Working on the edges

August 8th, 2017

by Philip Boxer
The following set of notes emerged from a conversation with Sandy Henderson about the forensic approach – an approach to understanding and beginning to address ‘systemic bias’.[1]

Implicit in the way a person speaks about what is going on (wigo) is a way of framing meaning. The frame contains wigo for the speaker in the sense of providing a way of giving meaning to wigo.[2] The wigo being contained needs to be distinguished here from the way wigo is held, which limits the granularity and complexity of the phenomena that need containing.[3]

  • This way of framing rests on implicit assumptions that govern its reasoning.
  • These assumptions can be reinforced by a cycle of process-outcome-consequence (a process achieves an immediate outcome which has consequences that reinforce the frame).
  • The cycle can also be disrupted by a consequence that creates a situation that cannot be contained by the existing frame. This situation ‘flips’ people out of the existing frame by the way it disrupts its assumptions. In order to contain this new situation, a new frame has to emerge with a different set of governing assumptions (or not, in cases of systemic bias. See below).

A dilemma emerges if disrupting consequences in some ‘other’ frame ‘flip’ people back to an earlier frame, giving rise potentially to an oscillation over time back and forth between two frames.

  • When this happens, this back-and-forth oscillation takes place around a ‘gap’ representing something about the overall situation that is impossible to address directly.
  • Any frame is vulnerable to the possibility of being disrupted by ‘flipping’ outcome-consequences. There are thus always ‘other’ frames possible and different kinds of dilemma, therefore, each revealing gaps representing different kinds of impossibility.
  • Holding an oscillation involves being mindful of this ‘gap’ and of the impossibility it represents to either frame. This is done by limiting the granularity and complexity of the phenomena under consideration by each frame so that the oscillation itself can be managed.

A ‘systemic bias’ arises to the extent that people limit the granularity and complexity of the phenomena under consideration by a frame in order to ignore anything that might disrupt it.[4]

  • There are three ways of preserving a systemic bias: (a) flight to the personal – an explanation in terms of individual responsibility that leaves the frame itself unacknowledged aka scapegoating); (b) turning a blind eye to phenomena that have the possibility of ‘flipping’ it by insisting on a particular way of holding wigo; or (c) disclusion of persons identified with an ‘other’ frame that could confront the existing frame with gaps in how it is dealing with wigo. This disclusion excludes those other persons from consideration and dismisses as irrelevant any consideration of phenomena of concern to those others.[5]
  • A systemic bias provokes hostility and mistrust in those discluded others.
  • The challenging of the implicit limitations imposed by an existing way of holding a dilemma creates the potential for new frames, new gaps and new forms of oscillation.

Injustices can be created by repeatedly turning a blind eye and/or discluding ‘others’ in the preservation of an existing way of holding a frame. Whether or not intentional, where injustices do arise, they can be approached as (serial) ‘murders’ of potential innovations that would have led to a frame being held differently.[6]

  • Such murders are ‘investigated’ by focusing on the situations in which the injustices arise – ‘crime scenes’ in which potential innovations have been murdered that would have disrupted existing ways of holding frames – and identifying the means, opportunity and motive through which the ‘murders’ took place.
  • Establishing reasonable basis for suspecting means, opportunity and motive makes it possible to show ‘probable cause’ for the systemic bias giving rise to the injustice(s) (aka ‘reasonable grounds’), motive being established through establishing the particular interests being served by the existing ways of holding frames.
  • The systemic nature of the ‘murders’ may then be identified with those standing to benefit from them.
  • For ‘probable cause’ to be established, however, we need ‘detectives’ – persons whose personal valency leads them to sense the injustices and to have the drive to do the forensic work involved.[7] The intention behind establishing ‘probable cause’ is, of course, a successful ‘prosecution’ that changes the repeated behaviors towards ‘others’.

The exploration of a situation felt to be problematic and/or unjust in some way – and an individual’s valency for recognising it – can be achieved through a way of using the ‘plus-one’ process. This sets out to look beyond the ‘truth’ of an individual’s narrative of a situation in order to uncover the dilemma they are experiencing in the situation, and to explore the nature of the gap between its frames with its underlying impossibility.

  • This plus-one process involves three people with a fourth person in a witness role. The plus-one process itself starts with a narrating of a situation by a speaker (1) to a listener (2) in the presence of a person in the plus-one role (3). The following three stages are repeated three times as the three people rotate around these three roles. The person in the witness role bears witness to the whole process of rotating roles.
    Stage 1 involves, in the first iteration, the articulation of the narrative about the situation experienced as problematic/unjust from the speaker’s perspective. Subsequent stage 1 narratives are in each case of a situation experienced by the speaker that shows the meaning of the metaphor they previously identified from their plus-one role.
    Stage 2 involves clarification of the narrative by the listener.
    Stage 3 is the production of a metaphor by the ‘plus-one’ based on a countertransferential ‘hunch’ about the nature of the narrative framing within which the narrative unfolds.
  • The metaphor represents the plus-one’s sense of the shape of the speaker’s relation to the situation that has emerged from the narrative clarified with the listener. The metaphor derives from the feelings evoked in the plus-one by the speaker’s articulation of the narrative and its subsequent clarification by the listener.

The witness will subsequently use the three metaphors that emerge from the plus-one process to hypothesise the ‘other side’ of the original narrative articulated by the speaker as a first step in formulating the gap between the two frames and the underlying impossibility it represents.

  • Having elaborated this ‘other side’ as an alternative process-outcome-consequence narrating of the original situation, the ‘flipping’ consequences in each frame need to be identified, defining the back-and-forth oscillation between them.
  • The witness’s final step is then to hypothesise the nature of the gap between the frames and the underlying impossibility it represents.

Two questions then arise that define the focus of a Boxer parallel process[8]: (i) what is it about the way this dilemma is being held that sets it up in this way; and (ii) what is the nature of the original speaker’s valency for this way of its being ‘set up’. [9]

[1] ‘systemic bias’ is apparent, for example, in institutional racism. I have written about ‘systemic bias’ in a number of its guises. In its extreme forms it edges over into being ‘white collar crime’. The forensic rule in these kinds of case is ‘to follow the money’:
“Defences against innovation: the conservation of vagueness.” (2014) Defences Against Anxiety: Explorations in a Paradigm. D. Armstrong and M. Rustin. London, Karnac: 70-87.
“Betraying the citizen: social defences against innovation.” (2015) Organisational & Social Dynamics 15(1): 1-19.
“Working forensically with toxic thinking: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” (2015) 32nd Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations. Rome, Italy.
“Caring beyond reason: a question of ethics.” (2016) European Academy of Management Conference. Paris.
“On the betrayal of the other’s trauma: the ethics of questioning unconscious investment in turning a blind eye.” (2016) 33rd ISPSO Annual Symposium. Granada.
“Working with defences against innovation: the forensic challenge.” (2017) Organizational and Social Dynamics 17(1): 89-110.
[2] ‘Contains’ aka returns meaning, following Bion’s thinking about what transforms beta-elements to alpha-elements. Beta-elements are experienced as bizarre, provoking anxiety. To contain is therefore epistemic in its effects, transforming the bizarre into something that can be given meaning to.
[3] ‘Holding’ aka limiting the complexity and granularity of the phenomena being faced, following Winnicott. By granularity is meant the scale or level of detail present in the phenomena. The way the child was held by the family situation protected the child from being exposed to phenomena that could be overwhelming or traumatic, inducing a fear of imminent annihilation.  To hold is therefore ontic in its effects, defining reality itself for the child in which the bizarre might occur.
[4] ‘Systemic bias’ aka way of sustaining an identification
[5] To both dismiss and exclude is to disclude…  the exclusion limits the granularity and complexity of the phenomena under consideration, while the dismissal reflects the way of framing.
[6] I use ‘murder’ here because it leads us to the detective genre, which is a valuable metaphor for the challenges of working forensically. See also the use of this metaphor in dilemmas as drivers of change.
[7] A brief summary of the detective genre would start from the detective’s code: dedicated to the victim, economical if not thrifty in his or her expenses and personal habits, loyal to his or her profession, cooperative to some degree with the police, concerned with self-survival, and unwilling to be duped by anyone. See The Detective’s Code. I have written about forensic work in Boxer, P. J. (2017). “Working with defences against innovation: the forensic challenge.” Organizational and Social Dynamics 17(1): 89-110.
[8] Not to be confused with the Balint approach to shadow consulting, of which this is a further development.
[9] Of course taking up either of these questions implies addressing the other question in some way. This implies an ethic to the extent that it demands that a manager takes responsibility for his or her own valencies. This points towards a kind of hippocratic oath for managers – to abstain from doing harm. It also links us back to understanding what is constitutive of unintentional errors.

The fourth ‘witness’ to a plus-one process

February 23rd, 2017

by Philip Boxer

You are in the role of ‘witness’ to a plus-one process. Your task is to develop a reading of the dilemma implicit in the original situation and to form a hypothesis about its underlying impossibility.[1] The repeated way this situation may occur reflects the way the larger environment ‘sets it up’ by the way it holds it.[2] A forensic process aims to understand the means, opportunity and motive for such repetition.  Your task as a ‘witness’ involves the following steps:

  1. Be a silent witness to the whole plus-one cycling of narratives, clarifications and metaphors. Take as many notes as you can of what is being said as it is said. Pay particular attention to the way the metaphors provide ways of reading the original situation.[3]
  2. Summarise the narrative of the original situation in terms of the processes and outcomes described, and its framing assumptions. Create a ‘headline’ that characterises these framing assumptions and identify consequences that follow from the process-outcomes that form a frame-reinforcing cycle.[4]
  3. Decide whether the narrative of the original situation is identified with the dominant frame within the larger context in which it arises, or with an ‘other’ position.
  4. Examine each of the three metaphors in turn, in each case identifying the implicit dilemma it gives voice to, i.e. what is included by the metaphor and what is excluded.[5]
  5. Align one side of each metaphor with the way the narrative framed the original situation and then create an alternative framing that is aligned with what is excluded. Give this alternative framing its own ‘headline’.[6]
  6. Develop a framing assumption, processes, outcome and reinforcing consequence for this alternative framing.[7]
  7. Develop consequences that ‘flip’ each frame into its alternative and disrupt the current frame-reinforcing cycle. Satisfy yourself that these ‘flipping’ consequences describe an oscillation between the two frames.[8]
  8. Hypothesise what the underlying impossibility might be around which this oscillation takes place[9] and consider what it might be about the way the whole dilemma is framed that ‘sets up’ this oscillation.[10]

The mutually exclusive nature of the frames emerging from the plus-one process raises the question of how the oscillation between them is ‘held’ by the larger environment. This ‘holding’ refers not only to the resourcing available from the larger environment (with all the attendant constraints that this resourcing imposes), but also to “the management of experiences that are inherent in existence”,[11] such as the completion (and therefore the responses to non-completion) of processes as defined by that larger environment.

[1] What we want to get to is a formulation of the dilemma implicit in the situation and its underlying impossibility.  To do this we work with the following dilemma template:

[2] The treatment of the situation as a ‘crime scene’ is a way of approaching the question of whether or not this way of holding the situation is necessary, or whether it serves particular interests. See Boxer, P.J. (2017) Working with defenses against innovation: the forensic challenge, Organisational and Social Dynamics, 17(1) pp89-110.
[3] In a plus-one process, the nature of a preoccupying situation emerges from an originating narrative that frames the situation as articulated by a ‘speaker’ and clarified by a ‘listener’. The role of the ‘plus-one’ is to produce a metaphor based on a counter-transferential ‘hunch’ about the nature of the shape of this framing narrative as it relates to what is going on in this situation (‘wigo’). This metaphor is based on the feelings evoked in the plus-one by the relation of the speaker to the whole situation in the narrative as it is spoken, and at the same time points to an alternative ‘other’ narrative to the one articulated by the speaker.

The relations within the plus-one process represent a way of framing what is going on (1 – wigo). Based on the concept of a ‘discursive practice’, the dominant frame is the way of framing ‘authorised’ by the power and knowledge of the dominant culture. This ‘way of framing’ may be characterized (i) by the authorized positions from which sense may be given to it through how the narrative is read (3), (ii) the unifying theme (4) through which its narratives can be made to cohere, reflected in the plus-one’s metaphor for the narrative as a whole, and the objects and concepts in terms of which the narrative is expressed by the speaker (2). The the speaking-and-listening axis (3-2) subject to the framing model (4) provide a shorthand for the way inter-subjective meaning is established.
[4] The dominant frame thus determines the performativity of inter-subjective relations formed subject to its power/knowledge relations. Referring back to the dilemma representation in [2]:

  • the ‘frame’ is defined by its ‘unifying theme’, entailing an ‘axiomatic’ unquestionable assumption that governs its performativity with respect to wigo;
  • the ‘processes’, ‘outcomes’ and ‘reinforcing consequences’ are what maintain the performativity of this framing of ‘concepts’ and ‘objects’ with respect to what is going on (wigo) in the originating situation, as made sense of by the listener.

[5] The metaphors are created each time by the person in the ‘plus-one’ position, who has been listening to the way the speaking-and-listening process has made sense of the situation narrated by the speaker. This metaphor is chosen because it best speaks of the overall sense that has emerged for the plus-one from the speaking-and-listening about the situation. The plus-one has then elaborated on the metaphor as if it were a dream, making no attempt to relate its contents to the situation. This enables a good ‘feel’ to develop for what the metaphor is getting at.
[6] This is a matter of looking for the choice that was implicit in the metaphor. In effect we are looking for the ‘nightmare stage’ of the narrative situation speaking to the metaphor. For more on this way of reading a narrative in terms of the stages of ‘anticipation’, ‘dream’, ‘frustration’, ‘nightmare’ and ‘miraculous’, see betraying the citizen.  The plus-one metaphor thus points towards an alternative ‘other’ narrative that enables the witness to formulate an alternative framing narrative of the originating situation. The validity of this ‘other’ narrative for the original speaker depends on establishing corroborating evidence of a ‘flipping’ consequence that can disrupt the performativity of the originating frame, flipping those involved with wigo into an alternative framing narrative subject to a different axiomatic.
[7] This alternative narrative is implicitly bound to the originating narrative through the way it will capture an oscillation. The ‘otherness’ of the alternative narrative reflects the way it is repressed by the dominant narrative, lying ‘below the surface’ of the speaker’s consciousness until it is brought to light, in this case by a plus-one process (Naylor, D., S. Woodward, S. Garrett and P. Boxer (2016). “What do we need to do to keep people safer?” Journal of Social Work Practice.). Taken together with the dominant narrative, however, it will point towards the underlying impossibility.
[8] The origin of this approach to understanding dilemmas lies with the Milan method of systemic family therapy (Cronen, V. E. and W. B. Pearce (1985). Toward an Explanation of How the Milan Method Works: An Invitation to a Systemic Epistemology and The Evolution of Family Systems. Applications of Systemic Family Therapy: The Milan Approach. D. Campbell and R. Draper. London, Grune & Stratton.). The following representation is a way of thinking about the oscillation over time between its two sides (Hampden-Turner, C. (1990). Charting the Corporate Mind: From Dilemma to Strategy. Oxford, Basil Blackwell.).

  • The two Γ’s on the left and on the right frame ways of giving meaning to what is going on (wigo). The frame on the left is the dominant frame, while the frame on the right is ‘other’.  Within each frame there is an implicit assumption held axiomatically, governing the reasoning within the frame. The cycle of process-outcome-consequence then reinforces this assumption.
  • There is also a ‘flipping’ consequence that disrupts the self-reinforcing cycle within a frame, pushing the people involved with what is going on (wigo) into a different frame.
  • The mutually exclusive nature of the two frames reflects an underlying impossibility, represented by the black dot.

[9] The dilemma’s implicit relation to an underlying impossibility is the relation to the objet petit a of an underlying lack, apparent in the oscillation around the black spot and referred to as ‘what is Really going on’ (wiRgo). For the person in the role of witness, the emergence of the ‘other’ framing reflects an underlying ambivalence implicit in their framing of the originating situation.
[10] Campbell, D. and M. Groenbaek (2006). Taking Positions in the Organization. London, Karnac.
[11] Winnicott, D. W. (1960). “The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 41: 585-595.

The fourth dilemma: an ethics for the fourth estate?

October 27th, 2016

by Philip Boxer
The need for asymmetric leadership arises when an enterprise must be dynamically responsive to its clients one-by-one in the way it supports a client’s experience. Examples would be providing a weather forecast for a particular operational mission, the health care of a patient with an ongoing condition, supporting a bank’s management of its capital adequacy within changing regulatory constraints, or providing multiple versions of a print newspaper for different readerships: {weather; healthcare; capital adequacy; news}.

A consequence is the need to move towards privileging the demands of a horizontal relationship to a singular demand, even though while remaining subject to constraints imposed by vertical accountability relationships. I have referred to this approach to governance elsewhere as an East-West dominant approach. In the example cases, this involves being able to dynamically align behaviors {forecasting; orchestrations of care pathways; risk exposure; print version} to the singular demand {mission profile;  patient’s condition; risk situation; community of interest}.  Inherent to this approach is the notion that the client’s demand is asymmetric to the supplier’s thinking, so that there is always a value deficit – a ‘more’ still to be addressed {the forecast is never wholly accurate; the condition is never fully understood; the information about the credit risk is always imperfect; the news always leaves the community of interest with unanswered questions}.

To think through what are the distinguishing characteristics of the ecosystem of organisations necessary to sustaining these forms of dynamic alignment, a fundamental distinction has to be made between the stratification needed to sustain responses to symmetric as distinct from asymmetric forms of demand. While the former strata must deliver economies of scale and scope, the latter strata must deliver economies of alignment. These strata are shown in the following in terms of strata 1-4 supporting symmetrically-defined market segments, and strata 5-6 addressing the orchestration and synchronisation of responses to asymmetric demands one-by-one:[1]

The squiggly line marks a fundamental tension between the supply-side orientation of maximising the value to be derived from ‘possible behaviors’ through creating economies of scale and scope (creating as much value as possible for the supplier without jeopardising the customer relationship); and the demand-side orientation of minimising the client’s value deficit through creating economies of alignment (creating as much value as possible for the client without jeopardising the sustainability of the supplier). Each ‘box’ represents a matrix. The relationships between these matrices reflect three asymmetries that have to be managed in bringing the supply-side into relation with the demand-side, depending on the nature of the relationship that suppliers take up to clients’ demands (and how much is left to clients):

  • 1st asymmetry: the technology (1) is not the product (2)
  • 2nd asymmetry: the business (3) is not the solution (4)
  • 3rd asymmetry: the client’s demand (5) is not the client’s experience (6)

Viewed from the perspective of an individual client, a business focused on minimising the client’s value deficit can never hope to provide all the supply-side solutions that have to be orchestrated and synchronised with the client’s situation – it takes an ecosystem of suppliers. A fourth asymmetry emerges, therefore, to the extent that the value deficit is to be minimised.[2] In the examples these would be the domains in which there was effective know-how capable of {forecasting in a dynamic complex adaptive weather system; intervening on the body’s dis-ease; analysing the dynamic interactions between a business model and its environments; editorialising content in relation to particular readers’ interests}.  This fourth asymmetry is that

  • what the client experiences is never all of what the client wants

Holding this fourth asymmetry[3] means empowering the edges of the organisation where this asymmetry is encountered.[4] This brings us to the question(ing) of an ethics for the fourth estate.

The fourth dilemma facing the fourth estate
Consider the fourth of our case examples.  Reporters are despatched into the field to assemble material that can generate news stories. These are orchestrated within an editorial narrative to be read by different communities of interest:

The fourth asymmetry is that whatever actually gets read is never the whole story – a gap is always left. So does the fourth estate pursue the gaps, or does it make do with what it can easily find from existing sources? This is the ethical question for the fourth estate – some would say its raison d’être in a democracy.  Returning to our examples, an ethical challenge can be identified in each case: {forecasting when lives are at stake; early diagnosis greatly improving future quality of life; the value is in enabling the client to sustain the indirect benefits of the investment; a lack of real understanding destroys the ability of citizens to hold others accountable}.

[1] These strata are explored in more detail in a series of postings linked to by the summary: So you say you want to put your clients first… These matrices represent possible behaviors. As is described in these postings, however, the actual behaviors are determined by ‘organisation’ imposed by people. In the diagram below, this organisation, which is constraining behavior in matrices 1-6, is shown as the ‘B’ matrices. The oval matrices represent the limiting behaviors (0) and dimensions of deficit (7):
Note how ‘possible behaviors’ are thus made subject to vertical accountabilities, while the experience of value deficits are subject to the way behaviors are horizontally linked to situation.  Giving priority to value deficits therefore involves some degree of surrendering sovereignty in the way vertical accountability is imposed.
[2] This means putting the ‘domain of relevance’ into question, questioning the nature of the private good being served by the relationship. See the concept of strategy ceiling.
[3] The organisation focused on this fourth asymmetry must adopt a tripartite approach to leadership, capable of holding this inevitable tensions between minimising the value deficit while still remaining a sustainable organisation:
[4] The concept of rings and wedges provides a way of thinking about how the supply-side and demand-side are held in relation to each other. The tripartite approach, taken in the example below from work on leadership qualities, involves leadership that can balance the vertical constraints of operational leadership with the horizontal outcomes demanded by Front-Line leadership:

The Governance of Specialist Care: a question of ethics?

November 19th, 2014

by Philip Boxer BSc MBA PhD

This paper, presented at the OPUS 2014 Conference, describes a two-year intervention within an organization providing residential care for men and women with mental health disabilities. This intervention, in support of the CEO and senior management team, took place during the mid-90’s when the UK Government was engaged in de-institutionalisation, making the transition to Community Care and instituting internal market reforms. The intervention itself was concerned with supporting innovations in the way the work of the organization supported the lives of its residents. These innovations were necessary to the continuing viability of the organisation as a specialist care organisation.

The paper is written from the perspective of 20 years later, making it possible to contrast the hopes and aspirations of both the consultants and the client at the time of the intervention with what actually happened to the organisation subsequently. The paper describes the way the authorisation of the consultants was drawn from the consulting approach. It describes the orthogonality that this demanded of the consultants, through which underlying dilemmas could be surfaced about the nature of the client system’s work. Three issues emerged from the intervention that are addressed by the paper: firstly, the nature and complexity of the client system in its networked environment and the extent of the innovation that this demanded; secondly, the nature of the consulting approach involved in responding to this demand; and thirdly, the implications this approach had for the governance of the client system.

From the perspective of 20 years later, it is not a surprise that the social defences against anxiety won out over the desire for innovation. This gives rise to a fourth issue however: what change in the relationship to the unconscious was being expected of the governance of the client system, what kind of courage did this demand, and what were the unconscious dynamics underlying the Trustees’ refusal to innovate? The paper concludes by considering the nature of orthogonality and the change in the relationship to the unconscious that this demanded of the governance of the client system, a change that involved an ethics that could move from ‘defending against anxiety’ to ‘being true to desire’. The paper concludes by considering the implications these ethics have for a different kind of group relations experience that can explore the existential impact of such changes, so necessary in networked environments.

Minding the gap – three moments of time

March 19th, 2014

by Philip Boxer

How do we engage, describe and work without boundaries? How do we move beyond the familiar BART (boundary, authority, role, task) view of systems? And what does it mean to take up a network approach to leadership? A recent Regional Meeting of ISPSO in London took up these questions in terms of the ‘network-coach’ discourse, based on Simon Western’s work on Coaching and Mentoring[1]. This work very usefully distinguishes four kinds of discourse about the nature of coaching and mentoring, based on his research. This led Simon to ask me to clarify three ‘moments’ of time[2] that, while potentially facing a person in any one of these discourses, become particularly critical in the network-coach discourse.

Three moments of time
I described my work with a CEO who started our work together by describing a particular challenge he faced: he could not fit what his not-for-profit did into the normal kinds of business planning framework – service products, markets, competitive strengths and weaknesses, 5-year cashflow prediction etc. The not-for-profit was providing intensive social care, operating in the gap between the social services provided by the UK Government and individuals’ and families’ needs.

  1. The challenge he faced was a crisis for him that had arisen because of the planning framework his Board had asked him to use, which had defined a first moment for him[3] but which had brought about this first crisis – what the not-for-profit was actually doing did not fit the normal kind of business planning framework.
  2. The second moment[4] involved us working together to understand what was different about the economics of his not-for-profit, about how it needed to be organised differently, and about the different kinds of relationship this demanded between its employees and those to whom it provided care.  The result was a business plan that was accepted by the Board to form the basis of the next 5 years’ work by the not-for-profit, but also a second crisis – something else was needed if the not-for-profit was to develop different ways of actually behaving, a something else that was beyond any business plan. This second crisis was one in which the existing approach faces an impossibility.[5]
  3. So with this second crisis came a crunch time.  Something new was needed in the way the CEO engaged with the employees of the not-for-profit.  As it turned out, this inaugurated a third moment[6] in which a whole new challenge emerged initiating a new cycle of work aimed at addressing this challenge, but it took courage for him to accept this new challenge and ‘own’ the need to take it up.

These three moments of time and the two crises that separate them can be summarised as follows:

  • 1st moment: Accepting the stated problem/challenge and hoping that the existing approach will work.
  • 1st Crisis: Realising that the existing approach will not work on its own.
  • 2nd moment: Getting to grips with the details of the particular situation and adapting the approach to try to make it work.
  • 2nd Crisis: Realising that there is a fundamental limitation to the way the approach can be made to work.
  • 3rd moment: The persons involved put themselves ‘on the line’ in some way in order to act from something new that has the possibility of addressing the gap that has emerged.

These moments of time form a cycle of learning that is only bearable if the gap can be acknowledged – not hidden behind ‘solutions’. So in this case, the CEO works with the knowledge that the gap will always be there however good the ‘solution’ appears to be, and that by remaining aware of this gap, he can work with it while looking for the next gap to appear, which in turn will need to be acknowledged and worked through.

Minding the gap
This relation to the gap is what underlies Simon’s network-coaching discourse – realising that we don’t have neat boundaries, authority, role and task, that there is always a gap, and that the network society we live and work in presents us with increasing connectivity that pushes not towards identifying authority vertically in roles, but towards addressing horizontal rhizome-like power, power that is everywhere and yet cannot be pinned down. Simon’s conclusion was that, at best, we can find quilting points[7] that can anchor our relation to these networks for long enough to enable us to make good-enough sense and to act – until the next gap appears.

Further thoughts on ‘minding the gap’
Further insight into what is involved in ‘minding the gap’ may be gained by looking more closely at the second crisis. This second crisis, corresponding to the ‘nightmare’ stage in a narrative structure [8], is frequently where people stop. In effect, what has happened is that a person has come to the end of conscious reasoning. The person may even be perfectly aware that what they are continuing to do makes no sense. But something stops them from going further. It is as if a higher authority has said: “Stop. Go no further. Not another word. It’s just not possible to go any further, and you are going to have to make do with what you have.” This is like a first moment within this second crisis.

If the person continues, by saying “yes, but look what is going on. Surely things can’t be left like this. There must be something more that can be done.” This time, the stunned response from the higher authority is: “What do you want? What do you expect of me? Who are you to expect more to be done. Don’t you see how much is being done already? Stop making problems.” This is the second moment in this second crisis.

Now comes the crunch. If the person still continues to insist that it must be possible to do something, then the question asked of the person moves to being their own question: “what do I want? What am I prepared to do about this situation that feels so wrong. I am going to have to go beyond what I know here if I am to do something more.” This is the third moment in this second crisis that leads directly into the third moment.

What does this say about the nature of the gap that needs minding? It is that this gap is experienced as a [small-d] desire to do more, to go beyond what is known in the service of doing something more. In lacanese, to ‘mind the gap’ in this sense is to take up the ethical imperative to be true to [big-D] Desire – an ethic that demands that the subject ‘pays with their being’ in the sense of putting themselves on the line in some way.[9]

[1] Coaching and Mentoring: A Critical Text (2012) Sage.
[2] These three moments of time are based on the three moments in Lacan, J. (2006 [1966]). Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty: A New Sophism. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. New York, W.W. Norton & Co.
[3] The instant of the glance, ibid. This is the idea that you should be able to understand just by looking.
[4] The time for understanding, ibid. This involves having to work things out by thinking things through. The reasoning depends on the framework within which it is done.
[5] For more on the challenges of surfacing the nature of this impossibility, see working on the edge.
[6] The moment to conclude, ibid. The third moment is the moment in which the ‘challenge of the case’ is taken up, a new challenge that demands that the person puts themselves ‘on-the-line’ by going beyond what they know in choosing to take up the new challenge in their behaviour.
[7] These points of anchorage are ‘points de capitons‘ in Lacanese.
[8] For more on this, see “Betraying the citizen: social defences against innovation.” (2015) Organisational & Social Dynamics 15(1): 1-19.
[9] The reasoning behind these three moments within the second crisis comes from a session given during the course of Lacan’s XXVI 1978-79 seminar series on 8th May by Alain Didier-Weil in “A new theory of the Superego”. Didier-Weil, A. (1979). Nouvelle théorie du Surmoi. Book XXVI – Topology and Time. J. Lacan. unpublished.

The Governance of Quality

January 27th, 2014

by Philip Boxer BSc MBA PhD
Over a period of three years, 1994 to 1997, I consulted to an organisation providing residential care for men and women with mental health disabilities.  This was in the middle of the changes taking place in the UK to introduce ‘internal markets’ and the de-institutionalisation deemed necessary to providing ‘Care in the Community’.

The work was undertaken together with Barry Palmer[1], and presented at the 1997 ISPSO Annual Meeting in Philadelphia under the title The Architecture of Quality. The work established a way of enabling the organisation to adapt its work to this newly emerging environment in which the proactive pursuit of individuals’ care in the community could be put first.  It did this by tackling the north-south bias in the architecture of the organisation and establishing the need for asymmetric forms of leadership capable of realising east-west dominant forms of governance.[2]

By 2001, the CEO and senior management team of the organisation had left, and the organisation had begun reverting to its previous role as a provider of sheltered accommodation.  A more recent paper describes the subsequent events that led to this eventual outcome – The Governance of Quality. One response to this more recent paper would be to characterise the Trustees of the organisation as lacking courage.  But why should a Board of Trustees choose

  • innovating to deliver new levels of service to residents at lower cost while having to learn a whole lot of new ways of doing things, and
  • dealing with a whole lot of compliance issues for which historically they knew accountability could be reliably ‘delegated’, but would no longer be able to be ‘delegated’ so easily?

The Trustees chose the entirely reasonable alternative of running the traditional model of providing accommodation plus basic services under the auspices of housing provision.  The Trustees passed the test of whether the alternative they chose was “reasonable”: a reasonable person could not have been expected to choose otherwise.  But was this work we were engaged in together about what was reasonable? To quote the CEO:

I would not want to just look at the Trustees’ behaviour and motivation. I also resisted stepping beyond my know-how. I carried resistance while simultaneously espousing doing different. This is why I think the link to extreme sports is a useful one and perhaps to courage in general[3]. What is it to do the right thing? And how does one ‘know’? I think that ideas have been under-emphasised in any leadership framework. Instead, the emphasis has been on emotional intelligence which, while being important, is just not enough – being ‘good’ does not guarantee that things will work better!

Two kinds of learning emerged about the intervention from looking back at the process overall:

  1. There was a parallel process going on from the beginning, in which the CEO was receiving personal support in coping with how he took up this new role, support that had preceded his new role.  Having taken up the role as CEO, I was consulting to him concurrently with this other support, my task being to help him develop ways of tackling the leadership challenge he faced.  The splitting of these two aspects of support to the CEO – containing anxiety and innovating – paralleled the way support to the organisation was split between the governance task facing the Trustees and the leadership task facing the CEO. The full implications of this split did not become apparent until 2001.  Barry and I were not able to work the parallel process effectively.
  2. The envisioning of internal markets and de-institutionalisation was accompanied neither by any understanding of how the transition should be managed, nor by any support for the transition itself.  The rhetoric was that all this should be ‘left to the market’.  Even had we addressed the split in our consultation to the organisation, Trustees and Management together would have had to act very strategically to survive the disruptions to funding that would have arisen during the transition – a transition that is still ongoing!  This was because the economics of an east-west dominant organisation are both different to and more complex than those of the north-south dominant form.

But there was something more that we learnt, in that what we thought was the challenge of the case turned out to be much more of a challenge than we realised at the time…

  • Yes, the way the intervention unfolded was hugely particular to the situated nature of both us and the organisation;
  • Yes, both Trustees and Management needed courage, although possibly not as much courage as that of residents resisting being ‘parked’ in their lives by the (counter-resistance of the) existing organisation; and
  • Yes, we consultants needed to grasp the fundamentally different kind of economics that were being engendered by operating explicitly in a turbulent environment in which residents had to be responded to one-by-one.

But beyond all of that,

  • We consultants needed to recognise that what was being demanded of us in our way of working was a relationship to anxiety that involved our being prepared to ‘pay with our being’ – to go beyond what we knew and to put ourselves ‘on the line’.[4] That had to include our relationships with each other, through which the parallel process would have needed to be worked much further [5]

Which brings us back to the place of anxiety, our courage in all this and the different nature of the relationship to anxiety involved in innovation.[6]  Again to quote the CEO:

What I also know now is the investment I had in ego psychology, which Barry perhaps shared. Nailing the attitude to anxiety was one of the most important things noted in both versions of the paper. Any work had to be anchored to making it better for patients, a ‘work’ that we all had to have an investment in.

[1] Alongside the paper on The Architecture of Quality, other relevant papers by or with Barry are Meeting the Challenge of the Case (except that in retrospect, the challenge of this case was more than we thought at the time!), In which the Tavistock paradigm is considered as a discursive practice (thinking about how to situate the approaches associated with Barry’s role with the CEO as manifesting a particular form of discursive practice), and The Tavistock Paradigm: Inside, outside and beyond (laying the foundations for a new set of questions to which we are still trying to find adequate responses).
[2] Simon Western addresses these forms of leadership in his writing on eco-leadership.
[3] This is a reference to current thinking going on about the role of courage in overcoming defences against innovation – see the conclusion to Counter-resistance is always on the side of the supplier-provider.
[4] Which we had nevertheless formulated in 1994 in Meeting the Challenge of the Case, even if we hadn’t realised the extent of it.
[5] This comes up as a central issue in facing the future of the psychoanalytic study of organisations.
[6] This is to be the focus of a forthcoming paper to be presented at the 2014 Annual Meeting of ISPSO in Santiago – ‘Betraying the citizen: social defences against innovation’.

What makes leadership ‘asymmetric’?

October 20th, 2013

by Philip Boxer BSc MBA PhD

The blog on Requisite Authority argues that Asymmetric Leadership becomes necessary when competing in the ‘red zone’ – the zone in which the enterprise must be dynamically responsive to its clients one-by-one. But what does this mean for a person in the leadership position?  The answer boils down to the pursuit of four agendas that have to be held in balance, a lack of balance between them (i.e. unequal attention to each) leading to the collapse of the whole leadership effort:[1,2]


  • North[3]: Hold the context and provide ‘top cover’ for all those working within the enterprise.  Sustain the steadiness of intent of the enterprise.
  • East[4]: Legitimise questioning in the name of what-the-client-wants, so that the enterprise never loses a sense of its ‘edge’. Allow the otherness of the client to lead you to what is needed in their situation.
  • South[5]: Ensure that the supporting resources and infrastructures are appropriately agile, so that it becomes practicable to take up the questioning and to do something effective in response.  Know where you are and what is possible.
  • West[6]: Make it in people’s interests to engage both with the questioning and with finding ways of responding effectively, which is both a matter of the way individuals benefit from their work and also a matter of enabling them to be equipped with the appropriate skills, knowledge and experience to act effectively. Enable people to align whatever is available from the South to the demands from the East within the context of the North.

What makes leadership asymmetric?  It is that its authority is derived from enabling the enterprise’s responses to each client situation to be appropriately aligned in each case, one-by-one.  Its authority is not derived from what is already-known by the enterprise  – that already-known, vested in the leader, rendering his or her leadership symmetric aka North South dominant.  An example of this is given in considering what makes practice-based commissioning difficult in practice.

[1] This notion of balance was based originally on The Book of Five Rings written by Shinmen Musashi in 1645 (Allison & Busby: London, 1974), and in particular its notion of the void: “By void I mean that which has no beginning and no end.  Attaining this principle means not attaining the principle. The Way of strategy is the Way of nature.  When you appreciate the power of nature, knowing the rhythm of any situation, you will be able to hit the enemy naturally and strike naturally”. For us, this “enemy” is that which prevents us from continuing to be dynamically responsive to the situation.
[2] What makes this balance so difficult is the very different nature of each of the four agendas. Thus on the one hand is the conveyance of a shared sense of what the enterprise is about (N), and the grounding of this in meeting the challenges of each client’s situation (E). But in order for HR policies and systems of accountability to support dynamic alignment (E), and in order for the enterprise’s resources and infrastructures to deliver requisite agility (S) a wholly different order of complexity and timescale have to be managed. Failing to balance the ‘relationships’ (NE) with the ‘engineering’ (SW) means a split between a NE espoused theory and a SW theory-in-use with fatal consequences for the development of the enterprise as a whole.  The nine varieties of ground provide a way of thinking about the different kinds of challenge leadership faces as the four agendas become unbalanced.
[3] Fire: “This book is about fighting.  The spirit of fire is fierce, whether the fire be small or big; and so it is in battles.  This is the steadiness of intent with which the client challenges are enabled to be met.
[4] Wind: “This book is not concerned with my Ichi school but with other schools of strategy.  By Wind I mean old traditions, present-day traditions, and family traditions of strategy… it is difficult to know yourself if you do not know others. To all Ways there are side-tracks.  If you study a Way daily, and your spirit diverges, you may think you are obeying a good Way but objectively it is not the true Way.  If you are following the true Way and diverge a little, this later will become a large divergence.”  This is the ability to recognise and respond to what is ‘other’ about the client situation that is expressing an unmet need.
[5] Ground: “It is difficult to realise the true Way just through sword-fencing.  Know the smallest things and the biggest things, the shallowest things and the deepest things.  As if it were a straight road mapped out on the ground…”. This is about knowing were you stand in all respects in being able to act effectively.
[6] Water: ‘With water as the basis, the spirit becomes like water.  Water adopts the shape of its receptacle, it is sometimes a trickle and sometimes a wild sea. ”  This is about neither the ‘organisation-in-the-mind’ nor the ‘world-in-the-mind’ being frozen, but being able to take up the shape of what is being faced.

What identifications are supported on dispersive ground?

October 18th, 2013

by Philip Boxer

The conditions for triple-loop learning require that the enterprise becomes edge-driven. This places it on dispersive ground.  The identifications that need to be supported on dispersive ground are those involving triple-loop learning.  These identifications keep the organisation on the deliberative ground of politics on which differences can be worked through within East-West dominant forms of governance.[1] Failure to achieve this leads to three other kinds of competitive behavior (Tai Chi, Sumo and Samurai), the consequences of which become most apparent in warfare.

Consider the balance between the will of the people involved with a membership organisation (ranging from a majority to particular networks of members) and the means acceptable to the people of the organisation (ranging from by-any-means to means restricted by the extent of collateral damage).  This is based on military ways of thinking about the relation between different types of warfare and politics.  It provides an insight into what is at stake for the leadership of an organisation dealing with growing differentiation in the demands of its members. With alignment, there is a symmetry between the will of the members and the means adopted by the organisation.  Without alignment, there is an asymmetry.

Looked at it in this way,

  • Insurgent operations are the consequence of not responding to members’ demands for differentiation of behavior, combining the limited will of a network of members with no restraints by them on the damage they inflict on the ‘others’ who do not agree with them (i.e. being on difficult/bad, serious/deep or frontier ground).
  • Effects-based operations are the response by the majority of the people of the organisation to suppressing the will of those who do not agree with the majority, a highly targeted response that limits collateral damage beyond the networks in disagreement (i.e. being on focal/intersecting, encircled or communicating ground).

The danger of either asymmetric response arises from its enabling the organisation to postpone responding to and providing support for the growing heterogeneity in the way members meet demands. The challenge, of course, is for the organisation only to accept asymmetric responses as being on the way to operating on the dispersive ground of ‘politics’, ground on which growing difference may be lived with and supported – presenting leadership with the task of leading an organisation without boundaries.

These ‘nine-varieties of ground’ make it possible to distinguish three kinds of competitive behavior, depending on the nature of the ground.  The fourth ‘political’ kind involves developing leadership qualities that overcome the North-South bias:

  • Tai Chi – do not confront the other’s organisation on its terms – most appropriate on encircled ground (aka effects-based operations).
  • Samurai – challenge the other’s behaviour ruthlessly wherever you meet it – most appropriate on serious/deep ground (aka insurgency).
  • Sumo – dominate the chosen ground by weight of presence – most appropriate on death ground (aka the other’s attrition).

Death ground is ground defined by the organisation’s formation being defined wholly by its affiliation to a past intent and not by its relation to the current situation(s) on the ground – it is as if the organisation has no choice but to fight to the death, which in an environment demanding dynamic alignment is very likely to be its own death!

[1] Deliberative process is not to be confused with consultative process.

  • Deliberative democracy holds that, for a democratic decision to be legitimate, it must be preceded by authentic deliberation, not merely the aggregation of preferences that occurs in voting. Authentic deliberation is deliberation among decision-makers that is free from distortions of unequal political power, such as power a decision-maker obtained through economic wealth or the support of interest groups. If the decision-makers cannot reach consensus after authentically deliberating on a proposal, then they vote on the proposal using a form of majority rule.” This is taken up in Robert’s Rules of Order: “Out of early American legislative procedure and paralleling it in further development has come the general parliamentary law, or common parliamentary law, of today, which is adapted to the needs of organizations and assemblies of widely differing purposes and conditions. The kind of gathering in which parliamentary law is applicable is known as a deliberative assembly. This expression was used by Edmund Burke to describe the English Parliament, in a speech to the electorate at Bristol in 1774; and it became the basic term for a body of persons meeting (under conditions detailed on pp. 1-2) to discuss and determine upon common action.”  (11th edition) page xxix

This is in contrast to consultative process:

  • “A consultative approach is a means of achieving stakeholder involvement and commitment. Decision making remains the responsibility of top leaders, but only after key stakeholders have been consulted. The results and how they are obtained are both important.” (quoted from this glossary.) “With a consultative style of management, a more paternalistic form is also essentially dictatorial. However, decisions take into account the best interests of the employees as well as the business. Communication is again generally downward, but feedback to the management is encouraged to maintain morale. It shares disadvantages with an autocratic style, such as employees becoming dependent on the leader.”

Creating the conditions for triple-loop learning

October 16th, 2013

by Philip Boxer

The blog on Requisite Authority introduces a diagnostic tool that examines the different possible forms of congruence between role and task, depending on how an enterprise defines its boundaries and its relationships across those boundaries.  The underlying drivers of this congruence are the need to differentiate behaviours in response to differentiated demands, and to integrate those differentiated behaviours in the interests of the enterprise as a whole.  This thinking applies to any enterprise, but situational resistance is easier to understand when it is applied to a membership organisation responding to the needs of its members – the modern democratic state responding to the needs of its citizens being an instance of this, another instance being a state actor within an ecosystem, as in the case of the UK’s National Health Service and Social Services responding to local primary care doctors. In the case of a membership organisation, then, consider what happens when

  • either its leadership insists on an organisation that is not congruent with the behaviors its members feel to be necessary in responding to demands ‘on the ground’,
  • or its members, responding to demands ‘on the ground’, insist on behaviors that are not congruent with the way their leadership expects to support them.

Some such loss of alignment is inevitable in the process of a membership organisation responding to growing demands from its members. This may be because members responding to demands ‘on the ground’ either get ahead of or lag behind their leadership[1]. Either way, situational resistance describes resistance by members in which their behaviors ‘on the ground’ challenge the leadership’s approach to sustaining the (competitive) identity of the organisation. A response from leadership to such challenges that aims to conserve the existing identifications supported by the organisation is then counter-resistance.

To think about what kinds of balance emerge between the governance processes of the organisation and members responding ‘on the ground’ to changing demands, three kinds of alignment can be distinguished between the two sides of the diamond:

  • The ‘role culture’ expected by leadership is over-determining of how roles should be taken up by members (lhs), reflecting members’ behaviors being over-determined by the nature of the situations they face ‘on the ground’ (rhs) – no choices are left open to role-holders nor do they need to be available to members in practice.
  • The ‘power’ and ‘achievement cultures’ in which leadership constrains but does not over-determine how roles should be taken up by members (lhs), reflecting members being constrained but not over-determined by the nature of the situations they face ‘on the ground’ (rhs) – some choices are left open to role-holders and need to be available to members in practice.
  • The ‘support culture’ expected by leadership is under-determining of how roles should be taken up by members (lhs), reflecting members’ behaviors needing to be under-determined in relation to the situations they face ‘on the ground’ (rhs) – choices are left open to role-holders, in practice needing to be left open to members.

These three kinds of alignment correspond to three possible ways in which leadership may understand how role and task should be aligned:

  • Death ground[2]: the leadership organises particular ways of supporting its members, on the basis of which it must either dominate the competition or die. (For example Nokia competing on the functionality of their handsets alone.)
  • Key/Contentious ground[3]: while still hierarchical, the leadership is flexing the support it provides to its members, but only in limited ways alongside competitors who will be doing the same thing but in different ways.  Attacking competitors is therefore dangerous because they are as capable of extending into the organisation’s domain as vice versa. (For example Microsoft competing with other platform suppliers that provide overlapping capabilities.)
  • Dispersive ground[4]: ground on which the situations faced by members must be responded to one-by-one, so that the identity of the organisation must be derived from the nature of the situations faced by its members.  On this ground, competitors are secondary to members, and the leadership needs to enable its members to share a strong sense of a shared ethic in how they work if the organisation is not to lose a sense of its raison d’être. (For example, a Google becoming all things to all comers and losing people to business start-ups.)

What then happens when there is not this alignment?  There are three ways in which members’ behaviors may demand more support from the organisation than it can currently integrate:

  • Difficult/Bad ground[5]: Members’ behaviors in the situations they face are more complex than those supported by the organisation.  Those trying to do more must press on in the hope that the organisation will catch up. (For example, a development project facing initial technical hurdles to realising its plans.)
  • Serious/Deep ground[6]: Members’ behaviors are wholly driven by the situations they face ‘on the ground’, but the support they need is wholly beyond the capabilities of the organisation.  To survive, those involved in these situations must depend on the benefit they derive directly ‘on the ground’. (For example, a development project that is not supported by its host culture must look for support from its customers.)
  • Frontier ground[7]: The organisation is beginning to integrate the more complex forms of support needed by its members, but not to a sufficient extent. The members needing these more complex forms of support must press on and expect the organisation to catch up. (For example, a development project still held back from fulfilling its promise as an edge-driven business.)

And there are three ways in which the organisation may be capable of integrating more complex forms of support than those demanded by its members:

  • Focal/Intersecting ground[8]: The support needed by members ‘on the ground’ is limited and the organisation is capable of integrating more complex forms of support.  To survive competitively, the organisation must forge alliances with other organisations satisfying different but related behaviors in order that together, their memberships can make effective use of the organisation’s capabilities. (For example, a dotcom trying to build its linkages to other dotcoms in order to improve its offering to its clients.)
  • Encircled ground[9]: The support needed by members ‘on the ground’ is still limited and the organisation is capable of integrating more complex forms of support.  This capability is used by leadership to manage competitors’ understanding of the opportunities open to their members (using ‘stratagems’) as a way of keeping the leadership’s own options open. (For example, a dotcom that must walk before it can run in building revenues while trying to head off competitors from developing services that will compete with its intended future offerings.)
  • Communicating ground[10]: The support needed by competitors’ members ‘on the ground’ are more complex, but while the organisation is able to support those more complex behaviors, it needs to limit itself to making sure that it only supports the behaviors of its own members ‘on the ground’. (For example, a dotcom choosing not to integrate all the services it could in order to preserve its market focus.)

The resultant 9 varieties of competitive ground on which the leadership of an organisation may find itself can be expressed in terms of two axes[11]:

  • An axis of movement, being the relation of members’ task behaviors to the actual situations they face ‘on the ground’, and
  • An axis of difficulty, being the relation of the support provided by the organisation to its members, through which different forms of support can be provided to members’ appropriately differentiated behaviors ‘on the ground’.

Changes in position within the resultant diagram provide insights into the challenges that the leadership of an organisation faces in responding to growth in its members’ demands, derived from the challenges they face in keeping task and role aligned to each other.  To the extent that the leadership of an organisation seeks to conserve its identity (aka exercise counter-resistance), resisting the challenges arising from members’ situational resistance, it is likely that the organisation has become impaled by some previously traumatic alignment.[12]

[1] This issue of the relationship between an enterprise and its environments is explored in THE environment does not exist, its point being that the environment does not exist in general, but always as a number of particular contexts that may not be apparent to leadership. The members ‘on the ground’ may thus be responding to a different ‘logic’ to that expected of them by their leadership and vice versa, where the leaders are responding to interests not perceived by members to be their interests.
[2] Ground in which the army survives only if it fights with the courage of desperation is called death ground. In death ground, fight. Make it evident that there is no chance of survival.
[3] Ground that is equally advantageous for the enemy or me to occupy is key ground. Do not attack an enemy who occupies key ground. Hasten up my rear elements.
[4] When a feudal lord fights in his own territory, he is in dispersive ground. Do not fight in dispersive ground. Unify the determination of the army.
[5] When the army traverses mountains, forests, precipitous country, or marches through defiles, marshlands, or swamps, or any place where the going is hard, it is in difficult ground. In difficult ground, press on. Press on over the roads.
[6] When the army has penetrated deep into hostile territory, leaving far behind many enemy cities and towns, it is in serious ground. In deep ground, plunder. Ensure a continuous flow of provisions.
[7] When he makes but a shallow penetration into enemy territory he is on frontier ground. Do not stop in the frontier borderlands. Keep my forces closely linked.
[8] When a state is enclosed by three other states its territory is focal. In focal ground, ally with neighboring states. Strengthen my alliances.
[9] Ground to which access is constricted, where the way out is tortuous, and where a small enemy force can strike my larger one is called encircled. In encircled ground, devise stratagems. Block the points of access and egress.
[10] Ground equally accessible to both the enemy and me is communicating. In communicating ground do not allow your formations to become separated. Pay strict attention to my defences.
[11] These two axes refer to the way behaviors are differentiated in relation to demand situations (movement), and the way differentiated behaviors are themselves integrated, i.e. held in relation to each other (difficulty) – see integrating differentiated behaviours.  ‘Ground’ here refers to the nature of the competitive landscape within which identity is challenged, the nine varieties of ground being taken from Sun Tzu’s work on ‘The Art of War’ (OUP 1963[500BC]). The notes to each variety of ground are quotes from his work. These quotes are included to see how the metaphor has been used.
[12] This refers back to the challenge to leadership in which what has to be overcome in any development process are the challenges of past traumas. What is particularly at issue is navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of anxiety and innovation, constituting an ethical challenge to leadership.

Requisite Authority: when is triple-loop learning *necessary*

October 2nd, 2013

by Philip Boxer BSc MBA PhD

What organisation needs asymmetric and tripartite approaches to leadership? Why engage in triple-loop learning driven by dilemmas in sustaining relationships to individual clients’ demands?  What makes action research using plus-one processes so important?

Approached from the drivers of organisational scope, the answer to each question is: any organisation, once responding to the horizontal drivers of performance becomes more important than remaining subject solely to the constraints imposed by its vertical controls, since under these conditions the organisation is in a complex and therefore ‘turbulent‘ environment in which clients must be responded to one-by-one. Health and social care are good examples of such an environment, but all industries are moving towards this condition under the influence of information technologies and the increasing prevalence of multi-sided demands, the necessary corollary being the use of platform strategies.[1] Another kind of answer is: “if competition pushes you into the ‘red zone’ in the diagram below”.

It is easier to understand this ‘red zone’ if we start by considering what makes triple-loop learning not necessary. The diagram approaches this in terms of the way role and task are aligned to each other, requisite authority being whatever role definition is congruent with the task demands on the organisation. Triple-loop learning is  not necessary as long as the ‘red zone’ can be avoided, the ‘double diamond’ providing a diagnostic tool for identifying this condition:


  • Task: Either there are no dynamic cross-boundary relations to demand situations that are driving performance (e.g. providing medical equipment), or, if there are, then they can be responded to solely in terms of a choices defined by the organisation ex ante (e.g. providing a menu of in-home services)
  • Role: Either there is no accountability for performance in the demand situation (e.g. performance of the equipment once sold is down to the purchaser), or, if there is, then the accountability is to the person who signed the contract and not to performance within the situation itself (e.g. “if you are not satisfied with my performance, then take it up with my manager and don’t complain to me”).

Requisite authority involves there being congruence between the role and task sides of this diagram.  Lack of congruence means either too much organisational complexity or inadequate organisational support, depending on which way it goes.

We can add labels to the different parts of this diagram to make it clearer when triple-loop learning does become necessary:

  • Task: There is a dynamic relationship to the client’s situation that demands the dynamic alignment of differentiated behaviors and that involves dynamic linkages across the boundaries of the organisation (e.g. a care pathway has to be configured and continuously adapted to the needs of the individual client).
  • Role: Responsibility for responding appropriately involves bringing together a number of services from different organisations and holding them accountable in ways that are sustainable and that relate explicitly to performance within the client’s context-of-use (e.g. a care manager responsible for through-life management of the client’s condition and accountable directly to the client).

Examining a particular case situation, a hospital group wanted to provide seamless care to patients admitted through their Emergency Department (ED).  The task on the right was therefore to provide a condition-centric episode of care, the episodes being designed one-by-one.  The problem was that the ED was in a matrix relationship to the specialist wards with which it had to negotiate admission after having admitted the patient to ED.  This negotiation was constrained by considerations other than the patient’s condition, such as the receiving ward’s budgets.
Diamond3The proposed solution was to create an ED diagnostic team that had the power to determine where a patient went from ED.  The danger with this was that did not provide requisite authority, simply relocated where power was held without addressing the underlying challenges of designing and aligning care pathways that were sustainable across the hospital group’s ecosystem.  The solution was to set up a forensic process that could track and evaluate the performance of the ecosystem in order to learn what forms of agility were needed beyond the establishment of the diagnostic team.

The outcome from this process was a new organisational capability to backtrack ED admissions and to examine them as symptoms of failure in the primary social and healthcare systems.  This led to new ways of managing patients’ chronic conditions and failures in care funding.

[1] The multi-sided platform strategies of Apple, Google and Amazon are also good examples of this, as are the failures of Nokia and Blackberry through their continuing pursuit of one-sided strategies in environments demanding multi-sideness.