Creating Sustainability: Interview With Jon Biemer, Organizational Development Consultant

You call your business “Creating Sustainability.” What does this entail?Jon Biemer

I provide Organizational Development consulting to help organizations and their people achieve and surpass their objectives. I emphasize “creating” because going beyond business as usual taps into unrealized potential. I embrace multiple meanings of “sustainability,” ranging from long-term survival of a business to eco-friendliness. I prefer working with organizations that directly serve the greater good.

Toward those ends, my services include: facilitating to sort out complex situations, learning from past experiences and forging a way forward, visioning or goal setting, and informal coaching.

One thing that differentiates my consulting is the Process-Oriented Psychology tools I bring to my practice.

What is your definition of Organization Development and Process-oriented Psychology?

Organizational Development is largely about systems intervention. Every organization is a system that tends to want to continue in its current trajectory. Organizational Development applies interventions that will alter that path. One of my favorite publications in this regard is an article by Donella Meadows entitled, “Places to Intervene in a System.” Changing the number of people applied to a task ranks low as an effective intervention. Mid-list are feedback loops. At the top of the list is changing how people think.

Process-Oriented Psychology (often called Process Work) uses the qualities and behavior of the organization to suggest what interventions would be useful. Process Work principles are easy to understand, but the terminology (in italics) is a bit arcane: Deep Democracy honors the minority and disruptive voices in a conversation. Channels recognizes the different ways we access information, including sight, sound and even spirit. Ghosts and Field refer to unrecognized influences in a process. Rank acknowledges different types of power relationships, only some of which are structural. Dreamland and Essence access our deeper wisdom.

How do you apply these principles in your practice?

I facilitate a structured conversation at the outset of many consulting engagements. Each person in the room answers three questions, usually variations on “Why are you here?” “What works?” and “What could be better?” Then I facilitate a conversation about what we heard.

This approach accomplishes the Organizational Development step of assessment using Deep Democracy to surface information in a way that can be understood by all involved. It is similar to an Organizational Development technique called Appreciative Inquiry, except that it allows negative views.

With the information gained from this opening retreat, and my own observations about unseen influences (including ghosts, rank and field), I work with the leadership team to plan appropriate follow-on interventions.

Can you share a success story and a failure story and the lessons you learned from them?

In one situation, the founder/executive director of an organization had a personal crisis and literally left town. That left the Board in limbo, not knowing what to do. My consulting team easily identified the absent source of dynamism as a significant ghost. A Board member found the executive director and asked her to formally resign. That was difficult. But it released the Board to take immediate action (with our facilitation), recruit new working board members (with our guidelines), and create an advisory committee. The consulting relationship lasted three months. The organization is well on its way to fulfilling a robust vision.

In another long-standing organization, the Board experienced conflict whenever it tried to influence the direction of its flagship program. It took two years to discern the underlying driver: The program team had become self-sufficient when the Board had atrophied to the point of non-functionality. By the time Board was reconstituted (with my leadership), the program team could not relinquish control even though grant money had dried up. The hard-times survival story — an essence phenomenon — could not be explained or facilitated away. The Board eventually (after I left) shut down the program and put the organization in hibernation, pending revitalized leadership and direction.

This latter experience gives me a little humility. A consultant or change-agent cannot always work a miracle.

What is your upcoming book about?

In Healing Our Planet: How Handprints Create Sustainability, I introduce the concept of the Handprint as a way to think about being environmentally proactive. I show how, despite the disturbing news about global warming and deregulation, we have taken huge steps toward being more sustainable. Examples include organic farming, wind and solar energy, international treaties protecting the environment, and planting billions of trees.

I think of my book, its publication and any speaking I do as an intervention in itself. My goal is to inspire 100,000 people to take proactive action in service of the environment. I offer the Handprint as a positive-feedback strategy. I provide Handprint Opportunities that respect a wide range of personal circumstances and preferences. And — this is edgy but maybe critical — I suggest that bringing spirit to sustainability will motivate us. Love is more compelling than logic.