Organizational Summit. Dana is a consultant and has co-authored six books including Performance Consulting and Strategic Business Partner.  

Here is their conversation….  

In your keynote speech, you talk a lot about the difference between tactical organizational development and strategic organizational development, so let’s start there.  What is the difference?  


Dana Gaines Robinson
Dana Gaines Robinson


That is a critical distinction that is often confused.  A tactical organizational development (OD) approach means I focus on the solution.  I focus on the initiative whether it is the change initiative, the engagement initiative, the diversity initiative, or the leadership initiative. My focus is on that initiative and how to design it, implement it, and execute it.  That is a tactical approach.  

A strategic approach to OD means I begin with the business-end in mind.  I clarify what the business is trying to accomplish and, therefore, what OD and other initiatives will be needed to help make those goals real.  

And then I set about to design and implement those initiatives in concert with the other work that is being done, because no business result occurs through one single OD solution.  

So, when I operate strategically, I am a business person who is focused on business results first; that is the end in mind.  I happen to specialize in the OD solutions that will help make that happen.  

As you look at the state of the (OD) field today, where are most people?  

Unfortunately, while we have definitely moved forward, there is no doubt about it; we are still not where we need to be.  Wright Associates has done research that says only one in three people in our field have strategic influence.  We have a ways to go, even though the opportunity is huge.  

That is because of two things—first, there is confusion still, even in our field, at the distinction and difference between working tactically and working strategically.  And then, the second reason is because we lack the infrastructure in many of our OD and HR functions that will support strategic work.  It is still in incenting and supporting tactical work.  

Who is responsible for the infrastructure?  Is that something that comes within an OD department or is that something that comes from higher up?  

No, it is the leadership of the OD function that is the key player to ensure the infrastructure of the OD function is supported.  Now, that does not mean that all of the potential barriers can be removed or addressed by the leader, but without that leader taking an active role to make that happen the infrastructure will not support it.  

Let me give you an example.  This is coming from a learning organization with whom I have worked over the years that had sought to become more strategic and is definitely making strides.  But we are now doing a bit of a pulse check after a couple of years and one of the barriers for why they are not quite where they would like to be is that even though they understand what it means to be strategic, they are still being incented and supported to deliver learning solutions.  

So it is that incentivizing of learning solutions which is the tactic that is keeping them having the time and the focus to work in a more strategic way. This does require a different mindset, a different mental model, and a different approach to our work.  

Dana Gaines Robinson
Dana Gaines Robinson speaking at the 2010 Best of Organizational Development Summit


 I have heard OD practitioners talking about having a seat at the table. It sounds like you need a certain amount of buy-in with the  rest of the organization.  

Yeah, we earn our seat at the table.  You know, we cannot say, “I am a strategic business partner,” and then “wah la” appear.  We earn it through building and deepening relationships with key leaders that are based on our business savvy, as well as our OD knowledge.  

We actually need equality there—we need to have equal parts knowledge of the business with our domain expertise.  If we have too much of one and too little of the other, we are not adding value to the role.  

We deepen our knowledge, we gain and build access and deepen relationships with key leaders.  We demonstrate that we can add value in business discussions and we deliver on the promise that we are about results, not just about solutions.  

As you have seen organizations successfully move from a tactical strategy to a strategic one, what have been the key ingredients in those successes?  

Well, it is a journey—that is one thing.  And it is a transition, it is not a switch.  But I do believe we design our future and so the approach that I look at is really based a lot on the work of Geary Rummler and Alan Brache. It basically says that you need to think about your work process end-to-end, your organizational structure, and then the people who are to fill the role of a strategic player.  

And a couple of thoughts to that—one of the greatest barriers to making the transition from tactical to strategic from a function perspective is that people become overwhelmed with the volume of the transactional and tactical work that is piling on their plate.  

That volume will trump the important work, which is the strategic work, which is much more long-term.  One to five years in scope is not unusual when you are working on strategic initiatives.  So, if you are overwhelmed and overloaded with the transactional and tactical work, that is one of the organizational issues that will need to be addressed, because one of the things that is clearly true today is that adding players to the team is probably not an option.  

We are going to have to figure out how to get our volume of work done differently so we can add the strategic work onto the plate.  

I think that is increasingly true for–not just OD practitioners but a lot of people in this economy that people have to do more with less.  

That is exactly right.  

And the urgent starts to crowd out the important.  

Exactly.  That is exactly what happens.  

So, how do you prevent that from happening?  

Well, in that particular case, when I am consulting with organizations and functions that are designing themselves to be strategic, we look at what can be outsourced and therefore managed, but from an outsourced perspective, which will take less resource time.  

What can be done through self-service?  And that is where your electronic technology is crucial.  We use self-service when we go to airports now, right?  We check in with kiosks, not people.  We go to ATMs, not tellers.  This is true in business as well.  We need to have everyone—managers and employees, self-servicing on those more transactional things so that it will not require human contact.  

And we also need to look at what will we no longer do at all?  So there is–what are we going to do, but do differently and what are we no longer going to do at all?  Those are the critical questions to answer for any function so that you can add the greater volume of value-added work that is the strategic work.  

But it is long-term in scope requiring not only partnering with management but requiring more analytic resource as well. Strategic work will always have analysis as a key component and we will create different initiatives than we may have been doing in the past.  

So, five years from now where would you like the field of OD to be?  


Dana Gaines Robinson
Dana Gaines Robinson at Linkage's 2010 Best of OD Summit


I would like the field of OD to be delivering on the promise and the opportunity that is present for us right now.  Our organizations are under incredible stress and I do not see that changing in five years with all of the global competitive forces that we have.  We have all come through a terrible economic time and we have a ways to go.  

When you think about the fact that only 80-percent of an organization’s value is from their intangible assets; and intangible assets are what we touch in OD—we have this huge opportunity. Our organizations have a huge need and it requires that we step up to the plate.  

But we do need to work differently, in a more strategic, less tactical, more results-focused, less enamored by solutions (way)., I would like to see that we have delivered on that promise (in five years).  

I want to ask you one last question.  In regard to your book Performance Consulting, what is performance consulting and how does that relate to organizational development?  

I get asked that question a lot so let me take a moment here.  Performance consulting is a process that focuses on human performance.  OD is a process–or really a lot of processes that focus in organizational performance.  

I view OD as a macro approach.  Performance consulting is a bit more of a micro approach.  Totally connected and in need of each other, but they each have different end-results.  One is going to enhance the organization’s performance, but then inside of that there will be people and performance consulting engages when we want to figure out how to enhance those peoples’ performance.  

Great!  Well, if people want to connect with you and find out more about you or the work that you have done, can 

Dana Gaines Robinson
Dana Gaines Robinson answering questions from the audience at the 2010 Best of OD Summit


they find you online somewhere?  

They can.  Well, they can certainly find me through Google or LinkedIn, but I am actually retiring as of the first of 2011 and our intellectual property has been sold to a firm called Exemplary Performance.  So, they can go to their web site and find all of the work we have done.  

Well great.  Well congratulations.  

Thank you.  

So, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.  


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