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A Systemic Approach to Consultation

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A Systemic Approach to Consultation discusses the application of systemic thinking to work within organizations. The authors draw on their experiences of consulting with teams, departments and whole organizations in both the public and private sectors. They describe their work as an integrated approach called Development Consultation, which focuses on the beliefs and behaviors in the wider system which makes it difficult for organizations to manage their own processes of change. The authors then discuss the way they formulate systemic problems and the interventions, particularly the interviewing technique, which they have used in numerous case examples. The book is intended as a handbook for professionals from any discipline who are engaged in consultation work.

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1. Basic Concepts Underlying the Systemic Approach to Organizations

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This book is about change in organizations.

Solutions to organizational problems are found when the problems are understood innew ways; and when this understanding can be reached through the process of systemic or Development Consultation. Consultation usually refers to one party seeking, formally, the advice of another. The advice given is about work related matters: any implementation of the advice is left to the client.

We would like to introduce the concept of Development Consultation with the following definition:

A consultant helps a client solve a problem through mutual exploration and understanding of the meaning which the inability to solve the problem has for the larger organization. The meaning shows in the way relationships are organized around the problem.

Development Consultation is based on systemic thinking; it is an application of general systems theory. Specifically, what this means is that the consultant assumes that any organization is a system of inter-relating parts; this includes complementary beliefs and interconnected relationships. A systems or ‘systemic’ view would assume that an organization must balance its need for change with its need for stability, and that solving problems produces gains for some people in the organization and losses for others. These beliefs about gains and losses become incorporated in the belief system or culture of the organization (Marshall and Maclean 1985), and therefore to bring about organizational change, these beliefs - which are complementary and often contradictory -must be explored and understood. This is thebasisof Development Consultation.

 

2. Basic Concepts Underlying Development Consultation

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Development Consultation aims to create an experience between the consultant and client that respects and emphasizes the way they become an interacting system, in which the feedback and communication ensure that it is impossible not to change.

By enquiring about the way people think and the way their beliefs affect their actions, in a way that challenges discrepancies between beliefs and actions, individuals become self-reflective about the effect of these discrepancies on their relationships within the organization. When a number of individuals are engaged in this process together, they come to a new appreciation of the dilemmas for the organization created by so many different sets of beliefs and actions 2; and they develop new sets of beliefs and actions that resolve conflicts and reduce tension for the time being.

Development Consultation recognizes that this experience takes place in one moment in the life of an ever-changing organization, and aims to set the new ways of thinking in a context of constantly changing beliefs and action. In this way, the organization will continue to solve new problems in future moments in time, by reflecting on the relationships among the many beliefs and actions in the organization. In describing the aims of Development Consultation, we are describing the effect of our own belief system on what we do as consultants, and we list below some important aspects of our own belief system.

 

3. Useful Ideas and Hypotheses about Organizations

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When we think about organizations, and particularly about organizations that are presenting a problem to us for consultation, we immediately think about stages in the life cycle of an organization and its members. We are trying to find out what areas of conflict are triggered for individuals and for the organization in negotiating change, as they pass through these stages. We also consider the developmental stages in the career development and personal development of individuals within the company.

A general hypothesis about the developmental stages of an organization is helpful in organizing our initial interviewing around the problem; the feedback we receive will form the basis of a more focused hypothesis around issues specific to that organization and its members.

For example in the diagram given below, three phases in the organizational life cycle are described.

At the beginning, the organization develops from the inspiration of a few people. This is called the pioneering phase. The organization at this stage is marked by loyalty and warmth, little formality and fast growth.

 

4. Acknowledgements

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Over many years our thinking has been influenced by our work at the Tavistock Clinic and our colleagues at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, such as Wilfred Bion, Harold Bridger, Gordon Lawrence and Eric Miller. Many consultants, including ourselves, acknowledge a connectedness and a debt to the thinking and work that has been done at the Tavistock.

The scope of this book does not permit a full discussion of the influential ideas in the consultation field. For readers who would like to pursue the matter further, we refer them to following authors: Argyris, Beer, Bion, Hardy, Menzies, Miller and Rice, Pugh, and Trist. However, we would like to mention in more detail three writers who are currently expressing ideas which fit very well with the systemic approach to consultation and specifically to Development Consultation.

Tom Peters (1982, 1987), has influenced a generation of managers through his study of successful companies throughout the world. In his recent book Thriving On Chaos he describes the importance of continual change in big organizations and says innovation occurs through an interactive process: not only interactive between the company and its clients, but interactive among all the members of the organization. He stresses that the potential for new ideas and growth exist within the company and individuals will become more creative and productive when their own needs are met within the organization.

 

5. The Practice of Development Consultation

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Envelopment Consultation consists of implementing the following stages in a consultation with an organization:

1. implement referral procedures

2. Make hypotheses about the referral

3. Design a consultation

4. Use an interviewing format based on hypothesizing and circular questioning

5. Conduct and participate in a reflective discussion - when there are two consultants

6. Create and implement exercises and tasks

7. Facilitate and ensure clients set new goals, which we call Strategic Planning

8. Give structured feedback to clients

9. Hypothesize about the relationship between the client’s feedback and response to consultation and evaluation.

We realize, of course, that most consultants will claim to have already mastered the skills listed above. It is our intention, in this section of the booklet therefore, to describe these skills in a way that shows the distinctive way they are used in, and contribute to, the process of Development Consultation.

A working definition will be given of each skills, followed by an explanation of the way that, for example, hypothesizing contributed to the consultation. Examples of these skills will then be given from our work with clients with some information about the observed effect these interventions had on the consultation.

 

6. Some Useful Ideas about the Context of the Organization

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In our view, where there is a group of people with an agreed or shared task, or where there are subgroups individuals with tasks that overlap or interconnection, there is an organization.

Every working group or organization is influenced at all times by a number of different contexts. As consultants it is important for us to have an ideas about the different contexts affecting the beliefs and behaviour of an organization at any given time. We do this by hypothesizing about the way in which contexts might be hierarchically ordered and influence behaviour in order of importance.

We also take into account the way in which the hierarchy of contexts can change in response to internal and external feedback.

In this section we will describe briefly how the way an organization’s beliefs about itself and its view of change are affected by contexts like public and private sector, being a family business, and being aware of the need to pay attention to external events like 1992. These contextsarenotexhaustive,butthey represent thinking we have done about our own consultation work.

 

7. Case Study

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We give here an account of a referral through the various stages outlined in Section V of the book. Because consultation is not a neat and tidy process, we have not always identified the stages in the case study in the order we list them in Section V. Also, we have included additional headings to help the reader understand the processes involved in implementing this consultation. What follows is a description of what happened. The reader will find it useful to remember that, as Development Consultants, we begin every piece of work by reminding ourselves that we will be of more use to the client if we can come to some understanding of how the client’s problem is defined to help some systems in his organization manage the process of change.

DC was approached by Tom James, manager of the CMHT, ( Community Mental Health Team ) for a consultation to help to improve morale and functioning in the team. Since he had become manager three years ago, there had been a history of severe personal conflict between himself and Malcolm, one of the other senior team members, which had affected relationships through out the team of twelve people in all. There had been several violently abusive stand-up rows witnessed by others in the team. Tom told us that Malcolm had become very mistrustful of him as a team manager. Tom said that Malcolm tried to persuade other team members to his point of view. The person who shared Malcolm’s office found this very stressful and had spent a lot of time away from work with back trouble which Tom related to the stress he was under at work.

 

8. Conclusion: A Final Conversation, or: A Consultation to the Reader

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RD: I can imagine plenty of people reading this book and saying, It has lots of good ideas - but I don’t know how I would put them into practice.

DC: What do you think they would find most difficult or unlikely about seeing themselves usinga systemic approach to consultation?

RD: I think we should discuss this here as if we were giving the reader a consultation about his or her own process of change.

DC: Yes… There is a problem, however, because the reader cannot think of applying systemic ideas, without experiencing the difference it makes to have a systemic understanding and awareness of a situation.

RD: Well then, to start with we would need to make a hypothesis about whether or not the reader is looking for new ideas. In our manner and tone we must also convey genuine ‘respectful curiosity’, which in our experience creates the necessary tension as a prelude to change and development of alternative beliefs and actions (in this case, for the reader),

DC: I suppose we need to ask the reader a question about what he or she sees the effect of taking on new ideas to have, on their existing beliefs and behaviour.

 

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