The Rise of the Gifted Amateur

Posted: August 31, 2013 by Ian Gee in Change, Human Resources, Leadership, OD, People, Uncategorized

reality tv

Well here I am back blogging after the summer break.  In this blog I want to explore the rise and celebration of amateurism in all areas of public, business and private life and the impact I think this is having on the professional practice of OD.

For the past year or so I have been speaking at conferences and events around the world about how the nature of change is changing and the implications of this for the successful practice of OD.  This thinking started after I had read a number of research reports that showed that around 70% of all change and OD initiatives fail. I started to wonder why this was the case and how a trade or profession could continue to sustain itself, with any credibility, with a 70% failure rate.

After a lot of thinking and a bit of research I came up with the idea that maybe the nature of change itself has changed and the models, principles and practices we have been using have not.  In essence, the way we practice OD has not caught up with how people and organisations have changed their constructs about change and their expectations as to how it is led and managed.

I identified a number of issues that I believe are driving the change in change.  These included:

  • An increasingly multi generational workplace with greater focus on and discussion about the ‘the generations”, (i.e. Boomers, Gen X, Y…)
  • Social Media creating new ‘centres of gravity’ and points of reference
  • An explicit desire for scrutiny and transparency
  • Instant judgement, supported and driven by mass communication and 24 hour media
  • New relationships to ‘time and space’ through living in a 24/7/365 connected world
  • Popular culture

I want to explore the last issue ‘popular culture’ in a bit more depth, as I believe this is at the heart of the change and the major reasons we are embracing amateurism at the expense of professionalism.

Mass media exposes us to huge amounts of reality TV programmes, all of which are focused on personal, community and even organisational change.   I did a quick trawl of the Internet and came up with examples of just a few of the UK programmes that have this focus.  See the list below.  TV companies franchise the majority of these around the world and so I am sure that wherever you live or are reading this, you will have similar programmes coming into your living room!

The programmes, regardless of the category I have put them in, follow a similar story arc.  An individual or group are stuck in some pattern of behaviour, way of working, living or being that is not enabling them to achieve what they want to do.  In some cases this is very specific (e.g. Fairy Job Mother, How Clean is your House, Naked Office etc.)  In others the focus is on the search for fame as a way of escaping from poor circumstances or a troubled life (e.g. X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, Master Chef – most candidates have a sob story, which by winning the contest, they hope to ‘heal’!)  As the programme unfolds there is usually an initial intervention that the participant(s) are grateful for and that seems to make a difference.  Then there is a period of crisis when things fall apart and finally a further intervention that does the trick.  We leave the ‘subject(s)’ of the programme basking in the warm glow of the potential of their new life.  Most of the programmes take an hour and very rarely, if ever, do we see a follow up exploring what happened next.  We are left wondering if the change ‘stuck’ and if people made the most of the opportunities the programme gave them.

What is very interesting to me is that in most cases the people who we see designing and leading the interventions (the televisual OD person!) are amateurs.  They are not professional psychologists, OD or HR people.  They are gifted amateurs who have developed a wealth of skill through experience.  They have not had their experience professionalised or codified through traditional academic study.  It could be argued that this continues the spirit of people like Harvey Jackins and his work on ‘Revaluation Co-counselling’ or Carl Rogers ‘On Becoming a Person’.  In many of these shows, professionals are shown to have singularly failed to make a difference in the lives of the people or the community who are taking part in the programme. The underlying message is, it takes an amateur to make a difference.

What, of course, we don’t see during the programme is the team of ‘behind the scenes’ professionals and experts who provide insight and advice to the programme’s presenter.   With the speed at which credits for TV programmes roll these days it is even difficult to see if any professionals were involved, unless you have interactive TV and can use the pause button!

My belief is that this has led people to believe that change, whether it be personal or organisational, follows a predictable path, is easy and can happen quickly in a clean and clear manner.  And you don’t need professional skills to help enable or support it.

A few weeks ago I was listening to a BBC Radio 4 programme “The Morale Maze” ( which bills itself as “Combative, provocative and engaging live debate examining the moral issues behind one of the week’s news stories” I happened to hear an episode that was exploring the UK governments discussions about internet filters to make access to adult content a matter of personal choice.  The programme had an expert panel of lawmakers; academics etc., and they then called ‘witnesses’ who in this case were from ‘moral majority’ and libertarian type groups, the adult film industry and religious groups.  What surprised me the most about what I heard, was that the majority of adult content people are viewing over the Internet is amateur, uploaded by the individuals ‘staring’ in it.   This move to amateur adult and mainly free content has had a direct impact on the professional side of the trade.  Much of the professional adult industry is now in economic difficulty, with film studios closing down and professional adult artists finding it difficult to get work.  So yet again the public seem to be more interested in the world of the amateur, rather than that of the professional.  They are voting with their mouses!

I think people find amateurism, in both the adult industry and OD and change, to be more connected to them and their lives and not professionalised and distanced.  In the case of the adult industry I think people are looking for others ‘like themselves’ as opposed to those augmented beauties that look inauthentic, unreal and, what’s more, unattainable.  In the world of OD and change management, I think people are looking for something similar.  Something that feels like them; co- created, with not just a surface veneer of authenticity, but a depth of authenticity that drives and stimulates their trust and engagement.

So much of our past and current OD has paid lip service to co-creation and engagement. When reviewing the outcomes of both large and small scale change initiatives, many of the people I have spoken with tell me they feel like the change was ‘done to them’ with engagement and co-creation being little more than a sham.  They feel they had no real opportunity to contribute, influence the outcomes and make a positive difference.  This is often despite the best intentions and efforts of those involved in leading and supporting the change.  I cannot help but believe that this is what lies at the heart of the 70% failure rate for todays OD and change initiatives.

So where does this leave the professional practice of OD?    Like the rest of our HR community, OD has sought to raise standards and enhance its professional standing and status and then advertise this to all who will listen. The belief being that if we professionalise we will be taken seriously, get good and interesting work and make a positive contribution to organisational health.  Given that either consciously or unconsciously the general public think amateurs are better placed to carry out our work, I think we may be in trouble!  If we are to get our success rate higher than 30% I think it is time for radical change in the way we practice OD.  We need to

  • wear our professionalism lightly rather than publically flaunting it,
  • study where the public take their models of change from, and
  • see what we need to do to authentically incorporate this into to our consultancy and intervention design practice.

I am not talking about dumbing down the practice of OD.  What I am talking about is best encapsulated in a story I heard from Yoland Wadsworth in the early 90’s (  Yoland is a truly inspiring social scientist and practitioner of action research.  She told me a story about how, when she had just finished her PhD, she was involved in an action research project into the lives of an Aboriginal community in Australia.  She said she did everything by the book, putting into practice all she had learned, but found it almost impossible to get people to talk and engage with her.  After a very frustrating period of time, one of the elder women of the community came to talk to her.  The conversation went along the lines of ‘Yoland, you are a good, clever and smart person and we like you a lot.  However, unless you can show that your liberation is somehow connected to our liberation, no one will come and work with you’.  For me this sums up what wearing our professionalism lightly looks like and finding and celebrating our inner amateur.

Let me know what you think. I will be really interested to see what you have to say.   I also bet this is the first time you will have seen a discussion about the future direction of OD and a crisis in the adult film industry!

  1. Mika Koskinen says:

    These discussions(might even call them discurse when accelerating) are relevant for OD to work properly. If one is to get free hands on designing an organisation, it is bound to become functionally organized (not allways optimal). Take the example of acute trauma work studied after the scholl shootings. I became apparent, that laymen outdid the professionals 6-0 in giving first hand “debriefing and -fusing) to those involved. The professionalism in us jeopardizes an open minded approach to entities and distords the dialog while taken an “upper hand” on the situation instead of trying to listen and understand. Your suggestions to take these change initiatives seriously are justified.

    • Elspeth says:

      The comparisons are indeed innovative and thought provoking.

      I would ask you to add another reason for the 70% failure rate.
      Contracts issued to consultants and deliverables demanded from internals are dependant upon fast delivery and aimed at the low hang fruits. By now the phrase will be out of date, but quick wins to prove the project is worth financing is the first and sometimes the only aim. The professionals wonder why the workforce will not work with them – probably lack of trust is based on past experience of what the boss wants is delivered, but wrapped in a sugar coating of consultation.
      This is also what the markets and politicians demand – quick wins and short-termism.

      It comes back to the television producers wining products, the instant wins of, house makeovers, diets and finding your ideal country house within the one hour viewing slot.
      This is the world that HR and OD work in so they should be honest to the workforce about how their input will be viewed and used while trying to persuade the bosses that sometimes the medium to longer term goals can be effective if they are interested in maintaining a motivated work place.

      HR professionals are too wedded to setting the policies,and bonus structures and not willing or able to come to the help of managers and staff when needed. Hence they can be viewed as an expensive on cost with few deliverables, but needed for legal reasons. It is again about a change of emphasis by HR to help both the board and staff as a conduit rather than a legal mouth piece.

      May be HR and OD professionals should consider a course in influencing skills as most are dedicated but misunderstood.

    • Nisha Ninan says:

      Hi Ian, Thanks for sharing..very real issues. While there is a crying need for professional OD, bringing it down to real life issues at the workplace is where there is a struggle. OD is often seen as esoteric, distant from reality and not in touch with business crisis. Preaching from any pedestal whether in the workplace or at church will do little to get true engagement and change ! Connecting with the audience through a step by step journey which does not scare people on the gravity and enormity of change could be one way forward. The modern world needs the right packaging to embrace OD, to make it reachable to the common man.

  2. Alan Arnett says:

    Ian. Interesting piece. I’m not sure the TV culture impacts organisation directly. I think that’s more a question of too many channel hours to fill so lots more space.

    In terms of why 70% of programmes fail, that’s a well touted figure but I’m never clear how up to date that is. I think a lot do fail, but that’s because many of them start out with unrealistic aspirations, whether they use professionals or amateurs. I’ve certainly come across ‘failures’ with very well credentialed OD practitioners, simply because they couldn’t flex themselves to fit the client situation.

    I think the world in general doesn’t trust ‘professionals’ in almost any field any more – consultants, doctors, politicians, lawyers, teachers …

    We used to believe that academic qualifications provided some kind of special ability, but now we all seem to hear is about unintended consequences and ‘its not our fault’ – in other words, we never said we were infallible, but we were happy for you to believe that.

    Frankly I think too many practitioners in many fields rely too much on qualifications and trying to tell leaders what they ought to be doing, instead of both having the qualifications and being able to help people effectively, as true partners, not advisors.

    The biggest shift in the world in the past 20 years has been our connectivity and information flows, which increases complexity and speed. People are dealing with more uncertain and confusing contexts (VUCA) and don’t feel able to stop and take a long time to reflect.

    I agree that we need to up our game to be more relevant in this changing world, including proving we are better by our impact and results, not by waving our certificates around.

    Thanks however for a post which doesn’t just rant about lack of qualifications in the market 😉

  3. Wouke Lam says:

    When you describe that during a TV programme we don’t see the team of ‘behind the scenes’ professionals and experts and that this has led people to believe that you don’t need professional skills to help enable or support change, I see a strong parallel with organisations having made ‘librarians’ redundant as they believed the search engines would make up for their professionalism. Without realising that the ‘search engine’ corporations (like Google etc.) have a lot of experts working for them to ensure their search engines deliver high quality results, amongst which many with data/information management skills. That’s why I guess around 70% of all searches on Intranet sites fail… 😉

  4. Ian, as usual you have hit on a very important subject for all organisations to consider. Sceptics who want to prove that change is not possible often quote the 70% statistic irrespective of whether it is because of amateurs or professionals.

    Linking to your article I see people, experts and amateurs, almost demanding the participants in such shows to ‘do it their way’. I believe that this is the nub of the problem that leads to failure in change.

    I am reminded of my first introduction to OD in the 1980s. I was working as an internal consultant bringing about change within a police service in the UK when it was decided by government to introduce the concept known as ‘new public management’. In other words, bringing in business practices to a public sector organisation.

    I was trained by psychologists, had my MBA and went into the task with great enthusiasm. The Tavistock Institute, Peter Cockman and Bill Evans had also trained me in how to work as a customer-focussed consultant.

    We had a lot of successes and many failures. When reflecting on these assignments some 20 years later over a beer with my mentor and good friend Patrick Thomas we realised how arrogant we were at that important time of change.

    This seemed strange because we used all the niceties and tried to be customer-focussed. Yet we realised later that we did not go at a pace that others could cope with, we started where we thought they should start, and so on. We used a lot of persuasion, that most insidious form of power, and did not let them voice their concerns in a way that we would really listen. We knew what was good for them!

    If I now race forward to a current assignment that I am on with an international company it is so very different. The difference is not the concerns of the MDs, these will forever be driven by desperation for quick results and high impact on the finances, but more the pace of change in the business environment and the complexity of being in a global business world.

    How do I help six MDs from different countries, with different business imperatives and different language/culture work together as one regional entity? They feel threatened, controlled, losing power, etc. and yet still need to deliver in their geographical area.

    As a professional I can use the experience dating back to the 1980s and start from a very different point. Let the MDs discuss and make decisions in processes that help them to understand the implications of those decisions, and so on.

    Nothing stops amateurs from using similar processes. I believe that the major and crucial difference is professionals ‘live it’ whilst amateurs ‘do it’. The biology of experience cannot be found in books or brought from a university. Feeling the ‘rocks’ ahead before they show up on the chart, for example. Professionals would do well to harness this and help clients understand the difference.

    This links back to your TV programmes. The environment today is of participants used to seeing quick fixes and ‘A’ list status with little or no perceived effort and expect the same. If they believe that a person can give them this, then they will work with them, irrespective of their status. On the other hand, those who do have talent and have worked hard to develop it are different, I suggest. They go for the more experienced mentor who has ‘lived it’. Compare the one-hit wonders to those who continue for years and the difference is very clear.

    The challenge is finding ways to help organisations understand this difference and the long-term benefits for them. Experience does not come cheap, yet amateurism can be much more expensive in the end.

  5. Dan Currie says:

    Though-provoking piece!

    I think there has been a major societal shift away from ‘experts’ doing things to people. This has been driven by greater individualism, with Boomers leading the charge. In addition there is a pervasive sense that experts in many fields have too often abused their powers. They are increasingly being exposed/held accountable, and the internet has accelerated this process. Over time I think experts are slowly getting more facilitative, and their customers are getting better at using experts to get what they really need without being abused.

    This poses a real challenge to OD practitioners, who are often called in by managers explicitly to use their expertise to do things to unwilling staff. So I think that more than ever the role of effective OD practitioners begins with a challenge to managers to allow staff to exercise real power in the process.

  6. mrhibbert says:

    Ian, many interesting thoughts, thankyou – the one that really chimes with my experience (and study) is the paragraph beginning “So much of our past and current OD has paid lip service to co-creation and engagement.” So let’s pause there and ask: “why?” I’d argue it’s because it had to *in the given organisational circumstances*.

    As HR / OD / comms / engagement pros, I’m sure we’ve all found ourselves playing catch-up to decision processes among executive directors that were opaque, deaf to internal stakeholders and largely “done” before wider circuits of the organisation have been involved. In those circumstances we can attempt to “do” engagement around the finished decision, either more or less painfully aware that the best we can deliver is ersatz engagement, at least until the results of the new configuration can speak for themselves. It can be convenient to focus on executing that duty, while abdicating responsibility for the prior problem and all the demobilisation and failure it causes.

    Recommendation? If / when we’re prepared to get serious about failure rates, the implication is that we need to ‘man up’ and grasp the nettle of these precious executive decision processes, and start demonstrating – to boards, especially – how aspects of them (especially issue identification and issue selling) can and must be delegated out as far into the organisation as possible, through the development of robust employee voice and listening processes within each business line. We will have to make the performance of such work the hallmark of real leadership.

  7. Ian Gee says:

    A few people have had difficulty posting to the site so I have told them I will add in their posts for them. Both Matthew and I like to keep as many of the comments we get in the same place so we can track themes etc. I will do them as separate replies Ian

    Firstly from Pascale:
    I really enjoyed your blog and totally agree about the need not to allow our professionalism to act as a barrier in building rapport with those we are there to learn from as well as lead to further successes. Over the years I have come across too many colleagues who have taken themselves too seriously and projected a very unapproachable image.I would go so far as to say even an air of arrogance and superiority. We not only need to have the knowledge and skills but also the right attitude and behaviour towards our customers to be effective and ambassadors of our profession.
    By Pascale Strudwick

  8. Ian Gee says:

    One from Terrence:

    Ian, Very interesting post. I think you, and Alan, are definitely on to something going on in our society right now.

    Just to reinforce your point about TV programs that deal with change, one of my wife’s favorites right now is “What Not to Wear” where a team of clothes style experts help a subject to let go of the frumpy style she has been used to, and embrace a new style that makes her more attractive.

    One might think that clothing is not much of an issue. But over the ten-year run of this popular show, WNTW has often dealt with serious personal issues where the subjects get angry, get emotional, break down and cry, and struggle with self-image. The decision to change always happens, though there is not always a happy ending.

    The clothing style experts are not helping professionals. They can be empathetic, but they are usually bossy, insulting, and jokey. The show is almost always entertaining, but you often cringe while watching the experts verbally tear apart the poor subjects who cannot adapt to the new “rules” of style fast enough.

    I have often watched this program with my wife and have commented that this show should be required viewing for anyone in the process of studying a helping profession.

    Now back to your blog post. While I like your title “The Rise of the Gifted Amateur,” I do not think that that is what is happening.

    Rather I think what these TV shows are illustrating is that our entire societal culture is shifting to one where we are all change managers. Everyone is a change expert now.

    This could be one of the reasons that OD is struggling right now with finding its niche.
    By Terrence Seamon

  9. Ian Gee says:

    One from Pat:

    I enjoyed reading your latest blog, about amateurism and HR. Hope when you get it printed that the porn analogy is not used as an excuse to show a porno picture! I also wondered about the freak-show aspect of that sort of self- porno stuff, where we are prone to compare our imperfect bodies with even more imperfect bodies and feel better, superior, even. This is where also the external consultant appears, working as a ‘professional’ change agent, to be superior to those muddled and afraid humans s/he is working with, ignoring all the while their own muddled-ness and humanity. I know you do not work like this, for myself and from the testimonials that I have read on your Linked In profile. I am horrified by the number of TV shows that focus on horrible deformities and more and more outrageous behaviour. It’s cheap TV I guess.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s