Ideas that will shake you: Three cheers for the DDOs

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Written by Nigel Paine on 3 February 2021

What is a DDO? And, indeed, that is a fair question! A DDO is a deliberately developmental organisation. The term was coined by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey in their recent, groundbreaking book called 'An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization'.

Kegan is a fascinating individual. He taught at Harvard University for over 40 years until his retirement in 2016. During the 70s he was one of the first psychologists to disagree with the prevailing worldview that human development stopped at the age of 18.

He saw it as a lifelong process of making meaning and understanding the environment. He also challenged the norm in psychology that focussed only on the individual, in favour of studying the environment and the prevailing culture and their role in shaping the individual.

There was a similar prevailing assumption about the human brain which was also a challenge in the 70s: that once developed, the brain was incapable of further development. Your IQ and your intellectual capability were locked in by the age of 18 and you had to live with that. 

The truth is that in an age of volatility and uncertainty, organisations need those more critical and creative individuals. Those who never challenges and always do what they are told, have increasingly limited roles

Kegan’s theory of human psychology depends on the idea that the brain is plastic and capable of growth and development throughout life. Both these theories are groundbreaking and good news if you are in the business of developing adults.

Kegan’s three development stages for adults, like the neuroscientists' concept of neuroplasticity, were initially ridiculed and ignored, but later moved into the mainstream. Everyone can take on challenges and embrace new opportunities. 

Kegan's three developmental stages for adults are:

  • the socialised mind, where you learn to adopt the values of those around you and become an active member of your community by accepting the way it works and contributing to its success. 
  • Then, there is the self-authoring mind. The process of development that begins in your 20s. Here, you actively enhance, help build and reinforce the culture in which you live. These people are the dream team members dedicated to their group, but capable of critical evaluation and, therefore, have the capacity to move on and see new opportunities. 
  • The third and final stage is the self-transforming mind – only a few percent of adults get to this stage. These people are not satisfied with the system that they move into. They question, they challenge, they reform, and possibly, they transform. This group constantly interrogates its own internal system of beliefs. These people can be perceived as difficult and challenging; yet they build the future because, in the words of the Apple advert: they 'Think Different'. They either pose a threat or an inspiration to those who are reluctant to challenge the status quo. 

The truth is that in an age of volatility and uncertainty, organisations need those more critical and creative individuals. Those who never challenge and always do what they are told, have increasingly limited roles. This is why Kegan has shifted his focus onto organisations: who else can build enquiry, challenge and inspiration?

What they need to do is help their people learn and grow and think for themselves. To do that you need to create safe spaces to learn, and admit that, at some level, you are inadequate. This is why trust is so important.

The inspiring purpose of any organisation and its leaders, in Kegan’s and Lahey’s eyes, is to build as many opportunities as possible to help people develop and flourish in order to become bigger and better version of themselves. Organisations that explicitly set out to do this are Kegan’s deliberately developmental organisations.

And they are very special and point the way forward for all of us.

Of course, all of this is sensational news if you work in an area which focuses on the development of adults: step forward learning and development! And bring on the DDOs.


About the author

Nigel Paine is a change-focused leader with a unique grasp of media, learning and development in the public, private and academic sectors.

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