The Design Principles of Organisational Psychotherapy
Some ten years ago now, I began to design an alternative approach to helping collaborative knowledge work organisations become more effective. Typical approaches then in use included:
- Improvement and/or change projects (most often, focussed on one or other part of an organisation, such as sales, manufacturing or product development)
- Coaching (of individuals or teams)
I had much experience of being involved in supplying each of these different styles of intervention, and had found all of them wanting. And in finding them wanting, I decided to design a style of intervention which reduced or eliminated their shortcomings. Thus evolved the design principles underpinning my alternative approach, which I eventually came to call ”Organisational Psychotherapy”.
By popular demand I briefly describe each of these principles in this post.
As Ackoff, Goldratt and Deming all tell us, attempting to improve any one part of an organisation (unless it’s the constraint) makes the overall performance of the organisation worse. So, Organisational Psychotherapy intervenes at the level of the whole organisation, via the collective mindset or psyche of the whole organisation.
When dealing with people, both psychology and neuroscience illuminate the folly of attempting to coerce, oblige or otherwise cajole people into doing what we want. Organisational Psychotherapy, borrowing a principle from individual psychotherapy, provides for an style of intervention where the organisation has no pre-written manual or handbook, no methods or methodologies its people must follow, and no imposed policies, rules, procedures or ways of working. It’s up to the people involved – initially through their existing organisation structures – to decide what’s optional, what’s mandatory, and who calls the shots.
Freedom to participate (or not)
Another aspect of coercion typical of existing intervention approaches is mandating folks’ participation in the project or programme. Organisational Psychotherapy offers support for voluntary participation.
Typical approaches come replete with a one-size-fits-all guide, handbook or set of customary practices. And these practices are generally applied with little or no consideration for the specific context of each intervention. In Organisational Psychotherapy, the client knows their own context, and as with e.g. Clean Language, the therapist is at pains to avoid introducing anything from their own context (previous domain knowledge, experience, etc.)
Some forms of intervention include elements of training, be that in the classroom or via online tools. As John Seddon eloquently puts it “ Change in a normative experience”. Which is to say, that effective change (of attitudes, assumptions and beliefs) relies on people experiencing things for themselves, and learning from those experiences about which of their assumption are falsey or inappropriate. Such learnings lead to the sought-after changes in behaviours. As the whole organisation experiences things, and learns, during its BAU (Business As Usual), collective assumptions and behaviours change.
All intervention styles promise a positive return on the necessary investment. Organisational Psychotherapy is no different – let’s not lose sight of the fact that our clients will be looking to see a return on the investment they make. I argue that the return from investing in Organisational Psychotherapy significantly exceeds the return on investment of other, more traditional, and less effective approaches.
Taking Ownership Challenges and Illuminates
Handing over responsibilities to a third party (whether that means consultants, coaches or an internal project team) undermines the ownership of the issues facing the organisation, and absolves e.g. senior management from participating directly in the change efforts. It also provides a cosy distance which generally shields senior management from the disturbing notion of having to change themselves and their own (flawed, outdated) assumptions and beliefs. Organisational Psychotherapy preserves the organisation’s collective ownership of the organisation’s issues.
Many intervention styles provide a quick fix (note allusions to narcotics here) which leave the organisation no better able to deal with its issues from its own resources than before the intervention. Another fix requires another injection of outside agency. And another. Ad infinitum. Organisational Psychotherapy seeks to enable the client to become capable in dealing with its own issues.