This is an introduction to Deliberately Developmental Organizations and an outline of their foundational premises. I want to sketch a map of the territory so that we can explore the ideas, assumptions, and examples in more detail later.

Globally and locally we are facing more complexity than ever before. This is true for individuals and, perhaps more important, true for organizations: businesses, non-profits, and government institutions. We need more people and organizations able to deal with this increasing complexity.

Human development builds the capacity to operate in complexity. Deliberately Developmental Organizations (DDOs) provide the ideal environment for this because they deliberately integrate human development into how they operate; yet not many people know about DDOs much less how to build them. Recently in their book An Everyone Culture Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey write about DDOs and their focus on human development. The book features three DDOs including The Decurion Corporation, which I have been a part of for the last ten years.

What does “human development” mean?

Human development, for both individuals and groups, is the response to the inexorable evolutionary impulse that is pulling us to greater and greater stages of capacity to deal with complexity, greater capacities to be, to think, and to act.

We know from the last fifty years of research how people develop during the course of their lifetime. Many researchers have proposed models of development: Graves, Erikson, Jung, Piaget, Kohlberg , Fowler, Torbert, Cook-Greuter, Kegan, to name a few. Each model focuses on different aspects of adult human development, yet they all agree on the central phenomena:

  • People develop vertically through a series of developmental stages characterized by a distinct set of beliefs, assumptions, and values. ‘Vertical development’ means shifting and evolving our mindsets, behaviors, worldviews, and expanding our capacities to engage with more complexity.
  • Each subsequent stage includes more scope, more complexity, and more freedom.
  • Each stage includes and transcends the prior stages.
  • ‘Horizontal development’ develops skills and capabilities within a stage.

Organizations develop much as people do: they move through successive stages of development by increasing their capacity to be with greater complexity, deepen their understanding, and act more wisely. They also expand their capabilities within a given stage while embedding them in their structures, processes, and practices; these in turn help the organization develop further.

A DDO moves through at least three successive distinct stages identified by its focus on the horizontal and vertical development of:

  • its people.
  • groups (communities) within the organization.
  • the organization itself.
  • the larger interconnected systems in which the DDO participates (i.e., system-wide development and evolution).

One might think that people development in an organization will lead to the vertical development of the organization itself (i.e. evolution of the DDO to its next stage). I have not found this to be reliably true. The vertical development of an organization requires methods, practices, and structures that are different from those used for individual development. Similarly, for a DDO to support transformation of the larger systems requires understanding, methods, practices, and structures that are different from those used for the organization’s development.

Organizational models such as Teal organizations, Holacracy, and Conscious Capitalism are currently generating a lot of buzz. They address some of the limitations of traditional organizational designs but do not incorporate an evolutionary perspective. These models could realize a deeper potential by integrating horizontal and, especially, vertical development.

The potential offered by DDOs is enormous. The experience of being in a DDO is dramatically different and their desired results are better. A developing organization creates a powerful pull for everyone in it; that changes lives! I have witnessed businesses go through evolutionary leaps and people becoming more autonomous, powerful, and free. I believe that by explicitly hooking organizations up to the evolutionary power of human development allows us to development more and more of what is possible.

Too few people experience or even know about development in an organization. I want to be part of an ongoing and expanding conversation about DDOs that ultimately builds a global network of influence. Right now I know of a handful of DDOs. I dream of a world where there are millions