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A Conversation with Peter Block, organizational development legend and recipient of Linkage’s Lifetime Achievement Award

January 12, 2011

Linkage’s Seth Resler sat down with Peter Block, organizational development legend and recipient of Linkage’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2010 Best of Organizational Development Summit in Chicago.

Here is their conversation:

Seth Resler:                 In your acceptance speech you said a lot of really fascinating things that people really gravitated towards. What I want to do is get Peter Block on Peter Block. I want to mention a couple of the quotes you said and just have you expand on them and tell us a little bit about what you meant. First, the place that I want to start is about you. You said that you’ve made a living stating the obvious.

Peter Block:                Well, I’ve made a living in a patriarchal world—a world of empire, a world of control, a world where authentic conversation is the exception, a world where people are unnaturally isolated, [and] in competition with each other. It’s a world of scarcity. So, in this kind of high-control world, it develops a way of speaking that’s almost unintelligible—bottom-line oriented. I’m a can-do kind of guy—I’m a team player. You have all this almost kind of role-play, sort of just talking simple terms about what do you want from this person. What do I want from you? What’s your intention? The simple language is radical in a patriarchal role-playing existence.

Seth Resler:                 One of the things that you talked about was the fact that you have been indifferent to results for a long time.

Peter Block:                Also that. So, this empire, patriarchal, institutional—let’s just call it a system world to be gentle with it; thinks it’s only there for results—bottom-line, profit, budget, outcomes. And it has a way of achieving whatever outcomes it’s getting. So, if it wants a different outcome—to keep focusing on results will never get us there. So, when people say, I want something I can implement quickly, what they are saying is, I don’t want to create any space or any ambiguity for any other possibility to enter our existence.

So the “I need results”, “I want to measure this”, is a defense against anything changing. Nothing is going to change if I have to prove to you right now that this works because nothing gets invented. You can’t invent anything quickly. You can’t imagine anything overnight. You can’t change the network of relationships quickly. So, all the things that are required for transformation take time, take depth, take relatedness, take thought, take memory, take imagination, and to say, we don’t have time for that—is to say, we don’t have time for the future.

Seth Resler:                 How do you encourage people to move towards this mindset?

Peter Block:                Talk like I’m talking. When you’re in the room, you tell people what you’re up to, and you say, “There are certain things if you care about an alternative future we got to kind of get.” One is that your relationships with each other matter. Second, is the conversation we have has to be different than the conversation we are used to having. The third is results—“what are we going do about this” has to be postponed as long as possible. And so, you’re trying to shift the context to abundance, time, relatedness, possibility, [and] ownership. So if you name the new context, then it allows people to give up the old one. They don’t like it. They’re not comfortable, but so what? You’re not here to give people what they expected. People’s expectations are so low. They’re in such despair about their institutions ever really changing that I don’t want to be guided by their expectations.

Seth Resler:                 What is the role of an OD practitioner in all of this?

Peter Block:                To help systems create a new narrative for them – a new story about who they are. All transformation is linguistic and so, if I want to change a culture, I just have to change the conversation. So, what we do is introduce groups of people into a different narrative and conversation about what they’re up to, and the key is to do it in a way that they don’t know how to defend against it.

If we use their methodology, we don’t have a chance! So, if I show up with a better problem-solving model, that’s fine, but it doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t confront anything. It doesn’t surprise anybody and they’re comfortable. And when you say at the end of the day, “How was it?” “We had a great day!” “We went to root cause analysis, and then, we did the options. And then, we make choices.” Well, what’s different about that?

I like the notion that when you’re drowning, dive; that when there’s tension in the room, you go towards it; that when you give people suggestions, it’s ambiguous, personal, and anxiety-producing. Those are the conditions under which a future can show up, and if [the] OD practitioner is clear enough and can hold their own ground without being aggressive or controlling, then people are longing for somebody to open up new space for them.

Seth Resler:                 You actually talked about how technology is getting in the way of these conversations.

Peter Block:                Technology’s all about transaction time. That’s all it is. It’s sacrificing senses for transaction time. [With] Blackberry email I can get my messages faster. I can respond faster, but there’s nothing going on there. I can now email my kids in an instant, [but] that doesn’t mean I have anything to say to them. So, it almost makes depth, intimacy, relatedness more difficult because we think technology is connectedness. It’s the great illusion. Just because I can find you faster, doesn’t mean we’ve fallen in love or [are] any more connected or any more trusting. So, if we say relationships are about trust or connectedness, the technology doesn’t help that. It just creates the illusion. The fact that I can talk to my friends in South Africa on Skype and see their faces is quite amazing, but doesn’t have anything to do with what we talk about. And so, frequency of contact doesn’t create relatedness. Now, it’s nice. I like it. I’m an early adopter. I got wires [coming] out of all my orifices, but we’re so romanticized we substitute it for content.

Seth Resler:                 You’ve said that you have seen no evidence of progress.

Peter Block:                Nothing’s more compelling to me as progress—yes.

Seth Resler:                 So, tell me a little bit more about what you mean by that.

Peter Block:                Well, what’s progress? Now, we may be richer as a nation. The market may be higher, but people are more afraid of their bosses than they’ve ever been. People are more afraid of taking vacations. People are working more hours, and now they’re available 24/7.

Peter Block
Peter Block speaking at the 2010 Organizational Development Summit

And so, if you go to a workshop, which is supposed to be for learning, and ask people, “Would you please turn in your Blackberries and your phones?” Thirty or 40 percent will say “No!” They’ll laugh, but they feel that if they lose touch with that phone, they’re so vulnerable. So, that doesn’t feel like human progress to me. It’s technological progress.

And everybody uses medicine as the example. Well, now, somebody in the hinterlands of Kansas can get medical advice and—I know, but that’s not how we’re living. So, if progress is human progress, relationship progress, if it’s insight, if it’s maturity, [then] are we raising our children better than we used to? Are our streets safer than they used to be? Are we taking care of the elderly and loving them any better? NO!

We’re warehousing them. We’ve outsourced the raising of a child. The street is more uncomfortable. The local economy and the neighborhood stores have gone—they’re dead. So, on what measure do I say we’re making progress? Now, I don’t have a big thing about it. I just don’t like pretending.

Seth Resler:                 What would you like to see happen in the world?

Peter Block:                Well, I’d like to see less suffering. I would like to see my neighborhood have a real economy with local businesses that keep the dollars within walking distance. I’d like my children to walk safely wherever they want to go. I’d like the neighbors to help me raise my children and not be so dependent on the schools. I’d like us to choose health instead of spending all this money on disease. I want to die of natural causes. Yeah. That’s the world that I’m writing about. That’s the world that’s possible.

In the context of organization development, what we’re trying to do is humanize systems. The systems of consistency and control and

Peter Block
Peter Block accepting Linkage's Lifetime Achievement Award.

 predictability steal our humanity. Our schools are so performance-minded – No Child Left Behind – that they’re stealing the humanity of my children. And they’re high-performance, and if they drop out of school, they’re scarred. School doesn’t work for about 40 percent of our children. It doesn’t work, so why scar them because we don’t have a way of helping them learn the way they want to learn?

So, these are all things you give your life to, and for OD people it’s this context that will help restore humanity. And it turns out that a more human workplace performs better. So, it tells me that most places are losing their humanity, performing more poorly. So, what’s to celebrate about that? And I get it because systems would rather have control than performance.

Seth Resler:                 You talked about the loneliness that people face.

Peter Block:                Exactly that’s what conferences are for – to help us overcome loneliness. It’s just a shame we have to put up with lectures and keynotes and presentations to do that.

Seth Resler:                 Peter Block, thank you so much for taking some time to sit down with us.  I appreciate it.

Peter Block:                Thanks.  Thanks for your questions and for your caring.

Seth Resler:                 Thank you!

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