Pioneers in the Field of Organization Development


Pioneers in the Field of Organization Development

By Nancy Zentis, Ph.D.

The field of Organization Development  (OD) has evolved over the past 70 years as a result of the research conducted by Kurt Lewin, a visionary psychologist and social scientist, who used rigorous research methods to create an approach for planned change.  He is responsible for introducing his research to many early professionals who identified themselves as OD Professionals.  He also introduced us to the concept of T-groups which is now known as group dynamics and team development.

Lewin believed he could use the group dynamic process to overcome “the social restraints imposed on groups by technology, economics, law, and politics.”  He believed the use of “Force Field Analysis” could help people identify the negative forces (pre-set standards) which acted as a barrier to positive forces.

In the early days of Organization Development, most OD professionals learned much about themselves and group dynamics through T-Group experiences.  Lewin was highly respected by his colleagues such as Rensis Likert, Ken Benne, and Eric Trist, who later started the Tavistock Institute.  Prior to this, Lewin had desperately sought to find a way to escape Nazi Germany and wrote to many professors in the US.  In 1932, he was invited to Stanford University as a visiting professor. This was life-saving for Lewin, his wife, and their daughter.

Lewin embraced the USA and passionately set out to strengthen democracy.  He met Alfred Marrow, CEO of Harwood Industries, who was studying for his Ph.D.  They were interested in implementing a participative approach to managing and changing organizations through democratic leadership and employee involvement in decision making which resulted in measurable and sustainable productivity improvement.  Although Lewin passed away in 1947, Marrow continued his commitment to this participatory approach to management.

In 1944, Lewin founded the Research Center for Group Dynamics at M.I.T.  The purpose of the center was to educate research workers in theoretical and applied fields of group dynamics.  Along with Ron Lippitt, the circle of influencers continued to grow and included Douglas McGregor (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Gordan Allport (Harvard University).  Lewin died in 1947, leaving behind many articles, publications, and his life’s work to his followers.

While most believe Lewin is the founder of the term “Organization Development”, there is no evidence that proves he ever used the term.  According to Ron Lippitt, the term was coined by the groups of National Training Labs (NTL) consultants, Robert Blake and Herbert Shepard, and Richard Beckhard and Douglas McGregor.  Most of the pioneers in the field of OD became involved in NTL and were committed to the promotion of T-Groups.  Lewin and his associates conceptualized the T-Group process and created an experimental group called Basic Skills Training (BST) that was to be conducted in Bethel, Maine in the summer of 1947.  Sadly, Lewin passed away before the event.  However, the group still met with Ron Lippitt and others at the helm of the 3-week training event. The purpose of the training was to create a training center for teams to learn how to lead action training-research projects in organizations and requires advanced skills and experience leading projects in order to become qualified to conduct this type of training. During the 1960s, T-groups become a fad in management training with over 20,000 leaders attending NTL workshops.  In addition, a growing number of OD practitioners went through extensive T-Group training as part of their professional development as change agents.

For more detailed information about Kurt Lewin, read Gilmore Crosby’s book on Planned Change, 2021.

Overview of other pioneers in the field of OD:

Eric Trist was a leading figure in the field of Organizational Development. He is also one of the founders of the Tavistock Institute for Social Research in London. In 1949, his organizational research work with Ken Bamsforth, studying work crews in a coal mine, resulted in the famous article, “Some Social and Psychological Consequences of the Longwall Method of Coal Getting.” 

Trist, in collaboration with Fred Emery, developed the socio-technical systems model along with others at the Tavistock Institute. The model analyzes an organization as a socio-technical system, one that interacts with the external environment.  Trist stated every organization is made up of a social system consisting of a network of interpersonal relationships and a technological system consisting of tasks, activities, and tools needed to accomplish the organization’s purpose. The systems are both interrelated and interdependent. Diagnosis determines how these interrelate emphasizing the feedback or lack of it between the various subsystems.

Carl Rogers (1902-1987) was a humanistic psychologist who agreed with the main assumptions of Abraham Maslow’s motivation theories. However, Rogers (1959) added that for a person to “grow”, they need an environment that provides them with genuineness (openness and self-disclosure), acceptance (being seen with unconditional positive regard), and empathy (being listened to and understood). He also saw the value of basic encounter groups as an instrument of self-directed change. He believed that the individual is strengthened by the group experience as he or she learns to trust their experience. He also contributed to the field of behavior psychology with his approach to counseling using techniques such as asking open-end questions, showing empathy, listening, mirroring, reflecting, directing, feedback and guiding.

Rensis Likert was an educator and organizational psychologist known for his research on management styles and as the founder of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.  Dr. Likert’s work includes his research on human behavior within organizations, especially in industrial situations, examining different types of organizations and leadership styles.  He maintained that in order to achieve maximum profitability, good labor relations, and high productivity; organizations need to make optimum use of their human assets.  He contended that the style of organization leadership that makes the best use of its human capacity is highly effective workgroups linked together in an overlapping pattern by other similarly effective groups.

He is known for developing the Systems Four Management Styles, a systems-wide intervention, and the Likert Scale, a measurement device to determine the degree to which an organization approximates the System Four Parameters.  According to his work, organizations have varying types of management styles from autocratic to supportive:

  1. Exploitive-authoritative
  2. Benevolent-authoritative
  3. Consultative
  4. Participative – being the most effective.

Ron Lippitt was an innovator throughout his distinguished career, recognized as one of the founders of group dynamics and “T-groups” (sensitivity groups), the co-founder of the National Training Center for Group Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and again later as a co-founder of the Center on the Research for the Utilization of Scientific Knowledge at the University of Michigan. He worked with Leland Bradford for 10 years helping build and develop National Training Labs (NTL) and was associated with NTL for over 30 years.  He spent 21 years at George Washington University as a faculty and researcher, was the founder of Leadership Resources, Inc., and Project Associates, Inc.  A pioneer in the development of experimental social psychology, Lippitt is renowned for his classic work on the effects of democratic, autocratic, and laissez-faire leadership of small groups, and for his later work on planned change.  His seven-step theory of change is based on the concept of an external agent creating change through careful planning, diagnosis, assess organization’s capacity and organization structure, assess change agent’s motivation and resources and commitment, identify change objectives, the change process, and develop action plans and strategies, explain the role of the change agent, maintain the change through feedback, gradually transfer learning and terminate the role of the change agent.

Edgar Schein is one of the founders of organizational psychology and a pioneer of the study of organizational cultures. In his landmark book Organizational Culture and Leadership, he explains what culture is, what it does, and how it relates to organizational effectiveness. His views on the theory and practice of dialogue believes it is a necessary vehicle for understanding cultures. He believes that dialogue is a central element in models related to organizational transformation.

In his work, Process Consultation, he defined one of the key philosophical underpinnings to organization development. He stated that in process consultation, the consultant and client work as a team, each bringing skills, and information that are needed to diagnose problems, determine next steps, and implement solutions. One of the best descriptions of process consultation is his work, Process Consultation: Its role in Organization Development. He defines this process as, “a set of activities on the part of the consultant that help the client to perceive, understand, and act upon the process events that occur in the client’s environment in order to improve the situation as defined by the client.” (Schein, 1968)

Schein also helped us rethink the practice of career management and development. He described career dynamics as to how careers evolve from the interaction between employees and the company.  He developed the Career Anchors Assessment.

Douglas McGregor was a student of Abraham Maslow. He has contributed much to the development of management and motivational theory, and is best known for his Theory X and Theory Y as presented in his book, ‘The Human Side of Enterprise’ (1960), which proposed that a manager’s individual assumptions about human nature and behavior determined how an individual manages their employees. His revolutionary insights into the nature of leadership and management changed the relationship between managers and employees, paving the way for best practices implemented by some of today’s most successful companies.

Robert Crosby was a T-group participant in 1953 and was mentored by Lewin associates Ken Benne, Leland Bradford, and Ronald Lippitt.  Crosby worked closely with Mr. Wallen from 1968 to 1975, co-leading several National Training Laboratories T-groups during that time.

Robert has a history, dating back to the 1950s, of helping organizations in both the public and private sectors meet or exceed their targeted goals. Crosby & Associates founder Robert P. Crosby crafted his own approach to change and group dynamics by applying lessons he learned as a community organizer to the business challenges of project and change management. As a result of his exposure early in his professional life to some of the founders of organizational development, he uses a transformational approach to emotionally intelligent leadership.

This article is an overview of some of the early pioneers in the field of Organization Development.  There are well over 100 OD practitioners that have contributed to the field of OD.   Stay tuned for future blogs as we explore the contributions of these pioneers. 

About the Author:

Dr. Nancy Zentis is the Chief Strategist and CEO of Institute of Organization Development (IOD), offering online certification programs for those interested in Organization Development, Talent Management, Leadership Development and Executive Coaching, and Professional Development Skills for ongoing learning.  As a OD consultant in the field of OD for many years, she has consulted with many organizations helping clients develop change strategy interventions.  She can be reached at  For more information about our certification programs and short courses, visit our website


Get updates and learn from the best


1 2 3 5 6