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A Most Sacred Fireside: Ed Schein's Final Evening with the OD Community

Updated: Feb 28

On the evening of January 26th, 2023, from the comfort of his home in Palo Alto, California, Ed Schein logged onto his computer one last time to join an Immersive Learning Circle with participants from around the world. Ed was joined by his incredible son, Peter Schein, and a great mix of Organization Development (OD) enthusiasts, emerging and seasoned practitioners, and professors. All of us were eager to absorb Ed’s unrivaled insight and passion, but none of us realized we were about to bear witness to his final fireside chat. Ed passed away peacefully later that evening.

The OD community is just starting to unpack what this means, and through a tapestry of stories across social media, wrap its heart around the end of an era. As part of the healing process, and a way to express gratitude, this article represents this experience through the eyes of those whom Ed gave his attention to that evening. Though nothing could replace actually being there, alongside these accounts I have included my own thoughts as well as videos of the very last gems Ed left behind. This article is not just a window inside of his final public appearance. It is offered as a healing and celebratory space for readers who might wish to share their memories, as well as favorite resources, and lessons they've gained by coming in contact with Ed and his work.

Ed Schein at the OpenSourceOD Immersive Learning Circle, January 26th, 2023

As Ed reminded us all that evening, context matters, which is why I must share our lead up to this beautiful experience. For those who are new to Ed Schein’s work, the event we are about to share is just one of thousands-upon-thousands of intellectual and spiritual convenings that solidify Ed's legacy in the OD community. In other words, this event was a drop in the ocean.

Ed graciously agreed to participate in an Immersive Learning Circle (ILC), in which a group of learners engage in dialogue around a video simulation created from a real-life case study. ILCs are not about learning how to make correct decisions per se, but instead they are about pausing and discussing our assumptions, anxieties, and attachments, which arise in the shared experience. Using his own phraseology, I shared with Ed that an ILC facilitator focuses on creating a psychologically safe environment while also creating a potentially transformative learning experience by asking a specific line of provocative questions (what if, as if, if only, if... then...). These questions prompt group discussion around risks, trade-offs, ego, expertise, bias, ethics, memory, mindfulness and more.

For this purpose, Ed suggested we utilize Case 3 from his book, Humble Consulting, titled “Adventures with Digital Equipment Corporation.” It was one of his favorites, and in his early communications with me, he made it clear that it was one of a couple that he personally learned the most from (the other was the Ciba-Geigy case). Ed and I continued to talk about the learning behind the ILC encounter and this exchange was the gem he left behind for me. The following exchange is just one example of Ed's humility. In our early exchange, I shared:

“We hope to create an experience that puts people in direct contact with the many blind spots and pitfalls that are influenced by our attachments to expertise and ego. During the experience, facilitators guide dialogue around these habits/qualities of mind and encourage the group to practice a form of awareness marked by beginner’s mind and humility, as they navigate a disorienting case together. The dialogic process zooms in on these characteristics using a blend of pauses/reflections and allows the group to self-direct in its own inquiry; for this reason, no two experiences will be the same."

Ed replied saying that the learning approach we were taking seemed similar to that of T-Groups. I then asked him if, at the end of the simulation, he would kindly share his wisdom regarding what his actual lived experience was like. Ed replied:

“It is very tempting to hear stories and advice from someone who has had experience, but when I have given seminars of this sort myself the students always say something along the following lines: ‘yes Ed but that all works for you because you were coming as a professor with experience. As the new OD consultant in an organization I don't have any of those role supports, how am I supposed to do that stuff.’ To which my answer is usually that you can say: ‘I am a new member of the OD staff and I would like to learn what various managers in this organization do, could you help me understand your job and as I learn my job what kind of help you expect from someone like me.’ In other words, you have to be authentic — so what I would do in a given case is not likely to fit any given reality that you might encounter.”

Ed was, and through his writings will continue to be, a fierce leader of a veritable counter-movement against an outmoded management approach that continues to diminish the value of humanity and wreak havoc on the environment. He was a visionary until the very end. As people trickled into the event, we engaged in a free spirited and thought provoking discussion. Looking back, I wish I had enough foresight to scrap the simulation altogether, and simply allow the conversation to flow... to just let Ed do his thing! Before we formally kicked off the evening, we spoke about the importance of community, and Ed wondered aloud about the future of NTL. In this video clip, you will notice how he places the question to the informal community that had emerged naturally as part of OpenSourceOD.

On recounting his experience throughout the evening, Dave Jamieson, president of NTL shared,

"I appreciated how he stood up for his values and thinking a couple times and said things like 'I wouldn’t do that’ or 'I wouldn’t stay in that’.. He stayed present, as he usually does, listened well, and often came back with a question before a statement. He is deeply a master of all that he has taught the rest of us! He also emphasized some of his thinking on the importance of the “relationship.” It makes a difference in how our influence works, and which actions or ‘need to do something’ can be useful. I have been so impressed with his superb functioning as he aged and our last time together was consistent.

In a similar fashion, Gloria Song, who is a professional coach and the co-chair of the upcoming OD Network Summit shared,

What I learned from the evening with Ed was his fervent passion for advancing our field in his unique way. He was determined and tenacious to challenge our collective assumptions and helped us see things differently. Ultimately, he invited us to remember the essence of our work. It is based on love and a genuine helping relationship that transforms people we help. It is not our technique or theory of change, but condition of our character, curiosity, and genuine intention to be in service of our clients. In memory of Ed’s last evening, I am taking his big heart and spirit into my future OD work. As Ed said, “everything we do as a consultant is an intervention,” and I will carry his humble spirit with me.

While Ed can easily be thought of as a founding father of the field, he was also a dedicated, loving father who continued to renew his connection with his son Peter by engaging in creative endeavors, including books they co-authored during his encore career. I have watched this clip multiple times because it is a vision of love I wish to experience one day with my own children when they become adults. Ed shared, "We have a new style, new topics, new interests to write about, and so it is a whole new way of being, again..." Ed's face lit up as he spoke about the renewal he experienced in working with Peter. Seeing things anew, refreshed, and with a beginner's mind is a mainstay of Ed's work.

Jason Hoskins, who was the script-writer and also acted in the simulation, shared,

"I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to attend this webinar with Dr. Schein. Having just read Process Consultation as part of my studies, I was thrilled to be able to sit and listen when he spoke. When I read his book, my biggest takeaways were to be genuinely curious about the organization and its people, and to humbly help whenever it was possible. While listening to Dr. Schein speak, it became apparent that a third takeaway is to genuinely care about the people we call clients. The relationship with the client is the medium through which we express our curiosity and helpfulness, and ultimately create meaning for the client and for ourselves. I feel lucky to have been able to receive this wisdom directly from Dr. Schein."

Ruhi Banerjee, who volunteers for OpenSourceOD as the director of ILCs, shared,

"A week ago, I had the privilege to talk to and listen to Dr. Ed Schein. It feels surreal and sad that he is no longer with us. But at the same time, I feel like a chosen one along with other fellow OD members, who had the privilege to be part of a gig, full with his spirit and wisdom, just hours before he passed away. What amazed me from his presence that evening is his sharp and strong memory while recollecting his experience from decades ago. I learned that being an OD consultant is more about building personal relationships that are deeper and meaningful. A few other take-aways from that session that I will always treasure in my OD journey is a) always be curious and helpful; b) always know what is going on with the client/organization before giving advice, get the whole picture; and c) love your organization. Dr. Schein, you will always live in our practice and philosophy!"

Ed dedicated his entire life to advancing a field that would come to be known as one of the most meaningful and relevant professions of the modern era. If any profession could address the challenges of today, it would be one that assumes a systems perspective, that embraces complexity, and anchors us to love, care, and selflessness. When asked about working with clients, Ed said that "if you're not careful in working the whole system, you're not really doing OD!"

Joining us from the United Kingdom, Wesley Dorsett shared,

"I was simply amazed and grateful after having just spent the last 2.5 hours in a live virtual group discussion with the renowned Edgar (“Ed”) Schein and his son Peter late Thursday evening. I learned so much from simply listening to him respond to the group’s questions and observing him process his thoughts in real time. Then to learn only a few days later that those were some of the last hours of his life absolutely floored me. It's hard to put into words how surreal it feels that I had just met one of my long-time heroes in the field of OD (it was his seminal work "Organizational Culture and Leadership" that I first formally studied 13 years ago), only then to discover that time of sharing was one of the very last of his cherished life. I have been compelled to reflect on these last moments where he and his son Peter shared his profound thoughts on process consulting (aka “humble consulting”) with a group of mostly strangers across the world.

Another participant, Toni adds this beautiful layer in recounting,

"As an OD practitioner, I have gained a deep appreciation for the rich history and legacy of this field. When I think about the people I have been fortunate to learn from, I am struck by the visionary leaders and pioneers who saw the value of exploring the nature of human experience and the power of group dynamics. These pioneers, often referred to as the gurus of OD, had the courage and foresight to establish the foundations of this dynamic and evolving field. In the practice of OD, the depths of which has been developed through action research by pioneers like Dr. Edgar Schein, it is now our responsibility to carry forward the torch and continue to explore and develop its principles and practices. In reflecting on our time on Thursday, I am reminded of the important role that we play in perpetuating its legacy. Ed’s presence that evening was a gift. His soft voice and direct words invited us into a call to action, ‘We all have to contribute.’ I feel an immense sense of humility and gratitude for the time I was privileged to spend learning from, watching, and listening to Ed. Those lessons will undoubtedly influence my perspectives and contributions to the field going forward."

We sometimes become caught up in our desire to develop competency models and new pedagogies, but Ed cautions us all not to lose sight of one facet that holds the best OD philosophies together, and runs like a bright yellow thread through all OD practice: the ability to step back, away from our most deeply held assumptions and ask what often seem like obvious questions. Ed taught us that mastering org and societal transformation is a continuous process, not a destination. Part of this practice includes continuously reorienting our attention away from self-interest to a desire to help. Ed, in fact, positioned humility as a skill rather than a personality characteristic.

Ilene Wasserman shared,

Being with Ed that evening was a reinforcement of who he was: He was dedicated to process consultation. He was fervently clear about elevating the quality of relating and being authentic in the work. He was always caring even if the message may have seemed otherwise. I had the privilege of meeting with Ed regularly over zoom. His rhythm that evening held some parallels to our regular conversations: reflecting back on the path of the field of organization development while noticing the present and imagining the future. While he was so central to the development of the field, he had open eyes and curiosity to discover new frames of reference and new ways of being in relationships with colleagues, clients and new practitioners. He had a great gift for deep listening and use of self to deepen relationships. "I was forcing them to think clearly. I used my own puzzlement to ask dumb questions and that clarified the situation for them. That is what my best consulting is. To help the client figure out what are we really worried about, what are we trying to do..... but only if we have a relationship and only if they want to work with you." He was always so very present, fully present to the last moment. Thank you Bill for holding this precious moment.

From Canada, Donna Gallup shared,

From my home in Montreal, I felt really honored and privileged to be part of this intimate group of genuinely curious individuals and students. I have always been in awe of Ed’s presence in these virtual settings and so blown away by his wisdom. That night, as I took note of the participants as we introduced ourselves, I envied the younger demographics for inviting, and embracing OD and Edward Schein’s work into their lives so early on. These new learners will make great contributions to this planet in the coming days and years.
As I reflect on that evening, it was indeed a beautiful illustration of transformative learning in many ways. I can still feel the precious pause — the energy suspended in this virtual space when Ed questioned the essence of the evening and transformational learning theory. I did not believe he was being critical, but saw this more of a genuine and humble inquiry. And now, reflecting back on this and knowing of his passing later on that evening, see this as his final opportunity to learn a new perspective! I feel blessed to have been present and grateful to you for bringing us together. Something powerful took place Thursday evening and I believe so much more will come.

Ed also shared, emphatically that, "Data gathering and feedback, one of the big pillars of OD, is not the answer." In this video clip you will hear Ed describe a case in which he was asked to provide a template in order to teach culture to new employees. By asking a simple question, in a genuine fashion, he used his own puzzlement to create clarity. It wasn't so much the question, but the humble fashion in which Ed asked the question that prompted the client realization and change of strategy.

Greg Krauska shared,

HOW DID WE GET HERE? It is such a simple question. How – Through what means, for what reasons? We – Tell me about this system. Here – What are the present circumstances? It is such a simple question. And, for me, it captures the essence of Ed Schein’s contribution to what turned out to be a Master Class last Thursday. The “How did we get here” question (and its many variations) is so valuable in understanding the culture of the team or organization and the role that founders and leaders often play in shaping it. What are you trying to do? Why did you call me? These questions are best when born of genuine humility and curiosity. Ed spoke of using “his own puzzlement” to ask better questions. We ask some questions to understand the facts — facts that are sometimes obscured by client disfunction. So we write down the answers on flip charts to take facts “to a new place.” We ask questions that provoke a response — to see how the person responds and what their response reveals. And when the client says, “Yeah, you raise a good question. That’s something we should look at,” we know real value is being revealed. Together, questions like these create a pattern of structured curiosity. That intense curiosity is what great client relationships are built upon. It is how we genuinely help. The result is love and acceptance. And as Peter suggested, that level of genuine love can sometimes feel a little bit uncomfortable. Note: That is a love that rarely lives in thick binders full of data and analysis to justify our value. How did we get here? How did we get here, in this profession of helping organizations to thrive? Largely on the shoulders of you, Ed. Thank you, Ed, for your gifts and your embodiment of curiosity, empathy and love. You raised good questions. That’s something we should really look at.

Emily Witek shared,

On January 26, I had the privilege of attending an Immersive Learning Circle with Dr. Edgar Schein to discuss and learn from Case # 3 from his esteemed work in his book, Humble Consulting. One of the main truths that I, along with several other attendees, took away from that session was the importance of relationship building. Learning that Ed peacefully passed away later that evening was one of those moments when things suddenly got put into perspective. The significance of building relationships was one of the first thoughts that came to me, and my aim is to truly practice this in all areas of my life. I am thankful for all that we in the OD community have learned, and will continue to learn, from Ed.

Barbara Koll shared,

When I met Dr. Schein at the Cape Cod Institute, he taught from his experience as a helper, a consultant, and a supporter. I witnessed his dedication to the truth, to incisive yet charitable observations, and to his own blind spots as a helper — revealed as he journeyed with his wife as she battled cancer. When I joined the Learning Circle Thursday evening, I was so happy to again be in Dr. Schein's company, along with new found OD consultants from all over the world. Again, his dedication to truth, to incisive yet charitable observations, and to opening blind spots felt like the hallmark of his interactions with the group. These traits are so essential to building and maintaining trustworthy relationships, the sort that enable each of us, as practitioners, to actually provide help. And he had a wonderful, self-effacing smile — what a treasure! I am grateful for the serendipitous events that brought me to the Learning Circle, and for the holy opportunity to partake in this last teaching session, delivered by a man of wisdom, humility, and reflective grace. Go forth in peace, Dr. Schein, and know that your teachings guide us everyday.

This video includes Ed's final words to the OD community. Together we passionately discussed the nature of experience, and the art of seeing what is and what can be possible, through humble observations and questions. Finally, to draw from one of Ed’s most salient points that evening, to know reality is to live it fully in a way that no simulation, or artificial intelligence application could ever muster. To truly grasp the depth and scope of phenomena you have to show up. You have to fully be there.

Dave Fearon recalls,

During the evening leading up to the Fireside Chat with Ed and Peter, I kept an eye on Ed. I recall wondering at his stamina. 94, when I could assume he'd 'heard and said it all,' his attention never wavered. He participated in dramatizing his DEC case and must have been mentally preparing his critique of the method. Yet, when he did, his comments, while stern and direct, remained open for dialogue and discovery. At that moment, Ed practiced what he's taught for decades. As the conversation shifted to contracting for OD services, Peter gave us some pragmatic angles on this complex topic. Ed contributed, indicating that he had been ready for a disengaged retirement, then Peter proposed they collaborate as a business. You could feel Ed's energy rise as they spoke of his rejuvenation. Two hours had flown by. Bill asked for last thoughts. In the last few minutes, I told of the advice my mentor Peter Vaill (who Ed knew well going back to early NTL days) gave me about OD consulting. "Love the people who are the organization." Then it was Ed's time for a last thought. He said, "I'll build off what Dave shared about Peter's advice. Love is what we bring to our clients. All the good we do comes from love." Love was Ed Schein’s last word to his OD colleagues.

This article, and any representation of the past for that matter, pales in comparison to the real thing. Dear reader, we hope the power of Ed’s final messages and those who recount the experience speak to you directly about your relationship with truth, care, and embracing the nuance and complexity of Organization Development.

Thank you Ed, for bringing us your very best, until the very end.

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