Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization

What if a company did everything in its power to create a culture in which everyone—not just select high-potentials—could overcome their own internal barriers to change and use errors and vulnerabilities as prime opportunities for personal and professional growth?

That’s the radical premise explored in An Everyone Culture (Harvard Business Review Press, 2016) by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, in which the authors show how deliberately developmental organizations (DDOs) are different from other businesses.

When the authors refer to DDOs as having an “everyone culture,” they don’t simply mean that everyone (and not only a chosen few) gets developmental support. They also mean that the culture supports and challenges employees wherever they are in their developmental journey.

The book examines areas where DDOs are particularly adept in their quest to build a sustained development culture, including these five qualities:

An organization’s practices help externalize struggles that are interior. At each of the companies the authors studied, the business’s approach provides access to what the authors call an interior life. That’s critical, the authors write, because when the routine assumptions of the business world do not allow people to articulate and examine their limitations, there’s little hope of overcoming them.

Practices connect the work of the business to how employees work on themselves. DDOs provide tangible ways for people to improve as the business grows. Rather than providing separate developmental activities (such as external coaching or sending high-potential employees to an executive MBA program), DDOs give people opportunities to work on improving themselves as part of meeting their job requirements.

Practices move employees from focusing on outcomes to focusing on the processes that generate the outcomes. Rather than orienting feedback toward correcting behavior, DDOs shift the focus to the mindsets that produce the behaviors. In other words, DDOs are less concerned with the final score in any one game and more concerned with improving the way the game is played.

Language is a practice, and it creates new tools for a new paradigm. DDOs are cultures of dialogue. You’ll find fewer PowerPoint slides and one-way presentations in meetings in these organizations. To outsiders, this may make discussions sound peculiar or even cultish, but developing its own language of practices releases a unique power within an organization.

Systemic stretch involves everyone, every day, across the organization. DDOs get traction from their practices because the organization is saturated with them. Practices are consistently implemented at multiple scales of time and community. Everyone in the culture is being pulled by challenges that require them to acknowledge and strive to overcome the assumptions that limit them. 

“An optimally developmental work culture not only does an especially good job of holding on, letting go, or sticking around, but also does an especially good job of all three—and it does this not only for people who occupy one particular place in development but also for those who occupy various positions in the entire trajectory of adult development,” the authors write. 

Kegan is the Meehan Professor of Adult Learning and Professional Development at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. Lahey is also a professor in Harvard’s School of Education and founding principal of Minds at Work, a leadership-learning professional services firm. 


Originally posted on the SHRM Book Blog.



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