The Path to Organisational Psychotherapy
Lots of people ask me a question about Organisational Psychotherapy along the following lines:
“Bob, you’re smart, insightful, brilliant, and with decades of experience in software development. How come you’ve ended up in the tiny corner of the world which you call Organisational Psychotherapy?”
Which is a very fair question. I’d like to explain…
But first a little background.
I started my lifelong involvement with software development by teaching myself programming. I used to sneak into the CS classes at school, and sit at the back writing BASIC, COBOL and FORTRAN programs on the school’s dial-up equipment, whilst the rest of the class “learned” about word processing, spreadsheets and the like. In the holidays I’d tramp across London and sneak into the computer rooms at Queen Many Collage (University) and hack my way into their mainframe to teach myself more esoteric programming languages.
My early career involved much hands-on development, programming, analysis, design, etc.. I did a lot of work writing compilers, interpreters and the like.
After a few years I found people were more interested in me sharing my knowledge of how to write software, than in writing software for them.
Flip-flopping between delivering software and delivering advice on how best to write software suited me well. I allowed me to keep close to the gemba, yet get involved with the challenges of a wide range of developers and their managers.
The years passed. I set up a few businesses of my own along the way. Selling compilers. Supporting companies’ commercial software products. Doing the independent consulting thang. Providing software development management consulting. Starting and running a software house.
By the time I got to Sun Microsystems’ UK Java Center, I had seen the software development pain points of many different organisations. From both a technical and a management perspective. Indeed, these two perspectives had come to seem indivisibly intertwingled.
I spent more and more of my time looking into the whole-system phenomena I was seeing. Embracing and applying whole-system techniques such as Theory of Constraints, Systems Thinking, Lean Thinking, Deming, Gilb, etc..
Slowly it became apparent to me that the pain points of my clients were rarely if ever caused by lack of technical competencies. And almost exclusively caused by the way people interacted. (I never saw a project fail for lack of technical skills. I often saw projects fail because people couldn’t get along.)
By the early 2000s I had arrived at the working idea that it was the collective assumptions and beliefs of my clients that were causing the interpersonal rifts and dysfunctions, and the most direct source of their pain.
So to My Answer
Returning to the headline question. It became ever clearer to me that to address my clients’ software development pains, there would have to be some (major) shift in their collective assumptions and beliefs. I coined the term “Rightshifting” and built a bunch of collateral to illustrate the idea. Out of that seed grew the Marshall Model.
And yet the key question – how to shift an organisation’s collective assumptions and beliefs – remained.
Through conversations with friends and peers (thanks to all, you know who you are) I was able to focus on that key question. My starting point: were there any known fields addressing the idea of changing assumptions and beliefs? Of course there were. Primarily the field of psychotherapy. I embraced the notion and began studying psychotherapy. After a short while it seemed eminently feasible to leverage and repurpose the extensive research, and the many tools, of individual psychotherapy, to the domain of organisations and their collective assumptions and beliefs.
Organisational Psychotherapy provides an approach (the only approach I know of) to culture change in organisations – and to the surfacing of and reflecting on the memes of the collective mindset – the organisational psyche. And because I see the dire need for it, I continue.
Marshall, R. W. (2019). Hearts over Diamonds. Falling Blossoms.
Marshall, R. W. (2021). Memeology. Falling Blossoms.
Richard Dawkins. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press.
Blackmore, S. J. (2000). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press.
The Power of Memes. (2002, March 25). Dr Susan Blackmore. https://www.susanblackmore.uk/articles/the-power-of-memes/