Category Archives: plus-one process

The fourth ‘witness’ to a plus-one process

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. Approach the original situation from the perspective of parallel processes and situate it in relation to the plus-one process, the speaker and the actors within the speaker’s narrative.
  3. 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]
  4. 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.
  5. 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]
  6. 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]
  7. Develop a framing assumption, processes, outcome and reinforcing consequence for this alternative framing.[7]
  8. 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]
  9. 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 ‘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.

Forensic process: using dilemmas as drivers of change

by Philip Boxer BSc MBA PhD

Espoused theory, theory-in-use and the systemic
Culture can be understood as the tacit assumptions reigning over ‘how we do things around here’. To some extent these can be drawn out into the open and questioned. To the extent that they cannot, they form a strategy ceiling[1] – a level above which it is ‘none of your business’ how a business operates. Culture change is made intractable by the resistance to, and difficulties in, raising the strategy ceiling. This resistance is based on the way the business is used to support the identifications of its members.
A theory-in-use describes the organisation of processes, skills, resources and accountabilities governing the ways in which particular kinds of activity may be undertaken by a business. Thus, for example, the theory-in-use of a building governs what it is easy and difficult to do within that building. The nature of the strategy ceiling will be implicit in the way the theory-in-use of a business is used by its members to support their identities. An espoused theory is what people say about the way a business works from their own point of view, of which a systemic view is a special case, defined from the perspective of the outputs of a business as experienced by a particular client-customer as the business takes up a role in his or her life. An innovation, if it is to contribute to the sustainability of a business, must necessarily make sense from a systemic point of view.

Forensic process
Forensic process uses the metaphor of serial murders being committed by the business that appear to leave no clues as to how they were committed. The forensic process assumes that the implementation of certain kinds of innovation run up against some aspect of a business’s existing culture that ‘murders’ them. As a consequence, attempts to implement innovations can fail repeatedly in practice, with no-one knowing why they fail. By establishing how these ‘murders’ are done, a forensic process enables a business to learn about its strategy ceiling, and the choices it must face if things are to change. The paradox here is that the members of a business must be prepared to take a sufficiently systemic point of view to see that there might be a gap in what the business is doing that demands innovation – serial ‘murder’ dramatising the idea that some kinds of innovation must be stopped! The aim of a forensic process is therefore to establish what is problematic[2] about the gap being addressed by the implementation of an innovation, and how the culture somehow refuses to take up that problematic.

The understanding of dilemmas aims at formulating the fundamental problematics faced by an organisation. The origins of this approach to understanding dilemmas lie with the Milan method, and the work by Cronen, Pearce and Tomm in elaborating the Systemic Epistemology with which they worked. The dilemma is, in their terms, a strange loop.[3] These strange loops have the characteristics of the moebius strip (shown below)[4], and an approach to elaborating their effects is to be found in Charles Hamden-Turner’s book. [5]

These dilemmas can be elaborated in terms of an impossibility around which they move, which is a way of formulating a dilemma in terms of alternative themes/strategies which offer alternative resolutions of its point of impossibility, but which, when held as a dilemma, enable innovations to be engendered that move the business closer to addressing the impossibility.

Implications for Intervention
A forensic process uses case material in order to discover what problematics are being ‘refused’ by the business, thereby establishing where the blockages are to lifting its strategy ceiling. Such a process will not be authorised by senior management unless they are themselves concerned about the current performance of the business from a systemic perspective, and are prepared to use the forensic process to understand how the strategy ceiling needs to be lifted.
If one side of a dilemma is held by an informal culture and the other by the formal culture, then insofar as the informal culture seeks to defend its identity through resisting attempts to bridge the dilemma, it will be very difficult for the formal culture to benefit from the informal culture’s learning. Under these circumstances, a key question is why one side is kept ‘informal’ (or in the shadows) i.e. what interests are thus served.

Analysing dilemmas
A ‘non-discursive formation’ is a way of referring to a particular combination of espoused theory and theory-in-use.  The diagram used below for representing a dilemma represents a non-discursive formation as a particular cultural formation of axiomatics, process, outcome and consequences:

  • Axiomatics – the set of assumptions that implicitly govern the way sense is made within the non-discursive formation/theory-in-use
  • Process – the behaviours that follow from and are consistent with the axiomatics
  • Outcome – the result of the behaviours
  • Consequence – that which follows the outcome. There are two kinds of consequence:
    1. that which reinforces the axiomatics of the formation; and
    2. that which does not.

A dilemma arises when two such non-discursive formations have consequences that ‘flip’ to the other formation, so that there is either an oscillation over time between the two formations, or the two formations co-exist within the enterprise, even though only one is identified with the formal culture. The dilemma is defined by the ‘point of impossibility’ around which the oscillation takes place. For example, a business can oscillate between periods of cost cutting and investment in people. This reflects a cyclical response to external business conditions around the impossibility of defining the investment in people in a way that relates to growth in profitability. This oscillation would be a symptom of the inability of the Board of Directors to hold this dilemma effectively at the level of the business as a whole.

A dilemma forces a separation between two non-discursive formations that have to be ‘held’ if the effects of the impossibility are not to become dysfunctional. This can be represented in the form of an effects ladder.  This shows the way dilemmas are held in relation to a larger demand situation, in this case representing value as defined by the Board.[6]

[1] The notion of a strategy ceiling is taken up more fully in a later blog.
[2] All problems and issues can be thought of in terms of what it is about them which makes them difficult to resolve, tidy up or explain away… underlying dilemmas give problems and issues their intractable nature and ensure that they keep recurring in some form or other. Speaking about the “problematic” nature of problems or issues is a way of referring to the nature of what makes problems ‘difficult’.
[3] Toward an Explanation of How the Milan Method Works: An invitation to a Systemic Epistemology and the Evolution of Family Systems in Campbell & Draper (eds) “Applications of Systemic Family Therapy: The Milan Approach” Grune & Stratton 1985. pp69-84.
[4] The moebius strip has the topological property of having only one side. If you trace a line along the surface of the strip, you return to the same place you started from.
[5] Charles Hampden-Turner. Charting the Corporate Mind: from Dilemma to Strategy. Blackwell 1990.
[6] When a business begins to respond to its clients one-by-one, these effects ladders cannot be defined for the business as a whole, but for each client’s way of defining value within their context.

Triple Loop Learning

by Philip Boxer
I have always found Kolb’s experiential learning cycle a useful way of approaching the place of reflection in learning, for example in reflective learning, learning as a subversive activity, or judging the quality of development. But despite its being named as an experiential cycle, I never found it well rooted in the being of the person doing the learning. In what follows, I propose two ways of short-circuiting the cycle in order to more clearly distinguish learning rooted in the learner’s way of being. This can be done by introducing a gap between expectations and experience as an outcome from the concrete experience of the learner themselves:
Three different kinds of response are identified to this gap, providing a useful way of distinguishing between single-, double- and triple-loop learning: [1,2]

  • Single loop: the gap is feedback to the way an existing plan is being used, improving the plan. For example in quality programmes measuring the deviation in outputs from the norm. The expectations against which the gap is identified are set by the intent behind the particular way in which the plan is being used. For example, was the treatment that had been planned for the patient carried out effectively?
  • Double loop: the gap is feedback to the efficacy of the approach itself, leading to improvements, refinements and adaptations to the approach. The expectations against which the gap is identified are set by the intent behind the formation of the approach itself. For example, were the right assumptions used in the way the care plan was itself constructed to treat these kinds of condition?
  • Triple loop: the gap is feedback on the effects generated in the situation experienced, whether or not those effects are consistent with the intent behind the approach and its application. The expectations against which the gap is identified are set by the nature of the dilemmas experienced within its larger context. For example, did the outcome for the patient suggest that a different approach needed to be adopted in the way care plans were constructed for these kinds of situation in order to address the emergent dilemmas more effectively?

The difference between double-and triple-loop is subtle here. If we approach our expectations of the concrete experience in terms of supply-side and demand-side perspectives, then it is the demand-side perspective that distinguishes triple-loop learning, placing the primary emphasis on the value deficit associated with the asymmetric demand in the situation itself, the asymmetry being understood in terms of emergent dilemmas.[3] The purpose of the ‘plus-one’ exercise is to provide a means of getting at what these dilemmas might be, and to identify their underlying impossibilites that may then drive network interventions..

[1]. A constructivist perspective on triple loop is to be found in Peschl, M. F. (2007). “Triple-loop learning as foundation for profound change, individual cultivation, and radical innovation: construction processes beyond scientific and rational knowledge.” Constructivist Foundations 2(2-3): 136-145.
[2]. It was Argyris who popularised double loop: Argyris, C. and D. A. Schon (1974). Theory-in-Practice: increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
[3]. To give more precision to this distinction, we will need to look more deeply into the nature of reflexive process.