What is an organisation really?

Aidan Ward
Sep 13 · 9 min read

When we look at an organisation, what do we see? We need to learn to see — we also need to unlearn a lot of what passes for seeing.

You may have seen a “psychology” video of a white man on the subway picking the pocket of the black man beside him. Some horrible proportion of people in the experiment, having watched the video, report that the black man picked the pocket of the white man.[1] And it is becoming clear that the great wave of AI applications besieging us simply implement societal prejudices too. These are matters of huge importance and significance.

I had a close colleague, Jim Hodge, who was doing a psychotherapy masters, supervised by the great Kleinian, Bob Hinshelwood. Hinshelwood’s Observing Organisations: Anxiety, Defence and Culture in Health Care is well worth a read. What I remember best is an exercise, an essay if you like. Jim had to go to the waiting room at the Maudesley Hospital and sit and simply observe and record what happened there. The catch, as you probably know, is that the recorded observations must not make assumptions about why things happened or what people’s motivations were. It is extremely difficult — try it sometime. It is so difficult that you probably need someone of Bob Hinshelwood’s stature to gently guide you through the assumptions you are making quite unconsciously.

In quite separate circumstances, I had my own run at this. I was persuaded by Michael Jacobs to contact his lifelong friend Victoria Blincow at the Tavistock Clinic. The Tavistock prides itself on teaching its students completely in line with its practice and research: no separation. With Victoria I did infant observation. I watched a toddler for an hour at a time and wrote notes about just what happened. Victoria would say that sometimes she could see the situation I had described unfurling in front of her eyes and sometimes she could only see what I was seeing — not at all the same thing!

One of the big problems with entitlement or seeing differently, with alpha males in particular, is that they have no incentive to see beyond their own incredibly narrow blinkers. But it’s not easy for anybody.

When Gregory Bateson did the first systematic observations of family systems, he filmed the interactions that took place in a session. He ended up with thousands of hours of documentary film that he found so complex to interpret that in some ways he was defeated, even when he brought in experts to help. The notion of “seeing what is going on” is truly illusory 99% of the time, as is the notion that what the camera ‘sees’ is 100% truth.

So, if you wanted to observe an organisation in a properly scientific manner, to learn something about how it actually functions, presumably via the relationships in it, what would you do? What would you record? The prevalence of reductionist thinking around bottom lines and procedures is largely down to this inability to produce data closer to the reality. We can use Nora Bateson’s warm data principles, but this is only the start of learning to observe and record.

A medical example

Does sugar cause heart disease? There is a high correlation between people eating too much sugar and obesity. And between obesity and heart disease. Fruits are increasingly sweet — does fruit cause heart disease? What about the sorts of foods that contain high fructose corn syrup and all those things? Causation is different from correlation, of course.

So here is a thing. Magnesium. Most people are deficient in magnesium and it is hard to measure in the body because it mostly lies in the fluids between cells. And it turns out that lots of magnesium is necessary for the body to process sugar, and twice as much as that to process fructose. Eating sugar, or even worse fructose, depletes the body’s stores of magnesium.

There is another thing called a CAC score: “The coronary calcium scan tells you how much calcified plaque is in your heart’s arteries. (WebMD)” The test behind your CAC score is looking for the sort of plaque that can cause arterial problems: blockages and rigidities. Magnesium, it turns out, reduces your CAC score (read: allows you arteries to recover) greatly reducing the risk of heart problems.

Let’s get beyond causation into the complexities of this (very simple) bodily process. Eating sugar and fructose allows your arteries to deteriorate. Not eating these things allows your body magnesium to recover and eventually your arteries to recover. The observation problems are two-fold: firstly that doctors don’t think that way about heart disease and that the science has been corrupted, and secondly a question of timescale.

The timescale question is one of observation technique. Fruit is fruit, right? And it contains lots of fructose, right? So why does fruit feel good to eat, feel healthy and lifegiving? Well, I guess humans have always enjoyed a fig or a berry or an apple. But consumption in human history was necessarily seasonal. Fruit is consumed when it is available. If we eat fruit for two or three months a year then we will not see a problem, because there are nine months of a year for the body to repair itself.

A plant is a plant? Well one of the major effects of artificial fertilisers is to reduce the level of key minerals, including magnesium, in the crop. Even organic produce may be grown on soil that is already depleted in minerals.

This is a highly simplified story: it is much more complex than I have indicated. But I wanted to show that a question about eating sugar and fruit is not what it seems. There is an important link, but it is global supply chains and all-year-round supply of fruit that is disrupting our bodies and giving us heart disease, and who would look there? Of course, the corruption of the science and grotesque promotion of sugar by Coca-Cola is a problem on its own, but we need to be sensitive to mechanisms and observation in order to call out the bad science.

As I heard the story, in the 19th century lemons were so highly prized by princelings in Germany that their price encouraged the development of protection rackets in Sicily and the mafia was born. That should give us a clue to the significance of fruit out of season.

Structural coupling

Back to observing organisations: they do not exist in a vacuum! What is the context of an organisation? Well it is all the organisations it had to deal with to have a viable business. Sometimes that structurally coupled environment is very much a straightjacket, sometime it is more fluid.

My first job was to work for a firm of seismic exploration contractors called Seismograph Services Ltd. How quaint. It worked for big oil and gas companies in a time when that was big business. It hired bright young people out of top universities and basically left them to get on with conducting surveys. The experience was that the further you were from Head Office in Kent, the more smoothly things ran.

In the nature of things companies like Shell were huge, powerful, bureaucratic and SSL was tiny but reasonably irreplaceable. There was a rotating blacklist of seismic companies. You screwed up, you went on the blacklist until someone else screwed up. Everyone was fully employed. But I think the key to SSL’s structural coupling was that people with a couple of years’ experience in the field could join an oil and gas major on a big salary and become a loyal client of SSL’s for years. SSL were building, unconsciously or not, a helpful and forgiving structural environment for themselves.

In effect SSL were providing a training service for the oil and gas industry, helping people gain practical experience of how exploration images are acquired and processed. And they used that service, which was provided at no explicit cost to increase the likelihood of future business. I wonder now what would have happened if anyone had asked them and their oil sector clients to examine that deal.

Patrick Hoverstadt and I ran a structural coupling experiment. We worked up a case study and got some HR professionals to role play discussions about the nature of the structural coupling in the case. It makes logical sense to discuss and deconstruct the nature of structural coupling relationships to see if change can be negotiated to the benefit of all parties. What happened was that the professionals doing the role play constantly and definitively evaded substantive discussion. They would not and could not do it, even though it was an exercise.

For me that remains completely fascinating. We evidently cannot look straight in the face the constraints and opportunities for change at the level of business ecosystem. I have been involved in a coupled of projects that wanted to model local economic relationships and both were sunk because people really did not want to go there despite the logic. Organisations want to do business in the abstract but actual, committed engagement with the other organisations they must do business with scares them.

I once watched a business risk team at Lloyds of London endlessly circle around the need to have a crucial meeting with some senior managers in the office down the corridor. They found ways to not have that meeting yet, for months.

The organisational unconscious

It makes sense to me to talk about two classes of behaviour. The first one is our normal observations of organisational life, of measures of productivity and of management decisions notionally based on evidence. The second one is all the things that happen despite peoples’ stated purposes, despite the management logic, often despite denials that these things happen.

If we thought for a moment about institutional racism or sexism, there are aspects of it encoded in policy and procedure or even in custom and practice and those are the easy bits to change. The hard bits are the bits that people cannot even see in themselves and others, the bits people think are so much common sense that they don’t ever notice them.[2]

In my experience, and arguably more widely, the system invariants depend on the unconscious class. They are maintained as invariant when all else changes because their power is cloaked and hidden, even from the members of the organisation itself. Also, to try to address them when everyone denies their very existence is politically dangerous. Normally the only people who can see such things at all are people who are already half out of the organisation in some way. They are ready scapegoats.

I want to believe that organisations are life forms. Because they are life forms, I can sit, metaphorically, and observe in a Goethe-like way and they will speak to me of their life. I believe that the time and patience to do that is absolutely critical to organisational health and potential.

If I sit in that way and observe an agricultural scene, it will speak to me of the unspeakable violence and destruction that we call agriculture, and which still has natural and bucolic associations for many people. The violence is not on the surface except occasionally, but the continuing destruction of the ecosystem is real and continual. If I let it speak to me of its life it will speak mainly of death.

The practices which farmers involve in “growing” “food” are not what they purport to be and the system invariants involve destruction of the soil which is the basis of all life on land. There are those like Bob Marshall who boldly say that organisational management is not different to agricultural management. It is death dealing to the very basis of the life of organisations.

Clearly the ability to say these things rests on an ability to observe what organisations are and how they behave and how they come to view themselves the way they do. That video of the subway is played out every day in every workplace. Things are done that people see in reverse — they see the opposite of what actually happened. It is a challenge of the first magnitude and the first importance to allow ourselves to see what is actually going on. I don’t believe in “actually” or in objectivity but I do know when black is called white and I do know when no-one even notices.

[1] You may also remember a rape case in which the accused was being interviewed on live television during the crime, so it was his face engraved in the victim’s memory. In loose terms, memories are rewritten every time they’re remembered, so there’s ample opportunity for biases to be amplified.

[2] And of course, artificial ‘intelligence’ systems are built on these foundations, institutionalising the unconscious biases in an inscrutable algorithm. I spoke with someone who was advocating happier posts to social media, exactly because generations of bots are being trained to understand humans through the content we post — more complaints and attacks than thoughtful discourse…


Serious topics, gently treated. A collaboration by Aidan Ward and Philip Hellyer.

Aidan Ward

Written by


Serious topics, gently treated. A collaboration by Aidan Ward and Philip Hellyer.

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