Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Intervention as System

In this post, I want to talk about a couple of consultancy projects I worked on several years ago.

My strongest memory of these projects is not the actual content of what we were trying to do in the client organization, but the almost unbearable conflicts that arose between the members of the consultancy team, and especially between the two principals. We were each talking to different stakeholders within the enterprise, and as a consequence of this we took aggressively different positions on what was important, leading to some extremely uncomfortable meetings. Reflecting on this afterwards, I realized that the two principals were (probably unconsciously) acting out some of the conflicts in the client organization - in other words, the team had become as it were a microcosm of the organization. In such a situation, if the team can manage to resolve its own internal conflicts, this may be a valid step towards dealing with the conflicts in the enterprise as a whole.

This means that I now pay a lot of attention to the intervention process, and to the people engaged in these interventions, and ask how these affect the course of the intervention itself.

I greatly admire Jerry Weinberg and have enjoyed his writings on consultancy, but I would rank Peter Block's book on Flawless Consulting even higher. For Block, one of the most important things for the consultant is to be authentic. An authentic consultant is one who doesn't just think "I'm finding this narrative really boring, why is the client putting so much effort into not saying anything?" but actually says something rather than suffer in silence.

By the way, I think this is also what good therapists do.

Originally posted in the Enterprises *as* Systems - Enterprise Systems Theory group on Linked-In. Following a discussion on Methodological Syncretism, Tom Graves had challenged me to put up some of my own experiences rather than merely question those of other people.

In the subsequent comments, Sally Bean interpreted this example in terms of Checkland's distinction between Hard Systems Thinking and Soft Systems Thinking, prompting Geoff Elliot to challenge Checkland's account of this distinction. Tom Graves quoted Dave Snowden's maxim "every diagnostic is an intervention, every intervention is a diagnostic", mentioned the use of the unconscious in Jerry Weinberg's work, and invoked spiritual and magical thinking.


  1. Richard, This is a nice example of dynamics within the parallel process of the consulting team. Reflexive supervision is a way of making active use of these dynamics in the way the intervention unfolds. In particular it helps cast light on the way systemic leadership is (and is not) being exercised within the client organization.

    (More on this in

  2. Richard,
    Thanks for the complimentary things you said about my writings. (I agree that Peter Block's book on Flawless Consulting ranks "even higher."

    This parallelism between the observer(s) and the observed system is an extremely important diagnostic tool, and is also well-known to anthropologists. My wife Dani, the anthropologist, says one extreme manifestation of this parallelism is "going native."

    Consultants "go native" too, at all levels--physical (e.g., how they dress), cultural (e.g. how they interact), and even linguistic (how they talk).

  3. Thanks Phil and Jerry. As indicated, this blogpost was reposted from a Linked-In discussion. I had already amply praised Jerry Weinberg in a previous discussion on Methodological Syncretism and some of the other participants had added further complimentary remarks.

    My road into systems thinking was through reading Bateson as well as Weinberg, so I have always regarded practical systems thinking as a branch of anthropology. Meanwhile Robert Block's account of flawless consulting reminds me how much more I have to learn.