Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Nine Principles of Organisational Psychotherapy

The core premise of Organisational (Psycho)Therapy is that flourishing organisations are great places to work, and because of this, highly effective at pursing their chosen purpose.


“Psychology is more of the ‘let’s figure out what is going on’ (scientist) and psychiatry is more ‘let’s treat whatever is going on’ (physician)”.

Organisational psychotherapy aims to increase an organisation’s well-being and, as a consequence, its effectiveness. Organisational psychotherapists employ a range of techniques based on:

  • experiential relationship building
  • dialogue
  • communication
  • behaviour change

Organisational psychotherapy posits that application of such techniques may improve the “mental health” of an organisation, including the improvement of relationships – both individual and collective – within the organisation (and often, between the organisation and external parties, such as its customers and suppliers, too).


Although there is no clear division, organisational psychotherapy differs from e.g. organisational psychology in that the former is generally focussed on “treatment”, whereas the latter is primarily focussed on study, research, and the addressing of presumed workplace needs such as e.g. creation of systems, policies, etc.

From my perspective, as a self-annointed “organisational therapist”, organisational psychology most commonly aligns to the Analytic mindset, whilst organisational (psycho)therapy has much more in common with the Synergistic mindset. YMMV.

Put another way, therapy involves inviting the organisation “onto the psychiatrist’s couch” and working through issues using e.g. conversation and a kind of coaching style.

And frankly, I hold organisational psychology, as a discipline, to be responsible for some of the most egregious dysfunctions –  including: job design (narrow specialisms), “training”, appraisal systems, task design, incentive schemes, and pretty much the whole HR nine yards – in today’s knowledge-work organisations. (See also: What are Non-Obvious Systemic Constraints?).


The principles listed below are my principles – as practising organisational therapist. N.B. Other folks may work to different principles.

Sick, Sick, Sick

Many organisations are sick. If they were people, many of these sick organisations would likely be sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

A common reason given for sectioning (involuntary commitment) is to prevent danger to the individual or society. Organisations with suicidal tendencies may act on these tendencies and harm or kill themselves. Organisations with psychoses are sometimes driven by their delusions or hallucinations to harm themselves or others. Organisations with certain types of collective disorders can present a danger to themselves, their employees, customers, suppliers and society at large.

But organisations are not people. And the psychology of organisations are much less well understood – and less easy to get at – than the psychology of individuals. Much as we might like to “section” organisations, this option is not (yet) available to us (society). Even “voluntary commitment” or therapy is something that very few organisations even perceive as being an option open to them.

And I think we have some way to go yet before organisations come to consider therapy as “acceptable”. In California, for example, most folks regard therapy as a perfectly normal response to the travails of life. There’s little or no social stigma associated with having a therapist (or, for that matter, a life coach). Such cannot be said of therapy for organisations. Organisations rarely recognise they have a collective “mental state”, let alone perceive the nature, characteristics of that mental state at any given point in time.

I posit that even organisations that are relatively healthy, mentally, can benefit from therapy (much like individuals do).

The Nine Principles

The following are the nine principles that I work to when acting in the role of therapist for any given (client) organisation:

1. Risk Awareness

Cognisance of all the things that could go wrong during the therapeutic intervention. Knowing these risks, the therapist may choose to take steps to manage them on behalf of the client – at least until such time as the client chooses to manage them for themselves.

2. Do No Harm

Ensure that individuals, in particular (but also groups, and the organisation as a whole) do not suffer any (avoidable) negative consequences from the therapeutic interventions. More than this, work to instil hope in the folks within the scope of the therapy (this in itself is a moral and practical hazard, as some organisations are so sick as to cynically attempt to exploit such new hope).

3. Organisations Have a Collective Psyche that Responds to Therapies

Organisational therapy proceeds on the basis that the collective psyche of an organisation is similar in nature to the psyche of the individual, and is similarly amenable to therapeutic interventions (although the actual techniques and underlying concepts may differ).

4. Mutual Benefits

Therapy sets out to improve the mutual well-being of both the organisation, the groups within the organisation, and the individual within the organisation. In other words, everyone involved is looking for win-win outcomes. Additionally, at the choice of the client, the scope may include other organisations, groups and individuals (and maybe wider society, too) in this seeking of mutually-beneficial outcomes.

5. Trust

Like any other therapy, the process of organisational therapy is one of building a network of mutual-trust relationships. It starts with trust in the therapist, followed by trust in themselves, expanding to trust in other members of the team, and maturing into trust in the organisation itself.

Patrick Lencioni, in his book “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” explains the nature – and strengths – of “vulnerability-based trust”:

Folks who are not genuinely open with one another – and themselves – about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation for trust, which in itself is a fundamental requirement for the pursuit of mutual benefit and well-being.

6. Wellbeing First

As in therapy, Organisation Therapy has no agenda excepting the general wish to see the client organisation flourish and increase its level of wellbeing. Indeed, the therapist will seek to solicit an agenda from the client, probably over time as their relationship unfolds, rather than have an agenda of their own. See also: Positive Psychology, as described by e.g. Professor Martin Seligman.

7. Work in the White Space

Working on the relationships between people, groups and organisations has much more impact that trying to “fix” individuals. Indeed, some key developments (growth, improvement) can only happen in the context of relationships.

8. Cognitive Harmony

Many organisations, particularly in times of stress or change, suffer acutely from “organisational cognitive dissonance” – feelings of anxiety and discomfort resulting from simultaneously holding contradictory or otherwise incompatible attitudes, beliefs, or sets of assumptions. Therapy aims to surface such incompatibilities and resolve them, through e.g. changing some of these cognitions, and thereby leading to improved “cognitive harmony”.

9. Evidence-Based

“In like manner, if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.”

~ William Kingdon Clifford

I believe that wherever possible, therapeutic interventions should be grounded in evidence of efficacy. Some number of the other principles noted here (especially Risk Awareness, and Do No Harm) benefit greatly from an awareness of the evidence.


In summary, then, organisational therapy offers a powerful prospect of improving the well-being of an organisation, as well as the well-being of the people, groups and other organisations who come into contact with it.

– Bob

Further Reading

The Twelve Principles of Group Counselling ~ Irvin Yalom
Seven Therapeutic Principles in Group Counseling ~ “Counselor” article
Flourish – A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being – Prof Martin Seligman

I was writing about this a little while back – organisations wishing to move past the Analytic mindset have to overcome not only societal norms, but also the unsuitable education of their new hires.

quantum shifting

Bizarrely, if you went into most school classrooms in the industrialised world, you would still hear teachers say or imply, “Sit down, stop talking, do your own work.”  I say bizarrely, because this notion that we will excel in our lives only if we do what we’re told, mind our own business and draw solely on our own thoughts, ideas and knowledge just seems unnatural.  It has come from the old days when schools were set up as places to train youngsters for a life of isolating wage slavery.  Our education systems were designed, in other words, as mirrors of adult workplaces and apart from reading, writing and arithmetic, the key lesson was “fit in or f**k off”; if you want to get ahead, play the teacher’s game, learn what THEY want you to so you can pass their tests (usually information about stuff, rather than insight about self, life…

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What are Non-Obvious Systemic Constraints?

In Theory Of Constraints (TOC), Eli Goldratt explains how “constraints” in a system such as a manufacturing plant, limit the throughput of the whole system (plant). In his later books, he talks more about “policy constraints” in non-manufacturing situations, and how these can be even more pernicious and damaging to the throughput (effectiveness) of a system or organisation.

In that constraints, by the TOC definition, affect whole systems, we may reasonably regard all constraints as “systemic constraints”.

This post is about those kinds of systemic constraints – particularly those that dramatically impact knowlege-work organisations – that are not so obvious. Not the capacities of machines, teams or people. Not the policies of the organisation – explicit or implicit. Not even the individual attitudes and beliefs of the folks within an organisation.

Some of these “non-obvious systemic constraints” have limited (or maybe more accurately, invisible) impact on the day-to-day work of the organisation, but remarkable impact on the ability of the organisation to evolve, improve, and raise its effectiveness (what I refer to as Rightshifting).

Examples of Non-Obvious Systemic Constraints

So what kinds of “non-obvious systemic constraints” am I talking about? Here are some examples:

  • Business As Usual – being busy “getting stuff done”, to the detriment of spending time, attention, etc. on improving the capabilities of the organisation.
  • “Work ethic” – paying people (and promoting or demoting them) based on how “willing” or “busy” they appear, rather than on how much of a contribution (often in very intangible ways) they actually make to the success of the organisation (some may describe this as “bureaucracy”).
  • Fundamental Attribution Error – e.g. ignorance of Deming’s 95% rule – a lack of an appreciation of the role of “the system” in constraining the productivity of individuals.
  • Hierarchy – the way in which conflating report lines, rewards systems, coordination mechanisms and responsibility systems contributes to what Roger L Martin describes as “The Responsibility Virus“.
  • Low Trust – when trust is absent or at a low level, this constrains the degree to which people talk to each other about things that matter (and thus to the festering of those issues, with concomitant “temporary” work-arounds).
  • “Not-Invented-Here” – collective arrogance or hubris constraining folks’ enthusiasm and opportunities for looking outside their own immediate surroundings to learn about how others have studied and maybe even solved issues.
  • Isolated learning, hard limits on exploration – many organisations (generally, unintentionally) make it difficult or impossible for folks to get together and mutually learn about and explore issues and opportunities.
  • Fear of conflict – when people try to be “nice” to each other, often to compensate for the inhumanity of their working conditions, the value of conflict gets misunderstood – and even productive, positive conflict becomes something to avoid rather than embrace.
  • Pigeonholing – a prevailing, unspoken belief that everyone has their own work to do, their own (non-overlapping) sets of responsibilities, and that there’s negative value in folks getting involved in, helping with, or taking over, elements of others’ work.
  • Poor appreciation of value-add – a limited or lack of understanding about where it’s best to focus time and effort, for optimum value-add.
  • Professional detachment – particularly the kind of professional detachment that constrains people’s willingness and ability to relate to each other as fallible, emotional, joyful, inconstant, messy human beings.
  • Homogeneity – the belief that all situations, all people, all clients, must be treated in the same way, to be “fair” and “consistent”.
  • Conventional thinking – adopting “work-arounds” for problems by borrowing from popular culture, previous experience, or “industry best practice”, rather than getting to the heart of an issue and finding an apposite solution (preferably, a dissolution). Typical work-arounds include the concept of managers (see also: pigeonholing, hierarchy, Theory-X); command-and-control; bonuses; and functional decomposition of organisational structure (silos).
  • Mandatory optimism – aka “Don’t rock the boat”, or “wilful ignorance”. When people realise that any doubts, negative comments or criticisms, however constructive or realistic, are not welcome, this severely constrains any attempts to surface and thus fix troublesome issues. See also: “Smile or Die” animation; and “All Executives are Unethical”.
  • Disjoint purpose – different people working disjointly or at cross-purposes for lack of a clear understanding of a common, shared purpose for the system. This constrains people’s ability to constructively resolve issues, as well as constraining their day-to-day work activities.

“A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the [purpose] of the system. A system must have a [purpose]. Without the [purpose], there is no system.” ~ W E Deming

  • Theory X – and authoritarianism in general. When an organisation believes it better to have folks that do the work, and other folks to tell them what work to do (Scientific Management aka Taylorism), “process police” ensuring homogeneity and conformity, and even how to do the work (micro-managing), this constrains the natural motivation and engagement of the people.

I’m sure you can think of others. If you do, please let me know – I’d love to add them to this list.

Which of these “non-obvious systemic constraints” are limiting the effectiveness, and the rate of change, in your organisation? (Note: following Goldratt, I posit only one of these is the key constraint in any one organisation, at any given time).

I’m open to suggestions about how we might refer to these kinds of “non-obvious systemic constraints”. What do you think?

It Starts With Awareness

Are you aware of these non-obvious systemic constraints and the role they play in your organisation? How about other folks? Given how some of these constraints reduce or prevent discussion, would you even know what other folks think, whether they’re aware or not?

And when awareness dawns, what then? Even though just one constraint may be key, the web these constraints weave, collectively, may seem as intractable as the Tholian Web. Personally, I’d consider applying the TOC tools known as “Current Reality Tree” and “Future Reality Tree” to identify the key point(s) of leverage (key constrain(s)), and the future state that we’d like to see happen. Ackoff might suggest “Reference Projection”. What approach would you favour in this situation?

– Bob

Further Reading

Five Dysfunctions of A Team ~ Patric Lencioni
Deming’s 14 Points ~ W E Deming
The FIfth Discipline ~ Peter Senge
The Responsibility Virus ~ Roger L Martin
Treatment For Problems ~ Russell L Ackoff



Many folks ask me:

“If significant improvement in business effectiveness requires intervention on a system-wide basis (across the whole organisation), what am *I* supposed to do, stuck in this small box in one corner of the company?

Which is a very fair question. And one to which I am obliged to answer:

“Find some like-minded folks, even just one or two, broaden your perspective (don’t fixate) – and do what you can, together, for the organisation as a whole.”

Granted you’re not likely to realise the 100%, 200%, 500% bottom-line benefits that a full organisation-wide intervention can effect, but at least you’ll be doing something. And feeling better for that:

Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!”

Aside: Not really a Goethe quotation.

Most Levers of Effective Software Development Lie Outside the Development Group

Knowledge work may have become the engine room of most modern businesses – but you don’t steer a ship from the engine room.

“If the organisation as a whole is doing the wrong things the significance of the approach used in software development is very small.”

~ recent @flowchainsensei tweet

A core problem with Agile and other such developer-led initiatives to “improve” things is that these initiatives are not connected to the levers that steer the ships of business, nor even to those levers that affect the overall performance of the development group itself.

Tunnel Vision is Not a Winning Strategy

Obsessing about code quality, the software development lifecycle (as manifest within the walls of the development group), wip, tools, testing, and the hundred and one other things that make up a developers daily routine is perfectly understandable and a natural response of the disempowered. When we feel disconnected from being able to change the things that make a real difference, most of us will hunker-down, and focus on those things to which we can make a difference. Pride in work has a long tradition and history, often conflicting with the more (apparently) prosaic concerns – like profits, revenues, market share, etc. – of the corporate elites.

What to Do

“Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

~ Margaret Mead

Charlotte Pell recently afforded me the kind opportunity to review a pre-publication copy of Vanguard UK’s new book “Delivering Public Services That Work – Volume 2”, now published (as of 24 April 2012).

The most striking feature of this uplifting work, for me, is the numerous real-world stories of “ordinary” folks in “ordinary” organisations who have done what they could, given a limited scope and reach – and made enormous strides in improving things. Case studies like this encourage me to assert that significant improvement is possible, even when the folks involved do not have the authority or even the influence over their organisation-as-a-whole. Indeed, if the reported improvements are the result of “mere” localised interventions, then what scope for seemingly infeasible gains when tackling these issues organisation-wide? And yet wider still, given the stories’ highlighting of the enormous waste implicit in our egregiously disjoint public services?

– Bob

Wikipedia is Wonderful

Here I am, starting a new blog post on the state of play in the world of Rightshifting, and wanting to use the term “SEP Field” as the hook for this post. What do I find? A great entry in Wikipedia for just that term. Note the numerous cognitive biases listed as contributing to the phenomenon.

Rightshifting is Somebody Else’s Problem

Since their inception, circa 2008, my ideas on the Rightshifting of organisations have emerged, evolved and gained some credibility and support in the software development and business communities. (Much more in the former than the latter, it must be said). The late, great Grant Rule added much in the way of historical context and statistical rigour to the theme. We’ve had some number of Rightshifting Unconferences in London, and some interest from the academic community (e.g. London City University).

I have presented on different aspects of Rightshifting, on numerous occasions, both locally in London, and national and internationally too. (My thanks to everyone who has invited me to their fair cities). These sessions are always well-received, excepting possibly Los Angeles – a strange outlier.

In general, I get the impression that most folks believe that organisational effectiveness is Somebody Else’s Problem. Senior management seem to think other folks in their organisations should be working on it. Middle management seem to think it should be Senior Management’s job, and most everyone else in the organisation is keeping their heads down and getting on with their day jobs – which for the most part they don’t see as including anything to do with improving the effectiveness of the organisation.

This comes as little surprise. There are precious few organisations indeed that even understand the benefits of taking a holistic view of how their organisation works (and its place in the wider supply chain, and society at large). Fewer yet who actually take steps to adopt and exploit said holistic view (i call these the Synergistic-minded organisations, and folks).

As an education/awareness campaign, I think Rightshifting has permeated into the subconscious, at least, of just about as many folks as I could reasonably hope for after four (!) years. <Sigh plus wry smile>.

There are even a few folks and organisations – such as 21Apps – that have taken it to heart in a deliberate attempt to improve their effectiveness.

I shall continue to carry the flag for the Rightshifting Ethos e.g.

“I believe that a Rightshift of knowledge-work businesses will bring improved health, wealth and wisdom for [both] individuals and society at large.”

Hell, maybe one day I’ll even find some organisations that actually want to become more effective as an organisation – and determine to do something about it. God knows there’s enough scope for that to be so.

And I shall continue to evolve my research, and unearth more real-world examples of how whole organisations are tackling the challenge of transitioning collective (organisation-wide) mindsets. One consistent response I get from interested folks is “Yes we agree with the premise, but how to go about effecting real change? What should we DO?”. As @papachrismatts wrote:

“From what I’ve read, Rightshifting seems to be a call to arms to radically shift improvement of organisations. What I’ve not discovered is the means [Rightshifting proposes] to achieve this.”

I am not averse to providing answers to this, nor even examples, but the honest answer is “it depends…“. (Fuller explanation here).

If you’d like to be part of the Rightshifting future, please let me know.

And if you’d Rather Not Know, I quite understand that perspective, too. Regarding organisational effectiveness as Somebody Else’s Problem can look like the safe, comfortable option – at least until your employer goes bust or you realise where your frustration and stress at work is coming from, and that it really doesn’t have to be that way.

The only thing I don’t understand is “Meh“. Perhaps you can help me with that? Or at least share in my perplexity?

– Bob

The Gravy Train Rolls On

It seems some Agile Consultants are too wedded to their profit margins, too in thrall to their (large, undiscerning) Analytic-minded customer base, or just too fearful of the world-changing scale of the implications, to face up to the truth about Agile and managers.

Simply put:

The traditional role of the manager is inimical to the Agile mindset.

I’ll say that again, in other words:

For as long as organisations expect some folks (managers) to tell other folks (workers) what to do, there will be:

  • no effective engagement of people in their work
  • little sense of ownership of, and therefore pride in, work
  • high cost of quality
  • low customer satisfaction
  • poor morale
  • a paucity of motivation
  • a continuing us-vs-them, managers-vs-workers schism
  • individuals blamed for poor performance (rather than attributing 95% of poor performance to the way the work works)
  • misguided attempts to “manage people” through “fixing” them (rather than e.g. building on their strengths)
  • no change in the ineffectiveness and waste rampant in most organisations today
  • failure to innovate
  • poor decisions, or decisions abdicated, avoided, delayed and arrogated
  • egregious waste of human potential
  • siloism, politicking, tribalism and turf wars
  • stifling bureaucracy

Wow. Can we really attribute all these ills to the simple idea of having managers “in charge”? From my own experience, I’d say yes. But it’s not just me. Other folks like Deming, Drucker and Ackoff say much the same thing. As they’re all dead now, I’d be happy to argue on their behalf.

Can you grasp the magnitude of the change facing the world’s organisations before Agile (and synergistic, chaordic) ideas can really deliver on their promises? Is the scale of the transition so huge as to boggle the mind? Have so many people so little hope in the future that all this seems irrelevant, or mere wishful thinking?

What do you think?

– Bob

Further Reading

Out of the Crisis – Dr W E Deming
Re-creating the Corporation – Professor Russell L Ackoff
MIX : The Management Information Exchange online – Dr Gary P Hamel
Valence Theory – Dr Mark Federman
The Leaders Guide to Radical Management – Steve Denning
Lay Off the Managers – Blog post
Why Feedback Doesn’t Work (and other things) – Charles Jacobs

I appreciate the very ethical stance of not blaming the Head of Communications for the failings of this system. Love the final line.


From this brilliant article in the Guardian, asking the people who set prices why certain things are so expensive. Below is an extract from the section on why train tickets are so expensive and difficult to understand for customers. GW is the reporter who is speaking with COMMS, the head of communications for CrossCountry trains.

Yes, head of communications. 

GW: I tried to book a CrossCountry train journey from St Austell to Macclesfield. The only available ticket was £147.50, eight weeks ahead. Train companies boast about low advance fares – the trade-off for pricey walk-on fares. What’s going on?

COMMS: Not all journeys have an advance fare. We set the fare between St Austell and Birmingham, so we can offer an allocation of advance fares for that part of the journey. But Birmingham to Macclesfield is set by another operator.

GW: But both segments of the journey are aboard CrossCountry…

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