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Organisational Therapy

OP 101

I note I have a tendency to explain things in detail or at length without necessarily setting down the fundamentals of an idea. This post attempts to set down the fundamental of OP – Organisational Psychotherapy. (For the details, or a lengthy tour through the subject, there’s a whole passel of other posts on this blog, plus my recent book “Hearts over Diamonds”).

Tl;Dr

The performance of any knowledge work organisation is a function of its collective assumptions and beliefs about work. Significant improvements to organisational performance requires a fundamental shift in these assumptions and beliefs. Organisational Psychotherapy makes this shift both feasible and economic.

The Basic Premise

The basic premise of Organisational Psychotherapy is that the performance of any and all knowledge work organisations is a function of the collective mindset of the organisation. For significant improvements in the performance of the organisation, the collective mindset has to undergo a step-change.

P = ƒ(Collective mindset)

Collective Mindset

In Organisational Psychotherapy, “collective mindset” (a.k.a. collective or shared memeplex) we mean “the set of assumptions and beliefs held in common by more-or-less everyone in the organisation”. Assumptions and beliefs concerning work, and how work should work (i.e. how work should be organised, directed and managed).

This set of assumptions and beliefs held in common are rarely held consciously, more often existing below the level of consciousness of the organisation and its individuals, both.

Culture

We often call the manifestation of the collective mindset the “culture” of the organisation – the typical behaviours and actions of individuals and groups driven, subconsciously, by their underlying, commonly-held, assumptions and beliefs.

The Performance Challenge

Many organisation may be happy with – or at least resigned to – their status quo. These organisations do not seek to understand the roots of organisational performance. For the fewer number of organisations that do seek to improve their performance, questions such as “what makes for better performance” and “what could we do to improve performance” begin to surface.

The challenge, then, for this latter group of organisations, is to find some levers to pull, levers by which to affect the organisation’s performance in the desired direction(s).

Some yet fewer number of organisations may come to understand the connection between their collective mindset and their performance – current and aspirational. For these organisations, the challenge becomes:

“How can we shift our collective assumptions and beliefs in a direction – or directions – that support our aspirations for e.g. improved performance?”

Organisational Psychotherapy

So to the main focus of this 101 unit:

How might those organisations that see the connection between their collective assumptions and beliefs, and their performance, go about shifting those assumption and beliefs?

For individuals faces with this challenge in their daily lives (“How might I as a person go about having a happier or more productive life? How might I shift my assumptions about relationships, people, myself, etc. to see that come about?”), psychotherapy is one option they may consider, and thence embark upon.

So it is with organisations. Asking themselves the question:

“How might I as an organisation go about having a happier or more productive life, see improved performance, greater success?”

leads to the challenging question:

“How might I/we shift my/our collective assumptions and beliefs about relationships, people, myself/ourself, etc. to see that come about?”

At this point, Organisational Psychotherapy is one option the organisation may consider, and embark upon.

The Bottom Line

Until recently, organisations have not had the option of Organisational Psychotherapy. Even now it’s an option little known and still in its infancy. So organisations have been constrained to other options, such as tackling the above question “How might I/we shift my/our collective assumptions and beliefs about relationships, people, myself, etc.” from within their own resources, or with the aid of e.g. external consultants. Not being well-versed in the fields of Organisational Psychotherapy, psychology, sociology, group dynamics, etc., this path can consume much time and attention, many resources, inflate business and reputational risks, and generate high levels of waste and stress. Witness: the huge number of business books on organisational change, Digital Transformation, and so on.

Organisational Psychotherapists offers a degree of competency in these fields (psychology, sociology, group dynamics, etc.) not natively present in most organisations. This competency eases the path to the kind of change (or shift) they seek, saving time (time is money), missteps, reducing the risks, and lowering stress levels for all involved.

A Request

Whether you have found this explanation of the fundamentals of Organisational Psychotherapy useful or useless, I would be delighted and thankful to hear your comments and questions.

Why Reason When Faith is So Much More Comfortable?

I’ve become very bored trying to explain why Agile – even when practised as the Snowbird Gods intended – is a dead-end and why we might choose to bark up a different tree for progress in improving the effectiveness of software development organisations.

Firstly. No one seems at all interested in “improving the effectiveness of software development organisations”. Yes, there does seem to be some interest in being seen to be doing something about improving the effectiveness of software development organisations. Hence SAFe, DAD, LeSS – and Agile itself. None of these approaches do anything about actually improving the effectiveness of software development organisations, of course. But that’s not the point. Improvement *theatre* wins the day in just about every case. Irrespective of practices done “right”, or more often, done “in name only” (Cf AINO).

To actually do anything about improving the effectiveness of software development organisations requires we remove some fundamental system constraints, including:

  • Optimising parts of the organisation in isolation
  • Pursuit of specialism (vs generalists)
  • Control (as in Command & Control)
  • Annual budgeting
  • Extrinsic motivation
  • Ignorance of the special needs/realities of collaborative knowledge work
  • Separation of decision-making from the work
  • Decision-makers’ ignorance of and indifference to customers’ needs
  • Seeing performance as consequent on the efforts of individuals and “talent”
  • Discounting the paramountcy of social interactions and inter-personal relationships

And that ain’t gonna happen.

Second, improving the effectiveness of software development organisations kinda misses the point. In that software development is part of the problem. Making it more effective is just – as Ackoff would say – doing more wrong things righter.

Instead, a focus on meeting folks’ needs, or at least, as a minimum, attending to their needs, would serve our search for effectives rather better. And that generally requires less software, and placing software development last in terms of priority, way before understanding customers’ needs ( (and more generally the needs of the Folks’ That Matter).

Given that the software industry’s revenues are contingent on producing software (see: Upton Sinclair’s Dictum) that ain’t gonna happen, either.

Third, if we regard improving the effectiveness of software development organisations as our aim, and limit our ambitions to that part of the organisation concerned directly with software development (i.e. the IT department or the Product Development department) then, at best, we’ll only ever see a local optimisation. Which as Ackoff tells us, only makes matters (i.e. the effectiveness of the whole organisation) *worse*. To improve organisational effectiveness (not to mention supply chain effectiveness, customers’ effectiveness) requires us to consider the organisation as a system, and focus on the systemic relationships between the parts, rather than on the parts taken separately. And given that systems thinking has failed to gain much traction in over fifty years of trying, THAT ain’t gonna happen either.

I’ll just leave this here:

“If you could reason with Agile people, there would be no Agile people.”

It all looks a bit bleak, doesn’t it? Another method isn’t going to help much, either. Unless it addresses the three points outline above. As a minimum.

That’s why I have been for some years inviting folks to consider Organisational Psychotherapy as a way forward.

But reason, rationality, and a cold hard look at reality and the shortcoming of the status quo ain’t gonna happen. Until organisations see a need for that to happen.

– Bob

What Orgs Want

Offices

Or, more accurately, what organisations need. (Wants and needs are very rarely the same thing).

First off, does it make any sense to talk about what an organisation might need? Sure, we can discuss the needs of the various groups within an organisation – the Core Group, the shareholders, the employees, and so on. And the needs of the individuals involved – not that the subject of individual needs get much airtime in the typical organisation.

NB I recently wrote a post about the needs of some of these groups in “Damn Outcomes!”.

Back at the main theme of this post: what might be the needs of a given organisation?

Well, like individuals, we make sweeping generalisations at our own risk. At least for individuals, we have some guidance in the form of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

From the perspective of Organisational Psychotherapy, an organisation’s needs, whilst fundamental, rarely receive much overt attention. In the course of the therapeutic relationship, the organisation itself may come to a clearer awareness of its own (collective) needs. Those needs may even change and morph as they emerge, become more explicit, and become a valid topic for dialogue and discussion (i.e. ”discussable”).

But we have some basic options for consideration re: the possible needs of an organisation. I wrote about these options some time ago now, in a post entitled “Business Doctrine”. Extrapolating from that post, here’s some possible business (organisational) needs:

  • The need to create and keep customers (Drucker)
  • The need to supply goods and services to customers (serve the needs of the customer) (Drucker)
  • The need to provide a service (Burnett)
  • The need to provide a product or service that people need and do it so well that it’s profitable (Rouse)
  • The need to act as a nexus for a set of contracting relationships among individuals (Jensen and Meckling)
  • The need to optimise transaction costs when coordinating production through market exchange (Coase)
  • The need to serve society (McLaughlin et al)
  • The need to maximise the medium-term earning per share for shareholders (US business schools)
  • The need to make a profit so as to continue to do things or make things for people (Handy)
  • The need to make money (Slater)
  • The need to make a profit (Watkinson Committee)

Given the Rightshifting perspective that the purpose of any given business is more or less unique to a time, a place, and the people involved, we might reasonable say that the needs of any given organisation are also more or less unique to a time, a place, and the people involved.

Summary

To sum up: I choose to believe that organisations, collectively, do have needs. Each organisation is different – it has its own, different and sometime unique needs. The dialogue involved in surfacing any given organisation’s needs brings benefits in and of itself. Absent clarity on those needs, how can the organisation decide on its priorities, on what matters?

– Bob

Further Reading

The Future Of Software-Intensive Product Development – Think Different blog post

 

My Work

My work of the past ten+ years tells executives, managers and employees:

  1. What is the root of the problems in their organisation
  2. What to do about it (how to fix it)
  3. Why they won’t do anything about it

The Root of the Problems

The root of the problems in your organisation is the collective assumptions and beliefs (I generally refer to these as the collective mindset) held in common by all people within the organisation. Most significant (in the conventional hierarchical organisation) are the assumptions and beliefs held in common by the senior executives. In the Marshall Model I refer to the most frequently occurring set of collective assumptions and beliefs as the Analytic Mindset.

In knowledge-work organisations in particular, the Analytic Mindset is at the root of most, if not all, major organisational dysfunctions and “problems”.

What to Do About It

The way forward, leaving the dysfunctions of the Analytic Mindset behind, is to set about revising and replacing the prevailing set of collective assumptions and beliefs in your organisation with a new set of collective assumptions and beliefs. A collective mindset less dysfunctional re: knowledge work, one more suited to (collaborative) knowledge work. In the Marshall Model I refer to this new, more effective set of collective assumptions and beliefs as the Synergistic Mindset. Yes, as an (occasionally) rational, intentional herd, we can change our common thinking, our set of collective assumptions and beliefs – if we so choose.

Why You Won’t Do Anything

You may be forgiven for thinking that changing a collective mindset is difficult, maybe impossibly so. But that’s not the reason you won’t do anything.

The real reason is that the current situation (the dysfunctional, ineffective, lame behaviours driven by the Analytic Mindset) is good enough for those in power to get their needs met. Never mind that employees are disengaged and stressed out. Never mind that customers are tearing their hair out when using your byzantine software products and screaming for better quality and service. Never mind that shareholders are seeing meagre returns on their investments. Those in charge are all right, Jack. And any suggestion of change threatens their relatively comfortable situation.

So, what are you going to do? Just ignore this post and carry on as usual, most likely.

– Bob

Hearts over Diamonds Preface

In case you’re undecided as to whether my recently published book on Organisational Psychotherapy will be worth some of your hard-earned spons, here’s the text of the preface to the current edition (full book available in various ebook formats via Leanpub and in paperback via Lulu.


Will This Book be Worth Your Time?

To my knowledge, this is the first book ever written about Organisational Psychotherapy. Thanks for taking the time to have a look. This is a short book. And intentionally so. It’s not that Organisational Psychotherapy is a shallow domain. But this book just lays down the basics. Understanding of the deeper aspects and nuances best emerges during practice, I find.

This book aims to inform three distinct groups of people:

  • Senior managers and executives who might find advantage in hiring and engaging with an Organisational Psychotherapist.
  • Folks who might have an interest in becoming Organisational Psychotherapists themselves, either within their organisations or as e.g. freelancers.
  • Folks within organisations who might find themselves involved in some way in their organisation’s engagement with one or more organisational psychotherapists.

We’re all busy people, so I guess you may be curious, or even a little concerned, as to whether this book will provide a good return on the time you might spend reading it. I’ve tried to arrange things so that you can quickly answer that question.

I intend this book to be easy to understand, and to that end I’ve used as much plain English as I can muster. I guess some folks find the whole idea of Organisational Psychotherapy somewhat intimi‐ dating, and fear the ideas here will “go over their heads”. Let me reassure you that I’ve tried to make this book common-sensical, friendly and down-to-earth.

Foundational

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

~ Rumi

In writing this book, I’ve set out to define the emerging discipline – or field – of Organisational Psychotherapy.

In a nutshell, Organisational Psychotherapy is a response to the growing realisation in business circles that it’s the collective mindset of an organisation (often mistakenly referred-to as culture) that determines an organisation’s overall effectiveness, productivity and degree of success. By “collective mindset” I mean the beliefs, assumptions and attitudes that an organisation as a whole holds in common about work and how the world of work should work.

Roots

Organisational Psychotherapy leverages over a hundred years of research and experience in the field of personal psychotherapy, a field which has evolved from its roots in the Middle East in the ninth century, and later, in the West, through the works of Wilhelm Wundt (1879) and Sigmund Freud (1896). Research and experience which, in large part, can usefully be repurposed from the individual psyche to the collective psyche (i.e. the organisation).

In my career of over thirty years in the software business, I’ve run the whole gamut of approaches in search of organisational effectiveness, in search of approaches that actually work. It’s been a long and tortuous journey in many respects, but I have come to believe, absolutely, that success resides mostly in the relationships between people working together, in the web of informal customer- supplier relationships within and between businesses. And I’ve come to believe that organisational effectiveness mostly comes from the assumptions all these folks hold in common.

Given that, I ask the question:

“What kind of intervention could help organisations and their people with uncovering their existing, collectively-held, beliefs, assumptions and attitudes? With discussing those, seeing the connection with their business and personal problems and challenges, and doing something about that?”

The answer I’ve arrived at is Organisational Psychotherapy. And so, when I’m working with clients these days, Organisational Psychotherapy is my default mode of practice.

But this book does not attempt to make the case for my beliefs. It’s not going to try to persuade you to see things my way. Organisational Psychotherapy may pique your interest, but I’m pretty sure you’ll stick with what you already believe.

So, if you have an open mind, or generally share my perspective already, this book may serve you in getting deeper into the practicalities and benefits of Organisational Psychotherapy, whether that’s as:

  • a decision-maker sponsoring an intervention
  • a potential recruit to the ranks of organisational psychotherapists
  • an individual participating in an Organisational Psychotherapy intervention in your organisation

Relationships Govern Dialogue

A central tenet of Organisational Psychotherapy is that it’s the quality of the relationships within and across an organisation that moderates the organisation’s capacity for meaningful dialogue. As we shall see in more detail later, fragmented and fractious relation‐ ships impair an organisation’s ability to surface, discuss and recon‐ sider its shared beliefs.

Effective Organisational Psychotherapy needs a certain capacity for skilful dialogue within and across an organisation. Absent this capacity, folks have a slow, laborious and uncomfortable time trying to surface and discuss their commonly-held beliefs and assumptions.

In practice, then, any Organisational Psychotherapy, in its early stages at least, must attend to improving relationships in the workplace, and thus the capacity for meaningful dialogue. This helps the organisation have more open and productive dialogues – should it wish to – about its core beliefs and implicit assumptions, about its ambitions and goals, about the quality of its relationships and dialogues, and about its strategies for success. I wholeheartedly believe that:

People are NOT our greatest asset. In collaborative knowledge work particularly, it’s the relationships BETWEEN people that are our greatest asset.

Whether and how the organisation might wish to develop those relationships and dialogues in pursuit of its goals is a matter for the organisation itself. Without Organisational Psychotherapy, I’ve rarely seen such dialogues emerge and thrive.

The Goal

Improving relationships in the workplace, and thereby helping the emergence of productive dialogues, are the means to an end, rather than the end itself. The goal of all Organisational Psychotherapy interventions is to support the client organisation in its journey towards being more – more like the organisation it needs to be. Closer to its own, ever-evolving definition of its ideal self.

We’ll explore what that means in later chapters.

References

Lencioni, P. (2012). The Advantage: Why organizational health trumps everything else in business. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Patterson, K. (2012). Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high. Place of publication not identified: McGraw Hill.

Schein, E. H. (2014). Humble Inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

The Edge of Intolerable

In your workplace…

How tolerable is it to trust developers (and others) to manage their own time?

How tolerable is it to trust developers to talk with customers?

How tolerable is it for people to simply “play”?

How tolerable is it to trust people to do what they believe is best for the company and its present, and future?

How tolerable is it to have people set their own salaries, hours, locations, and tools?

How tolerable is it for people to choose who they’ll team with?

How tolerable is it for teams to choose where to focus their efforts?

How tolerable is it to spend time on improving the way the work works, on improving quality, on not shipping a product or feature right now?

How tolerable is it to use logic and data to direct efforts rather than rely on the opinions of the highest paid people?

How tolerable is it to ask these kinds of questions?

The Tolerability Envelope

If you’re looking to make a difference, ask not “What is the best we can do?” but rather “What is the best we can do that will be tolerated here? Where are the Red Lines?”

And to make a major difference, would you be willing to start a movement towards making more things more tolerable?

– Bob

Congruence

What if the last twenty years has been another classic example of software developers solving the wrong problem?♥

What if “agility” was never the issue as far as business was and is concerned? What if business agility is NOT the most useful response to, or strategy for, life in a VUCA world?

We hear so much about the need for agility. It’s now a given, an unchallenged assumption. Maybe even an undiscussable assumption? Well, I’m challenging it. And in the spirit of this blog – always having an alternative to offer – I propose congruence as a more useful response to the challenges of a VUCA business environment.

Agility: the power of moving quickly and easily; nimbleness.

Congruence: Similarity between self-image and actual experience.

Carl Rogers stated that the personality is like a triangle made up of the real [or actual] self, the perceived self, and ideal self. According to Rogers, when there is a good fit between all three components, the person has congruence. This is a healthy state of being and helps people continue to progress toward self-actualisation.

Applied to organisations, we can say that an organisation is made up of the real [or actual] organisation, the organisation as it perceives itself, and its ideal self. When there is a good fit between all three components, the organisation has congruence. This is a healthy state of being and helps the organisation progress toward being all it can be.

Without congruence, organisations won’t know what to do with agility, or how to get it. Without congruence, a VUCA environment presents challenges which incongruent organisations are poorly equipped to meet.

So, forget the past twenty years and the search for agility. Congruence is the thing.

– Bob

Footnote

♥ It was a bunch of software developers that invented and promoted the idea of agility (for software development) some twenty years ago now. Businesses everywhere have seized on this prior art in their attempts to cope with the upswing in perceived volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity in the business environment.

PS

The same argument also applies to the birthplace of the agility meme: the software development silo. Forget the past twenty years and the search for development agility. Congruence is the thing.

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