Putting our organizations on the couch

Creating change through rational planning only gets us halfway there. Looking inward will take us the rest of the journey.

Remember the last time you participated in a meeting on organizational strategy that emphasized how people felt over what they thought about the proposed or current direction being taken?

What about asking our colleagues about the questions we’ve been afraid to ask or won’t answer (e.g., why are we continuing to do this? How is what we are proposing to change going to happen when we didn’t do what we said we’d do last time? How are things different this time? Why won’t we take the steps needed to do what we say we need to do?)

Can you recall a time you aborted a change initiative in your organization that you’d spent months working on (and lots of money and attention) because ‘something changed‘ or ‘it was no longer the right time‘, while recognizing that these were the same reasons given for why the last change effort wasn’t realized?

How about that time your senior leadership stated the need for ‘fresh thinking’, ‘new ideas’, and ‘transformative change’ only to choose strategies or hire people that represented the status quo?

Or what about that time you reviewed the data on your strategy’s implementation and focused on what the numbers were telling you that fit your current story while ignoring the data you didn’t collect, the questions you didn’t ask, or the figures that didn’t gel with your organization’s narrative about itself?

These scenarios describe many situations where an organization expresses a desire for change and yet doesn’t pursue it with action. Organizations may hire consultants, organize retreats, strike working groups or committees, even spend considerable time and money planning change and still not take the actions resulting from that work.

Psychotherapists can be a useful help to individuals seeking change who aren’t able to find relief through other means. Psychotherapists can provide a perspective that is detached from the help-seeker’s identity, personal history, habits, and preferences to ask questions and provide direction to those willing to explore themselves in some depth.

Organizations don’t have the equivalent, but maybe they should.

Aggregating complexity

The same process of reflection, critical questioning, and challenging beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours found in psychotherapy are available to organizations and are just as important, if not more. Organizations carry the same issues with their origin story, their identity, their early years, traumas, biases, and interests as humans do. Like humans, some of these factors are rather benign while others are not.

However, with organizations we aggregate this complexity. It is not only those desires, fears, and interests of individuals, it’s all of them together. It is the collective experience of teams, divisions, and entire companies and all of the baggage that comes with it. Why should we not expect the same kind of hesitations and fears around change that we would expect from individuals?

Instead, we expect that simple, linear strategic plans to produce outcomes that are rather predictable and measurable based on (often) arbitrary goals. Goals are deceptively difficult to set, follow, and achieve. Goals require energy, focus, resources, and – most importantly – the right system around them to be attainable. Individuals have a poor track record of setting and meeting goals (pdf). This becomes more challenging when an organization with its internal complexity is embedded within an environment that is also complex.

Dealing with complexity is partly what psychotherapy is all about and why we need to seriously think about how to replicate those processes at an organizational level.

Lessons from the therapists couch

Talk therapy involves a guided approach to walking through the thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and behaviours that a person engages in presently in light of both past experience and future goals. Much of this is familiar to organizations who might look at data, strategy, and behaviour in light of current capacity and future projections. What’s most organizations miss is the emotional and attitudinal issues that are guiding change and the connection to past action.

Past efforts (or lack of them) to promote, instill, and maintain change are a good indicator of present and future likelihood of success in the absence of a shift in thinking, relating, and resourcing. Yet, we see organizations seek change through a sheer force of will, not true reflection.

Consider the poor success rate of innovation labs or incubators to generate sustainable changes and new value. These labs often fail because they are designed without much consideration for the organization they are designed to support. Lack of alignment, inappropriate supports for staff, or innovation-focused metrics are among the issues cited for why many labs fail. I suspect the reason is that those issues are present in the parent organization and just replicated differently in the lab or incubator. Organizations want to go forward without looking at their past and dealing with those issues.

You can’t build successful change on a shaky foundation. Psychotherapy can help examine, account for, and even repair some of the foundations we have to help build a change effort upon. This doesn’t mean that everything needs to be perfect to make change happen, but would we not want to solidify our foundation as much as possible to build something worthwhile?

It might be time to consider ways to do that. In a future post I’ll be discussing what this could look like in practice.

Photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash and by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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