31 July 2010

Organization Therapy and Healing: The how-to guide

I’ve been asked a few times recently to explain just how the process of organizational therapy and healing works. “So what exactly do you do?” is how the question is sometimes framed. More often, though, it’s along the lines of “I think my company / activist group / community organization / social justice movement can use some of what you do—how can I explain it to my boss / management / the leadership?”

Is Your Organization Ready to Heal?
Not all organizations – even if they are in trouble – are able to hear the type of guidance I offer. Just as individuals in crisis may try to motor through on their own, or focus on getting things done irrespective of their emotional and spiritual wellbeing (that, of course, affect how well they can get things done), an organization in crisis, transition, or cultural disarray may instead focus on tangible results irrespective of its members wellbeing.

First, therefore, the legitimated leadership in the organization have to recognize that they have some sort of problem, crisis, or at least large-scale discomfort that they would like to fix. Moreover, they are able to identify this sense of unease with problems concerning organizational culture, or dysfunctional human dynamics among their members.

Leaders might frame that concept in a variety of ways: morale issues; trauma and stress related to layoffs, mergers, or acquisitions; regular escalating conflicts among people; systemic complaints about lower and middle management abuses; or similar signs and indicators. The leadership cohort also have to at least minimally realize that the problems won't be fixed by the proverbial rearranging of the deck chairs on the sinking ship (a.k.a. restructuring or a new org chart), or by a simple “town hall” or “all hands” meeting (although the town hall thing could serve as a wake-up call), or even through a leadership retreat event in which the organization’s vision becomes revision and the mission is put in remission. Something new must be tried.

Beginning Something New
This is where I come in. We have an initial conversation in which I attempt to get a first assessment on where, how, and when the organization is feeling pain. It could be coming from clients ("some of our best clients are telling us that they really don't like doing business with us like they used to"). It could be increased grievances against management. It could be more incidents of supervisor abuse or subordinate insubordination.

During that initial process of conversation and assessment (which could actually be several individual conversations followed by a group conversation in which I play back what I've heard—of course unattributed to any particular individual), I describe how I view organizations in the general case (i.e., using Valence Theory vocabulary). I may even give some generic (sanitized for confidentiality) examples of other organizations in similar straights that have been helped. I then coach the leadership through devising a discovery plan which has the aim of understanding the issues—and especially the issues that wouldn't come out when people are feeling unsafe. This often begins to look like a plan for an Action Research type of intervention.

Action in the Research
The findings of the Action Research investigation (and the duration of this varies immensely) are brought out in a process of formal dialogue (à la David Bohm) in which the legitimated leadership folks are in dialogue, and some non-leadership members are the process observers. This dynamic helps to model the erosion of hierarchical privilege and the beginnings of inclusive, more participatory, and collaborative leadership.

At this point, subsequent work depends entirely on what is found, and how the organization's members want to proceed. I should mention that by "members," I ideally mean everyone whom the organization touches via the five valence relationships, although at the early stages and iterations, management are sometimes more reluctant about including external "holders of stake." To begin the process of rebooting the organizational culture, I often advise beginning with a values and tactility session, as I describe in my thesis findings, that facilitates organizational members’ understanding of precisely what and how the organization wants to be. From there, the specific issues that were discovered during the first AR intervention can begin to be addressed in the context of the explicit set of organizational values, and the answer to the organization’s tactility question: whom do we want to touch, and how do we want to touch them today?

As a matter of fact, I just did a mini-version of this yesterday for the annual retreat of a volunteer, activist organization of which I am an ally. The action research part wasn't necessary, since the membership were polled with respect to specific initiatives and undertakings that were deemed important for re-booting the group after a successful, but seriously draining initiative that occupied them for the past, nearly two years. We did the values and tactility session using a close variation of a conversation café model, and I facilitated working through the proposed initiatives based on the fundamental cultural understandings that emerged from that opening session. As well, I helped them model changes in interpersonal dynamics and behaviours that, traditionally for this organization, inevitably resulted in huge gaps between espoused and in-use theories of action when it came to internal meetings. Much of what the group decided came out of a judicious application of my ideas of Effective Theory. They even adopted the UCaPP model of creating reference groups [see the section on "Sustaining a Complex Culture"] for new members. At the end of it all, they marvelled at how well the day went, how much they had accomplished, how good they all felt about the process, and similar sorts of wonderful and validating epithets about how I helped them to create a great environment of engagement among their members. Put simply, that's what I do.

Now, what can I do for you and your organization?

(For those who might be a little more right-brain oriented, here is a more creative exposition of what I do.)

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