An Everyone Culture. Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization.

This book has a radically simple premise: an organization is only as healthy as its people. The best way for any company to realize its full potential is to help its people reach theirs. If this sounds like the promise of a 70s era self-realization seminar, that’s because both promise that humans have a lot more capacity for growth and improvement. Here, Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey and their team connect the very obvious dots between personal and organizational success.

The authors are not wanna-be gurus, nor are they practitioners. They are dyed-in-the-wool academics, and they go out of their way to make their case methodically and irrefutably. They use convincing examples to demonstrate that shared commitments to deep personal growth, coupled with practices of radical transparency, really are good for business.

“We have devoted our professional lives to the study and advancement of adult-development theory,” they state, “which illuminates the gradual evolution of people’s meaning-making systems and psychological capabilities. Developmental practitioners have known for years how to provide expert support to individuals on a one-to-one basis. However, little attention has been given to applying these principles and methods to an entire organization.”

So, Kegan and Lahey et al give the idea a lot of attention, and they structure their enthusiasm with clear academic discipline. They do the research. They show examples. They explain relevant science. They compile summaries. And, they make a really compelling case for personal growth as a best company strategy.


A big takeaway from the book is that the challenges presented by a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous demand “discontinuous departures” from standard practices. “They are not slight tweaks or adjustments, or reforms to standard practice; rather, they’re qualitative departures.”


They studied three companies, each sharing “deep assumptions that run through all DDOs: assumptions about the possibility and value of growing in adulthood, ways of structuring people’s growth directly in their work, ways of helping people get the most out of giving and receiving feedback and coaching, ways of making people development and business development all one thing.”

It’s interesting to note that of the companies – a real estate company, a financial services firm and a software development company – only one knew of the authors and their concept of a deliberately development organization before being contacted by them. The others had found “an ingenious and intuitively practical grasp of what it might mean to craft an organizational culture more likely to accelerate the development of personal mind sets” entirely on their own.

The book is structured to use. In-depth case studies of the three companies provide tangible illustration and talking points. The practices that these very successful companies have developed to nurture their deliberately developmental cultures are clearly outlined.

The authors make great use of language, adding some new words and constructs to the lexicon. For example, we are living, according to them, in an increasingly “VUCA” world. That is, one that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. I do find “DDO” to be easy to use, as it is perfectly descriptive. And “backhand” is a really graceful way to name your learning edges. But the name that I think I’m going to use a lot is “discontinuous departures”, which the researchers describe as “Departures from familiar, business as usual principles, practices and structures. By ‘discontinuous’ we mean that they are not slight tweaks or adjustments, or reforms to standard practice; rather, they’re qualitative departures.”

Best of all, the book is also structured to inspire. While cynics might bemoan the imagined costs of such personal attention, the authors, the careful academics, make a clear case that the success shared by all three of these exemplary companies wasn’t despite the attention they give to personal development, but because of it.

The authors focus only on the benefits to business companies of supporting the personal development of its people. But I’m left wondering what similar permission and support would mean to those who work in service organizations, NGOs, and, especially, governments. For it seems that the Birkenstock-clad group leaders of the 70s were very right about one thing; human potential is our biggest potential. And, as the authors note: Taken together, the cumulative data supports the proposition that for those at a higher level of mental complexity, a complex world is more manageable.”

From the book:

“A self-transforming mind is aware that it lives in time and the world is in motion. It is aware that what might make sense today may not make as much sense tomorrow.”



“But when we talk about a DD, we use the term development very differently. We mean, not the development of a career, but the development of the person having the career. We aren’t first talking about business becoming bigger, but becoming a better version of itself. Businesses expand and careers flourish within a DDO, but these changes are consequences of the kind of development we’re talking about, not the development itself.”



“A deliberately developmental approach to more fully realizing organizational potential is not a matter of only ‘being better to our people’ – providing more generous employee benefits, for example, or supporting so-called work-life balance. It is not about doing something familiar a great deal harder, a great deal longer, or great deal more. Similarly, an interest in environmental sustainability, contributions to the local community, worker ownership, and other contemporary forms of conscious capitalism are inspiring and commendable, but they do not ensure that a company is doing anything different to develop its people.”



“DDOs consciously stir things up, troubling the waters; ordinary organizations continuously try to calm things down, instituting repeatable routines. Ordinary organizations don’t move you to a new role as soon as you’ve mastered the old one; instead, they commend you for having mastered it and call you reliable and dependable, appreciating the way that you can be counted on now to keep performing the role indefinitely.”



“For more than a generation, organizational theorist Chris Argyris (and those who have been influenced by him) has been calling for, in our terminology, a new capacity of mind. This new mind must have the ability to author a view of how the organization should run and have the courage to hold steadfastly to that view. But more, the new mind also must be able to step outside its own ideology or framework, observe the framework’s limitations or defects, and author a more comprehensive view – a view it will hold with sufficient tentativeness that it may discover its limitations as well.”


An Everyone Culture
Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization
Robert Keegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey
Harvard Business Review Press
2016, 336 pages

Available from Amazon.


Whitepaper Summary: The Deliberately Developmental Organization 

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