Integrating differentiated behaviors

by Philip Boxer
Lawrence and Lorsch (1969) originated the framework of differentiation and integration for describing the agency of an enterprise. Their argument was that there had to be congruence between the forms of differentiation of behavior necessary for an enterprise to be viable, and the forms of integration of those differentiated behaviors needed for the enterprise to be able to sustain its identity. The level of differentiation of behavior at which there had to be congruence was itself determined by Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety (1956), which stated that the variety of behaviors of which the enterprise needed to be capable had to be at least as great as the variety of demands it needed to be able to respond to in its environment.

In distinguishing levels of differentiated behavior, Emery and Trist (1965) identified four forms of ‘causal texture’ in the way demands were experienced by the enterprise in its environment:

  • Placid randomised, in which opportunities and threats were relatively unchanging in themselves, and randomly distributed throughout the environment. In this environment, which approximates to perfect competition, behaviour simply had to be operationally effective.
  • Placid clustered, in which the opportunities and threats were not randomly distributed, but clustered together in some way. In this environment, which is more like ‘imperfect’ competition, specialist forms of behaviour had to be available to address the different kinds of cluster.
  • Disturbed-reactive, in which there was more than one enterprise of the same kind in the competitive environment of the enterprise. This competitive environment approximated to the economist’s oligopoly. Each enterprise did not simply have to take account of the other when they met at random, but had also to consider that what it knew could also be known by the other enterprises. As a result, the behaviour of the enterprise had to be ‘positional’ in the sense of focused on being able to sustain positions it took up in the environment competitively.
  • Turbulent fields, in which dynamic processes arose within the environment itself which created significant variation for the enterprise to respond to – the environment was ‘alive’. In this environment, which was like a dynamic ecosystem, the behaviour had to be ‘relational’ in the sense that it had to be dynamically responsive to the particular way demands arose within its environment at any moment in time.

What distinguished this progression in behaviors was that they had to become increasingly differentiated if the enterprise was to remain viable. What particularly distinguished the fourth from the other three was that with turbulence, the ‘environment’ had to be related to by the enterprise as if it had a life of its own. This contrasted with the other three, in which the enterprise can treat the environment as if it was passive or reactive.
Whereas it is possible to argue that human service organizations in the public sector ought to treat the environment as if it had a life of its own, it does not follow that they actually do. In contrast, many ‘private sector’ businesses are having to learn how to organize relational behavior as a matter of competitive necessity even when they would prefer not to have to.

The ‘plus-one’ process

by Philip Boxer

How are we to approach the relationship to the situation intended by reflective observation in triple loop learning? How do we ‘read between the lines’?[1] This involves looking for the gaps between how a client situation is ‘read’ and the situation itself.[2]

Each project or organisation makes assumptions about what effects it creates or intends to created on its target customers or clients, and how. But in doing so, it also takes up a particular way of ignoring or leaving out aspects of the situation itself. This process takes about 60 minutes. It involves four roles: a speaker, a listener, and a plus-one. The exercise is in three rounds. The roles cycle in each round. The aim of the process is to become mindful of the gaps that emerge, i.e. of what is being left out, by the way the original situation is understood. This original situation is the situation presented by the first speaker.

  • Meeting in threes, one person takes the role of the speaker, one of the listener, and one of the ‘plus-one’. The person in the ‘plus-one’ position should manage the time boundaries, ideally using a timer on someone’s smartphone.
  • For 5 minutes, the speaker (2 in the diagram below) gives an account of a challenging situation faced by them. This first situation is the original situation. Note that the speaker is speaking about what is going on (wigo – 1 in the diagram below), which is the larger context in which the originating situation is situated.
  • The listener (3) listens to this account in silence, and then for a further 5 minutes asks for elaboration and clarification, concluding with his or her summary understanding of the nature of the challenge being presented.  This understanding constitutes a ‘reading’ of the situation presented by the speaker.
  • The person in the ‘plus-one’ position (4) has been listening to the way this speaking-and-listening process has made sense of the situation.  In the next 5 minutes, s/he selects a single metaphor that best evokes the overall sense of the challenge that has emerged. The plus-one then elaborates on the metaphor as if it were a dream, filling out its detail but making no attempt to relate its content to the situation. [3]
  • The positions are then rotated two more times for two more 15 minute cycles, so that the plus-one becomes the speaker, the speaker becomes the listener, and the listener becomes the plus-one.  In these second and third cycles, the speaker selects a situation from their own personal experience that speaks to the metaphor that they came up with in their plus-one role.[4]
  • In the last 15 minutes, the trio discusses what questions the metaphors raise about the originating situation in terms of counter-narratives, ‘gaps’ and the risks these imply as present.[5]

The narrative of the originating situation is set up within this circuit of relationships between speaking (2), listening (3) and the framing mental model (4).  The relationship of this framing model to wigo (1) is implicit in the way speaking (2) gives an account of wigo (1) subject to the model (4). What is being ignored or left out by this model (4) is the particular ‘beyond’ or ‘lack’ of wigo, i.e. wiRgo, represented by what lies beyond the bottom thick line. The other thick line between the reading (3) and the (1)(2)(4) circuit is to indicate that this reading (3) only has access to the circuit via speaking (2) under the influence of the model (4).[6]

  • The process of active listening (3) allows the particular account of wigo (1) by speaking (2) to be known in such a way that a sense of its relationship to the framing model (4) can emerge, knowledge of (1) being mediated by the way (2) speaks subject to its influence.
  • The other dotted-line axis is an impossible axis, in the sense that it cannot be held directly in the way that the speaking-listening axis can be held. It must therefore be approached through what the ‘plus-one’ person can imply about it from what passes between (3) and (2).

[1] The ‘plus-one’ exercise provides a way of understanding what it means to ‘read between the lines’. The split-screen journal is then a way of continuing to work with what-is-going-on based on this way of understanding.
[2] Looking for the gaps is thus not only about working with the difference between espoused theory and theory-in-use, but beyond that at the difference between ‘wigo’ and ‘wiRgo’ – not only what is symptomatic of the interests of the organisation itself in wigo, but also what is symptomatic about what is being discluded of wiRgo. In this sense, the plus-one process aims to go further than the Balint method, which aims to establish an ‘observing ego’ aka listener through which the clinician is able to look at himself or herself and assume the participant-observer position in relation to himself or herself – a position that some psychoanalysts refer to as the internal supervisor, creating an internal space of thinking for the clinician. See Theory? Who needs theory? by the Balint Society.
[3] This can be thought of as (what the ‘plus-one’ perceives to be) the shape of the ‘governing metaphor’ of the speaking-and-listening process, i.e. the ideal or organising frame within which the speaking-and-listening is given meaning, but devoid of any content relating directly to the explicit content of the speaking-and-listening.
[4] The experience chosen may be thought of as a ‘gift’ given to the process that speaks to their counter-transferential response as plus-one. All three metaphors are thus related to the challenge underlying the originating situation.
[5] The best way of working with these insights is to put them into the form of a dilemma. See using dilemmas as drivers of change. For more on the thinking about the above diagram and its relation to the impossibilities, see formulating network interventions. The stratifications needed to sustain network interventions are discussed in on stratification.
[6] The dotted blue line arrow from wigo (1) to the reading (3) indicates the absence of a direct relation to wigo and the unconscious primary process underlying wigo (1), with which the reading (3) is implicitly aligned. In these terms, the relation to wigo (1) of reading (3) and speaking (2) subject to the model (4) is that of secondary process.

Consultancy or Action Research?

by Philip Boxer
Consider the relationship between a client and a service supplier in which a problem is being presented. They can each ask “who knows who knows best” what to do about the problem, and there are two possible types of strategy for how they can work together:

The consultancy approach:

  1. The senior management, knowing that they do not know while expecting the consultant to know, asks for consultancy.
  2. The consultant sells senior management a solution that they know how to provide on the basis of the transference that the consultant establishes. (guru)
  3. The senior management asks the consultant to provide people who know how to apply the solution.
  4. The consultant does so by using ‘bright young things’ who can learn how to apply the solution provided by the consultant on the job. (apprentice)

The action research approach:

  1. The senior management, knowing that they do not know while not assuming that anyone else knows better, asks for a technical assessment of the nature of the problem (expert).
  2. The technical assessment establishes what is known and what currently is not.
  3. The senior management sets up an action research process aimed at making tractable what currently is not known (reflexive process).
  4. The action research process creates a way of solving the problem that can be used by senior management.

What is the difference?

  • In the consultant’s approach there is a continuing asymmetry between the knowledge of the client and of the supplier, such that other suppliers are excluded. This approach may provide a quicker initial answer for the client, but leaves the client no better off in understanding the nature of the problem.
  • In contrast, the action research approach focuses all the time on removing asymmetries of knowledge between purchaser and provider such that the learning is joint. This is done by jointly identifying and working through the dilemmas emergent in the behaviours of the purchasing organisation in relation to its client-customers. This approach may generate better learning for the purchaser, but may not provide answers as quickly as senior management would like.

Behind this difference is the question of whether the problem presented by the senior management is itself the problem to be solved, or a symptom of some other underlying ‘real problem’. If the former, then it is reasonable to assume that a supplier can know the answer even if senior management does not. But if the latter, then the problem is going to have ‘wicked’ characteristics[1] and some form of action research process will be necessary, using some form of forensic process.

[1] ‘Wicked’ problems are problems with a circular definition – implementing a solution changes the nature of the problem affects what forms of solution can be effective etc. This concept of ‘wickedness’ was originally articulated by Rittel, H. and M. Webber (1973). “Dilemmas in the General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sciences. A more recent study in the context of Managed Networks in Health Care is Ferlie, E., L. FitzGerald, et al. (2013). Making Wicked Problems Governable? The Case of Managed Networks in Health Care, Oxford University Press.