“A sect or party is an elegant incognito devised to save a man from the vexation of thinking.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Following on from my previous post The Shrink is IN, I’d like to clarify one aspect of the term “organisational therapy”.

The more important word of the two is “organisational”. I see little practical distinction between therapy and e.g. coaching (or some other mode of intervention). But I see much distinction between working with individuals (or teams of individuals) vs working with a collective organisational psyche.

Why go to all the trouble of working with a collective organisational psyche? That sounds hard, doesn’t it? Not to mention esoteric. And vexatious.

Let’s return to the basis for this whole scheme of things: the Marshall Model. If we accept that significant improvement in organisational effectiveness requires a transformation of the collective organisational psyche (a.k.a. organisational mindset – see: What Is a Mindset?) then we are challenged to find some means to effect a “transition” of that organisational psyche from one memeplex to another.

We could choose to tackle this by working with each individual, team or group within the organisation, but case studies (and personal experience) suggests this has a very limited chance of succeeding. (Some estimate in the order of 2% of attempts).

Accordingly, I posit we can improve the chances of success by acting on the organisation (i.e. its collective psyche) as a whole.

Whether we call this organisational coaching or organisational therapy matters little in comparison. Aside: I do prefer the latter term, as it’s less widespread and thus may prompt more folks to think about the scope, rather than just automatically assume we’re talking about working with individuals in limited parts of the organisation.

What do you think?

– Bob

Further reading

Intentional Revolutions ~ Edwin C. Nevis, Joan Lancourt, Helen C. Vassallo

  1. Jon Lorusso said:

    Bob, perhaps you’ve gone into this elsewhere, but could you describe how you might ‘act on an organization’ by any other means than via its constituent parts, ie its individuals (persons)?

  2. Hi Jon,

    Thanks for joining the conversation.

    I’m not sure I’ve specifically covered this topic elsewhere – at least, on my blog. And it surely is a topic which deserves its own post. Until then, and in brief:

    I posit the organisational psyche stands separate from any given collection of individuals. For example, who says how software development gets done? Typically, there’s no identifiable individual(s), no oracles. Yet most organisations have a recognisable “way” of tackling software development – at least, recognisable to the folks inside the organisation. The same can be said for many aspects of how an organisation operates.

    So, to your question, how to “act on the organisational psyche”? Generally, as a therapist one is constrained to acting via the individuals within (and sometime, without) the organisation. The distinction I make is between acting via these folks, and acting on theses folks. We are not trying to help the individuals change (although that may happen, incidentally) so much as help the organisation itself change and improve. I sometimes refer to this as “working in the whitespace” (of the organisation chart).

    In practice, this means helping an organisation become aware of its collective mindset – through e.g. purposeful dialogue (and, most likely, increasing its skills in purposeful dialogue too) – and its direction for the future. I recommend Adam Kahane’s book “Solving Tough Problems” for a number of real-world case studies of doing this kind of thing.

    And presents a different take on the same issue (although I personally would downplay the role of the executive in favour our encouraging everyone to take on this responsibility, to some degree).

    Oh, and one more thing: I’m not qualified (trained, licensed) as a therapist for individuals. So I’m very careful to be on the lookout for situations where organisational therapy might cross the invisible line into personal therapy, and avoid that happening. Of course, I regularly meet folks who seem like they might benefit from professional individual therapy, counselling, or similar. In such cases we might discuss the possibility of contacting a suitably qualified person.

    – Bob

  3. Bob,

    I notice a conspicuous absence of reference to systems thinking in both the original blog and your (most enlightening) response to Jon. Are not many of the concepts and ways of thinking that come from viewing the organisational entity as a whole, provide useful tool-sets for the therapist and individuals within the organisation to act on it?


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