Gestalt OSD Center faculty and students have made their home during training sessions at the Larchmere House Corporate Center.
More than 35 years ago, John Carter, Leonard Hirsch, Elaine Kepner, Carolyn Lukensmeyer, and Ed Nevis joined in an ambitious quest to create the singular body of knowledge and training programs that are known across the globe today as Organization and Systems Development (OSD). Individually, each of us had studied Gestalt psychology, organization development and behavior, and systems theory. Gestalt/OSD emerged as an integrated application of these disciplines' theory, concept, method, tool, and technique across multiple levels of system: individual, two-person, group, organization, and even larger social levels of human organization. Our fundamental goal was to develop a training program rooted in this amalgamation, where individuals interested in self-mastery would learn not only how we had integrated these three bodies of knowledge, but also how to integrate that knowledge in personal ways that would enhance their effectiveness as interveners. We aimed to impress upon our students that ultimately, through a life-long and ongoing learning process, they could walk into any room anywhere and make a difference through their sheer presence in that room.
Forty years later, we have worked with thousands of people around the world and have trained more than 2000 individuals in our residential training programs. Most of our training participants today enter into a program because they have had an opportunity to observe the work of one of our faculty or graduates and were intrigued by the powerful impact that intervener had in using "presence" as an intervention tool, which the intervener credited in part to the successful application of Gestalt/OSD training. Some of those who come to our programs based on this experience are initially disappointed, expecting that a textbook knowledge of definitions and explications of underlying theory and technique, supplemented by a little practice, might in itself provide them with the same self-awareness and skills they had witnessed. What they had actually observed, however, was an individual capable of using a more fully integrated self to create a presence as a result of a personal development gained through Gestalt/OSD training. That is, the body of knowledge that is Gestalt/OSD is accessed, assimilated, and practiced in different ways simply by virtue of individuals being uniquely themselves.
Consider, for example, that while the act of walking is a simple enough skill that everyone "knows" how to do, no one walks in quite the same way. Walking is a process of falling forward, and each person's way of falling forward is as unique as a fingerprint. Each person's way of falling forward is their gestalt, their whole, their holon — their individual way of organizing themselves in order to fall forward without falling down. In this context, "gestalt" indicates simply the ways in which we organize the self, i.e., how we experience ourselves and/in our environment, and how we make meaning of that experience in a manner that allows us to function capably. In practical terms, we are all walking examples of the unconscious efficacy of Gestaltist paradigms. But the goal for the professional, of course, is to bring this efficacy into awareness and, most powerfully, into practice.
'The whole is greater than the sum of its parts." This maxim is probably the most quoted, and the most misquoted, principle of Gestalt theory. The correct statement is 'The whole is different than the sum of its parts." In an organizational context, for example, if the whole were in fact greater than (i.e., better than, more significant than, more powerful than) the sum of the parts, one would expect the majority of mergers, acquisitions, and takeovers to be successful business ventures instead of recently posting a 70-80% failure rate. Understanding both the whole and the parts as distinct yet deeply interrelated and inter-influential entities is one key to grasping the complexity and challenges involved in organization development and change efforts, as well as to understanding the extraordinary need for a clear awareness of what exists now, in the present moment, as the foundation for what might be.
The simple beauty of Gestalt/OSD theory and concept is that they are complementary to literally any other body of knowledge being used by the individual OD practitioner. Even though most of the students in our long-term training programs come from a strong OD background, we have also had educators, nurses, civil servants, physicians, lawyers, clergy, managers, CEOs, and accountants (among others) complete the training and successfully use what they have learned to enhance their effectiveness as interveners within their particular professional fields and highly diverse organizational circumstances. I have often stated that OD is much more a matter of how individuals actually use their knowledge and training than it is about OD as a professional designation. Gestalt/OSD in fact enables OD professionals to apply what they know more effectively by augmenting their ability to impact the system in which they work, primarily through use of self as an intervention instrument.
Over a 15-year period, we consulted to more than 30 mergers, and except for one failure, the business case was met each time without the "slash and burn" outcome so common for employees at any system level who are caught up in a merger. That achievement I attribute to the values of the corporate leadership and their being taught to use change structures and processes based on Gestalt/OSD concept and method. In my long-term consulting relationship with Touche Ross and Co. of Canada, this accounting company realized a practical business value from Gestalt/OSD applications, moving from last in their profession in the country to first. In a 86-country take over-merger with Deloitte, the outcome in Canada was a reverse takeover. Both companies viewed this high-stakes merger as a resounding success, and both companies credited the outcome in Canada to organization change interventions using Gestalt/OSD. They particularly acknowledged the powerful role of an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) intervention to support a leadership succession done in 1989, one year before the Deloitte-Touche Ross global merger.
This particular AI intervention set many firsts: It was the first time AI had been used in a single organization country-wide; it was the first time AI was used as a large-group methodology; it was the first time AI was implemented to support contact through dialogue by having data collection done by the organization's own leadership rather than by the consultants; and it was the first AI study to have the organizational leadership create the social construction of their organization's future. This specific usage effectively moved AI from an action research intervention to a GestaltOSD intervention. Along with John Carter & Associates, Mary Ann Rainey worked as project manager. David Cooperrider, the originator of AI at Case Western Reserve University acted as a technical advisor to our 16-person consulting team. Using the lens created by Gestalt/OSD, we were able to effectively and fully employ AI theory, concept, and method, as well as to successfully modify it in ways that enhanced potential outcomes and changed forever the way AI would be used by OD practitioners and other consultants.
We have since done extensive AI interventions in ten organizations. This first AI intervention cost the client more than $500,000 in consulting fees. To date, we have supported two organizations in doing successful AI interventions of the same magnitude as TR with the same degree of employee involvement, yet with fees in the range of $10,000 to $25,000. Quite simply, we ascribe such efficiency and effectiveness, as well as the extraordinarily accurate risk-assessment, to our integrated use of Gestalt/OSD principles and methods.
We have achieved the same efficiency and effectiveness by incorporating Gestalt/OSD into Future Search Conference in a merger integration intervention with Royal Bank of Canada. In that intervention, we involved 24 bank managers in a Future Search Conference; following the conference, we distributed to each a packet of materials which would guide and support them in conducting a Future Search Conference themselves, in pairs, in the organization's home city. We had contracted for this intervention with the President of Royal Bank, John Cleghorn, with the upfront understanding that given the newness of the approach, there existed the risk of two or more of these manager-conducted Conferences failing. The group of 24 conducted 14 Future Search Conferences in 12 cities across Canada with middle management and their staff. All accomplished the desired intervention outcome. The 24 managers reconvened to create a presentation for the organization's top leadership. The result was a strategic thrust statement which intelligently and thoroughly pinpointed and addressed precisely the issues previously identified by the leadership group through a plan put together by a large consulting firm. The significant differences of the stated plan created by the internal Future Search Conferences were its greater action orientation, specificity, and expressive urgency.
One crucial value-added recommendation of the Conferences' presentation, however, one outcome was the elimination of a massive educational intervention proposed by the leadership's strategic thrust statement. The intent of this particular intervention had been that middle management and those at lower levels in the organization were simply not in tune with organizational reality, and therefore unable to really understand what needed attention. The Future Search Conferences in fact discovered that assumption to be false, thus negating the need for that costly and time-consuming educational intervention altogether.
This example of the positive value of an organization being supported to undertake a representative internal, self-directed, and self-responsible investigation into its own social, cultural, and market realities reflects a fundamental aspect of Gestalt/OSD change efforts. The change theory undergirding Gestalt/OSD change principles is the Paradoxical Theory of Change, developed by Arnold Beisser in a 1970 article of the same name. From the basis of Frederick Perls's Gestalt approach to change in individual psychotherapy, Beisser sought to elaborate a change theory that could encompass, explain, and facilitate "meaningful and orderly change" at all levels of system, that is, individual, group, organization, community, society. This overarching or superordinate theory of change became for Beisser the cornerstone of Gestalt's functional contribution to understanding by what mechanisms and strategies — psychological, communal, cultural, social, and so on — change occurs in systems.
The paradox embedded in the paradoxical theory of change is "that change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not"; that is, change rests in the full (albeit temporary) acceptance of, investment in, and commitment to the current status quo. Clearly, this understanding of change challenges the typical construction of a change process, in which a future state of being — that which is desired but not yet realized — is doggedly pursued through any number of behavioral devices, whether it be coercion, persuasion, intuitive insight, and/or reinterpretation of existing circumstances. Rather, in Beisser's theoretic schematic, authentic change can only occur when one abandons that future desire for now, and instead works to know well and intimately the dimensions, dynamics, and qualities of the present state, since "one must stand in one place in order to have a firm footing to move" to another place. When a person loses touch with or denies strong intuitive and influential aspects of character and behavior, "fragmentation" and "alienation" become driving forces. The Gestaltist's primary focus is to bring these "alienated fragments" into awareness and into communication with each other in order to prompt integration and wholeness.
Beisser conceived of the Paradoxical Theory of Change as transcending its origin in individual psychotherapy, however. According to Beisser, "the individual change process is but a microcosm of the social change process," so that I believe that... orderly change within social systems is in the direction of integration and holism; further, that the social-change agent has as his major function to work with and in an organization so that it can change consistently with the changing dynamic equilibrium both within and outside the organization. This requires that the system become conscious of alienated fragments within and without so it can bring them into the main functional activities by processes similar to identification in the individual. First, there is an awareness within the system that an alienated fragment exists; next that fragment is accepted as a legitimate outgrowth of a functional need that is then explicitly and deliberately mobilized and given power to operate as an explicit force. This, in turn, leads to communication with other subsystems and facilitates an integrated, harmonious development of the whole system.
Organizational change principles of Gestalt/OSD draw deeply from these broader applications. The goal of major change projects, whatever the level of system, is to ensure both a central stability (a personal or cultural "gyroscope,11 as Beisser terms it) as well as an effective and authentic shift in being, practice, and/or culture. The intent is to "institutionalize" change, embedding it thoroughly and with the full and conscious assent of the individual or members involved. In an organizational context, institutionalizing change is the culmination of a three-step change process — conceived of as "unfreezing, transition, re-freezing" (or "de-structuring, transition, re-structuring") — in ways that perpetuate agreed-upon and desired changes in values, goals, and practices for as long as they are supportive and productive. Institutionalizing change ensures the perpetuation of those core values and principles that are integral to the identity and culture of the system and to the integrity of its business practices.
When an organizational change has been genuine and complete, it has deeply affected the minds, hearts, and guts of people so that, whenever and wherever appropriate, they tend to recreate their learnings in whatever situation they find themselves. Change has been institutionalized when it has become an assumed part of the organizational and personal performance planning processes. Change has been institutionalized when it is perceived as effectively responsive to relevant business needs within the context of client service, and as essential to the continuing integrity of the organization (see Appendix).
In our work with organizations, whatever particular strategies, techniques, or tools we adopt, adapt, and apply, Gestalt/OSD interveners focus persistently on these integrative, humanistic, and affirmative principles of change at all levels of system. Our contributions to OD have resulted in striking and effective ways of enhancing and liberating consultants' use of their own experience, knowledge, passion, principles, and values to design and implement extraordinarily powerful interventions that have lasting impact on clients. By "allowing" and nurturing consultants' use of self in any system- level context, Gestalt/OSD has truly provided the OD professional with a "presence that makes a difference."
Eleven Propositions for Institutionalizing Organizational Change?
- The most powerful type of change is that which strengthens the best of the existing organizational culture. With minimal alterations or exceptions, the language of these propositions translate quite well to other contexts and levels of system, including the original basis of the paradoxical theory of change in the context and at the level of individual psychotherapy.
- Interventions for change projects need to be congruent with the superordinate vision, values, principles, and business objectives.
- When institutionalizing change, a "supportive holding environment" is needed to sustain individual energy, effort, and commitment.
- Change is most easily institutionalized when there is alignment with and commitment to the mission and to the core values and principles of the organization.
- The only legitimate basis of authority for determining which changes will be made is that of mutual consent, or consensus.
- Institutionalizing change requires that individuals and offices be entrusted with autonomy to implement local change goals, within agreed-upon overarching guidelines.
- Change is more likely to be institutionalized in settings where affirmations of optimism and success exist.
- Change is more likely to be institutionalized where periodic meetings provide a significant forum for open discussion, dialogue, and debate, and members thereby exercise a voice in shaping important decisions and future directions.
- A strong performance planning process can catalyze the institutionalization of change.
- Change can best be institutionalized where there exist trust, integrity of membership, interdependent autonomy, and dialogue.
- Change is more readily institutionalized in organizations that thrive on new ideas, are committed to learning and ongoing experimentation, and that reward success more often than punish failure.