The Institutional System Event (ISE)
The concepts of system-in-the-mind and role
Major inspiration for this article comes from work with David Gutmann in the years 1994 - 1997
The Institutional System Event (ISE), a significant event providing opportunities for learning in most group relations conference held worldwide, has a logic and language of its own. These are only possible to appreciate and profit from within the context of a Tavistock group relations conference, but the application of learning about institutional life obtained from the ISE is valid in non-conference groups, organizations, institutions, and systems.
The ISE, offered as part of group-relations conferences in the Tavistock tradition, delivers opportunities to examine and gauge the rationality of systems-in-the-mind among the event's Management and its Members, as they jointly contribute to the formation of a temporary institution. The Consultants consult to and with the Members; they do not form a subsystem for study during the ISE. The learning that results from the ISE experience may be applied to settings outside the conference.
The following thoughts, ideas, and definitions are presented to clarify the idiom of the here-and-now experiential study and learning about the dynamics of institutions as human social systems and about our conscious and unconscious contributions to shaping them.
The Institutional System Event is designed to provide opportunities for experiential learning, derived from here-and-now experience of both the rational, conscious elements of human experience and the irrational, largely unconscious or preconscious facets of human behavior, sentiment, and thought. These opportunities for learning are useful for leaders and for followers in all large and small organizational and institutional settings (family, school, sports teams, job sites, family-operated businesses, religious groups, international corporations, etc.).
Managers of every institutional system act through intellectual activities (e.g., thinking, reading, deciding, evaluating, rejecting, accepting) and through translation of their rational and irrational understanding of the system-as-a-whole into management and leadership. Work and other forms of participation in a human system provide the need and opportunity for interactions with other human beings of similar and different rank, both inside and outside the system. Over time, these interactions, real as well as phantasied, inspire development and modifications of a "system-in-the-mind," which is partly conscious and partly unconscious and which, therefore, usually does not accurately reflect the observable realities of the system in which it exists and exerts significant influence."If one has the stomach to add the breakages, upheavals, distortions, inversions of all this chambermade music, one stands,
Irrespective of its precision, our system-in-the-mind guides feelings, fears, expectations, desires, work, and interpretations related to the institutional system in which we find ourselves. This system-in-the-mind is inevitably also related to any and maybe all systems in our lives, present and previous.
The incomplete or imprecise system-in-the-mind may with effort be transformed so as to conform more nearly to the realities that the institutional system contains. Most institutional systems rarely provide or encourage modification to its members' system-in-the-mind, which may have been years in the making and may have a "distinguished" role in defining the enterprise. Efforts or activities that intend or effect transformation of the collective system-in-the-mind can be expected to meet with resistance, from mild to violent. Moderating the effects and bases of institutional resistance is the domain of trained consultants, who are present and available to the members of the institution during the Institutional System Event (ISE).
In the ISE, the opportunities for experiential learning are made possible through the development and consideration of working hypotheses. These are developed by the participants in the system, led most often by the event's Management, and presented throughout the system for participants' engagement, examination, elaboration, refutation, reformulation, propagation, "work," and application. In this way, the ISE Management establishes and preserves the boundaries and task of the event.
Words and concepts used in institutional settings have meanings, explicit and implicit, shared and idiosyncratic. Words used in the vocabulary of the human collective of any system are powerful markers of identity, purpose, understanding. This article inventories words and concepts used in the different ways people understand and manipulate collective activity in pursuit of a defined task. It serves to introduce the article "The Institutional System Event (ISE): Design and management" (DeLoach, 2011).
For example, in "nuclear family," "nuclear" describes the organization, and "family" the institution. Together they are called the "family system," formed by realities and phantasies, by experiences real and only phantasied.
Herein, "system" refers to the overall or global repository of its members' ideas, experiences, and "systems-in-the-mind."
During group relations conferences, the work of competent consultants within the conference system can facilitate the proposition of the ISE, namely, to learn through experience about human systems and the influence of systems-in-the-mind on the institution's life.
When people begin to examine what they mean by "system," they are trying to identify and verbalize what they have "in the mind" about it. The temptation is always to reify it as existing "out there," but the reality is that what is "in the mind" is a construct, held only as a "system-in-the-mind." The system-in-the-mind contains internal pictures of the system, which are related to external events and assumptions, and also to unstated beliefs, emotions, and values. These mental images are not static; they are produced and altered in dynamic interchanges, chiefly through projections and transferences.
Great uncertainties surround the foundation or establishment of new institutions or human systems. The task of management is to achieve an exploration of the uncertainties carried in the minds of the participants in the system, and make the best use of resources to work toward a dynamic stability between the uncertainties contained in their systems-in-the-mind, with both real and phantasied elements, and the institution's actual needs for learning for survival and productivity.
A and B are trying to agree to an action to be taken by B. They do agree, but afterwards B goes and does something completely different. Has this experience ever happened to you?
The problem is that each of them has "in the mind" a different picture of the same system. Let's say that A interprets words and actions in terms of a square "system-in-the-mind," while B interprets the same words and actions in terms of a triangular "system-in-the-mind." As long as the "system-in-the-mind" remains unconscious, they are unable to grasp how different their views may be. The difference is between the way the system in question is organized in the mind at a conscious level of experience and "knowledge" and the design and functioning of the system "in-the-mind," which influences experience, belief, and behavior at a powerful but less than conscious level.
For example, a conference staff member may say: "I have been named 'consultant' for the next four days. Being a consultant means that I will behave, think, feel in a particular way as manifest in my experience-based system-in-the-mind about 'consultants.' I will imagine that the other consultants who are my colleagues are going to behave, think, feel in a way that is the same or very similar to my understanding of the system's requirements and expectations. This understanding is established in my mind and I draw on it each time I am named a 'consultant' for guidelines and knowledge for my role behaviors."
To work with the system-in-the-mind, we might be invited to think of an imaginative image or metaphor for the system or our situation in it, to avoid using words, and to include ourselves in the picture. During the ISE, this invitation can be presented as a working hypothesis, in which the observable or intuited system-in-the-mind is outlined in gross detail, based on data available to the authors of the hypothesis. The ISE Management's suggestion and recommendation that the Members appeal to the Consultants for work around the system-in-the-mind presented in the working hypothesis communicated by Management form an essential part of the working hypothesis communicated. The support of the Consultants is vital because the system-in-the-mind is largely unconscious and resistant to reason or transformation. The encounter with different systems-in-the-mind and especially the rational knowledge and here-and-now experience of the "real" system being studied can be transformational.
A person, as manager, needs the insight to understand that we engage in unconscious processes in order to cope with the stress of the realities of work. The more I understand about my own inner world, the more I am likely to be able to deal with the realities constructively. The task for ISE Management is to become aware of the constructs by which participants in the system are habitually understanding and shaping their working environment and their roles in it.
The working hypotheses generated by participants in the event, often led by Management, attempt to offer the possibility for corrective or rational transformation of the set of alternative "systems-in-the-mind" that guide the evolution of the conference institution. They offer guidance in the transformation of how the sequence of experiences are and will be punctuated.
Melanie Klein believed that as we work in institutions or systems, we introject or take into our psychic selves aspects of what is happening to us from people and events, to form internal objects and part objects. These are symbols of the external world that we use to think about or categorize our surroundings, often for the purposes of prediction and security, enabling us to feel capable of predicting the responses of others to us and protecting us from the insecurity of the chaos or unpredictability located in our environment. They are real to me, but they are not the same as the real people and events in my environment. Even if I repress them, they are still objects in my inner world and will continue to affect my behaviors and sentiments.
As I face the fears and anxieties or uncertainties of engaging with the real world, I respond to these internal objects. Whenever I feel, think, act in the system or institutional context, I am prompted by these internal objects that I draw upon or repress. I modify them in my unconscious.
Exactly the same process is going on in those around me in the system, in those individuals with whom I work. We are all monitoring and controling what we take account of in ourselves and in others. The "unthought known" (Bollas 1989) is used to describe those things that are affecting me from my inner world but that I have not yet brought to full consciousness. This content is integral to my "system-in-the-mind." The system that is happening is thus not just "out there"; it is also in me as what Hirschorn (1988) calls the "workplace within."
As an individual, my inner world is barricaded against intrusions from the context of the outside world. This phenomenon has been understood as a resistance to becoming dependent. The individual tries to avoid being committed by circumstances. The individual's identity relates to being and to self, but speaking of a "person" implies that identity arises from belonging or in the relation with other persons. A person is someone who is a nodal point of a network of relations with others, in a context of attachment or belonging. Belonging is not the same as commitment.
In order to know how to act, to make decisions, and to work with others as a manager or consultant, I try to make sense of everything of which I am conscious, inside and outside of myself. I am in a constant process of "reading" myself in my reactions to others; at different moments and in different institutional contexts, I use the concepts of "person" and "individual," because they define markedly different sets of experiences. My choices as to how I define myself (whether as person or individual) in turn will have a dramatic effect on my own and others' behaviors in the system. In this way, our varied and collective systems-in-the-mind create or mold or shape the institution of which we are all members.
We can understand systems-in-the-mind as transitional objects (Winnicott 1953) that carry and bring to the surface our inner feelings, thoughts, imaginings, which we then use to bridge the gap between our inner world and the system outside in which we have to act or "be" present. The transitional object enables us as adult Managers or Consultants to cope with the stresses and uncertainties of making decisions, taking risks, and being accountable or responsible for what we do. The "system-in-the-mind" becomes a transitional object that we need in order to contain our irrational thoughts and unformulated ideas, as well as to accomodate the rational ones.
The transitional object (in this case, the system-in-the-mind) smooths our transition from dependence to independence, rendered or understood as movement or growth from individual to person. Transitional objects permit us to develop autonomy. The system-in-the-mind is paradoxical in that it is both created by us, emerging from our own internal imaginings, from the pattern that we give to system phenomena, and also discovered by us because the patterns it embodies or professes present themselves to me as if they were independent of me. The transitional oject "system-in-the-mind" is essentially a soothing, comforting possession, both created and discovered by its owner.
Systems-in-the-mind are largely about emotional experience, and it would be easy to think of them as the property of the individual. But Huffington et al. (2004) suggest that emotional experience is very rarely located within a purely individual space. It is the system-as-a-whole, the bounded space in which we move with other human beings, that contains the emotional experience. To explore this system or institutional experience that comes to be manifest inside the individual requires more than a psychoanalytic perspective...it requires a systemic perspective.
In system terms, the emotional experience of the individual is the shared experience of everybody in the system. What we experience at this moment in time is experienced on behalf of the system and tells us things about the state of the system. In the ISE, we work to explore, understand, and share with others the range of our engagement in the system—the personal, subsystem, managerial, institutional, organizational feelings and experiences.
The manager is likely to feel able to relate to those whom he or she experiences as persons, while dealing with individuals may prove awkward. I remember what I consider instances of both persons and individuals who have come to ISE Management during the working sessions. In the cases of the latter, their reception and the quality of their interaction with Management were distinct, as, most likely, were their inner experiences.
Where the emphasis is on "being" as distinct from "doing" or "belonging," there will be a diminished or absent need to draw any boundary at all. The distinct emphases are discernible in the performance of the task of the ISE, which is the explore the nature of the relatedness of Members and Management of the ISE. The Members and to a lesser degree the Consultants are "being" the task while the Management is "doing" the task. Sustaining systems thinking, as attempted in the ISE in the effort to sculpt system-as-a-whole working hypotheses, is to delete all the boundaries that have been imagined or imposed. Sustained systems thinking is about "being," whose meaning derives from the nature of the relatedness held in the mind of the observer.
In the study of systems thinking during learning-by-experience Tavistock-influenced group relations conferences, boundaries are offered by staff in the program. They are generally explicit. But in articulating system-as-a-whole interpretations or hypotheses, these boundaries are ignored or at least treated differently. Working hypotheses generally regard "Management" or "Members" and other such boundaries as "forms of scaffolding" that contain content rather than space. The interpretations constituting or contained in working hypotheses focus on the participants' content boundaries-in-the-mind. The systemic social consequence of sustaining systems thinking is cultural awareness. The increased cultural awareness inside the developing conference culture is an outcome desired by Management and is the motivation for the creation and distribution of its system-wide interventions or system-as-a-whole working hypotheses.
Through the systems-in-the-mind that all participants bring to the conference and begin to examine and make conscious during the ISE, the Management and Consultants in the event focus attention on the entire developing institution or system. They work complementarily to draw attention to the learning achieved through direct, personal experience. The main entry point to this learning through experience is the testing out of working hypotheses and the use of data.
During the ISE, the use of working hypotheses encourages system-level attention and the discarding of a belief in inter-subsystem competition and evaluative comparisons as the conditions necessary for growth and survival. By focusing on "being," competition can be replaced with co-operation and collaboration. Thus, in this event and in others, Management is the boundary. Wherever there is Management, there is a boundary (Gutmann et al., 1997). Where there is no boundary, there is no Management. Boundaries are not, in this sense, barricades but rather permeable areas denoting difference. Boundaries, as concepts-in-the-mind, are not static, but dynamic. The vigilance or attention of Managers is needed to define and re-define them continuously, like a line drawn in the sand below the high tide mark, which has to be redrawn at least twice each day.
Boundaries are a necessary construct for thinking about systems and open systems. Thus, Management is necessary for learning about system-as-a-whole thinking. The desired learning outcome is that Management and Members will distinguish how to make optimum contributions to the system through discovering how to manage themselves in role in the real dynamic situation in which they are all working toward the same task.
"System" is the working context, where we are working and have responsibility for contributing to the success of the workplace according to our position within it. This derives from Bateson's (1972) definition of a system as "activities with a boundary." System covers the constructs of organization-in-the-mind and institution-in-the-mind. Here "system" refers to an organic, dynamic system, not a mechanical, physical one. Whereas groups may exist in proximity, each may have distinct tasks or aims. Systems and their subsystems share the same central objectives and tasks.
The system-in-the-mind is a largely unconscious construct. The more the manager can become sensitive to the systemic dimension of his or her behavior as being influenced by and influencing colleagues, the more he or she is likely to find new energy and see new possibilities for work, personally and corporately (i.e., within the system). In the ISE, the use of the "because clause" and the unomittable suggestion to Members that they work with the Consultants and with Management are tools enabling or facilitating Member learning about the system and the system-in-the-mind.
In working together, the conference setting provides the opportunity to develop the capacity to distinguish between the exercise of power and the taking of authority (Gutmann 2009). Power and authority are present in the same person much less frequently than one might imagine. Jean-Paul Sartre asked his students to imagine that a rhinoceros had entered the room. The animal would without doubt have tremendous power over the room's other occupants. But few would attribute authority to the animal.
"Work" experience describes the feelings, thoughts, desires, and reactions of a person who is engaging with a system by taking a role. This is differentiated from "personal experience," where the individual cannot find the role through which to manage her or his work and thereby make a contribution to the system. Whereas "individual" points to separateness, "person" implies connectedness and relatedness to others. Individuals may have power. Authority it more often associated with role.
Role is seen as linking or relating the person to the system. But, role is not to be interpreted as prescriptive, static, and separate from the person. In institutions plagued by rules and procedures, the persons concerned may need to be controlled by the outward power of regulation, rather than by the inner authority that is possible by taking up a role.
In order to work for the benefit of the system, the person has to function in role. But, in newer ways of understanding the construct, a role is differentiated from person, position, job description, and task, although it involves them all. In this modern view, a role cannot be given to anyone by anyone else. What they are given instead is a system to work within, as well as the explicit aim or purpose of that system. The person then has the challenging task of discovering that there is a role for him or her. Secondly, the person must "make" that role and, finally, take up that role.
To take or to take up a role implies being able to formulate or discover, however intuitively, a regulating principle inside oneself that enables one, as a person, to manage what one does in relation to the requirements of the situation in which she or he operates. This is a description of the person-in-role. The idea of a regulating principle inside oneself provides the basis for defining the concept of "role."
The person makes the role by identifying not only the aim of the system, but also its structures, technologies, ethics, cultures, and the types of people who work there, with their expectations. At all phases of this exploration, the person continues to find, make, and take her or his role. It is a never-ending, recurring process. Only the person in role defines the role, and if it is being done so that the purpose of taking the role is being realized successfully, that person is seen as having autonomy, as "managing" himself or herself in the role, and as exercising authority.
A role is defined or taken up as a person
A role needs to be searched for and found, then made, because it is implemented in the here-and-now. It not definable in advance. Role is an idea or construct "in-the-mind," a patterning of ideas by which a person organizes behavior in relation to a specific aim, in relation to a specific context, in relation to a specific system or subsystem. In this sense, a role is never static. The delegate role during the ISE has long been interpreted as static, "to deliver a message." Over and out. But, in reality, static behavior in this role is illusory and inconceivable, as Managers' delivery of messages during the ISE always proves.
A role needs to be taken. As opposed to being given or inherited.
It is an idea-in-the-mind leading to action. In the ISE, role is a tool for managing learning about boundaries, authority, authorization, task, and transformation. The working hypotheses addressing system-in-the-mind working hypotheses are also used to manage similar learning.
A role can be defined as a mental regulating principle, based on a person's living experience of a complex interaction of feelings, ideas, and motivations, which are being aroused by external interactions within a system. This mental regulating principle is expressed in purposive behavior to accomplish a system task or aim.
Role transforms power into authority. Another factor that conditions this transformation is that of authorization. Just as a role cannot be given to a person, neither can authority be given. It needs to be taken or taken up by the person in the appropriate role. All the trappings of authority are experienced by others as power unless they are exercised from within an authorized, legitimate role.
Transformation of roles is expressed through persons' changing behaviors in their work system, as person, role, and system interact to effect transformation. At any given moment, the person's current understanding of the system as it is and as it exists "in the mind," is a major factor in fashioning her or his role. If some influence, such as inter-subsystem experience or system-as-a-whole working hypothesis presented by Management during the ISE, nudges the person's perception of the system or of her or his system-in-the-mind, then the shape and understanding of the role will be transformed. The system-in-the-mind may change either because of something occurring inside the person or because contextual forces have transformed the external system itself.
This transformation will most probably be concurrent with a personal acceptance or interpretation of the conscious and unconscious factors that are affecting the person's thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs. These kinds of transformations will both reflect and generate new psychic, political, and spiritual relatedness to the system and its tasks. This may be expected to alter the way others within the system fashion their roles and thereby to influence understanding of the system, as it is or as it is becoming.
Transformed behaviors generate transformed forces within the system. Members of the system experience transformed relations and respond to transformed projections and introjections from others.
Relationship and relatedness
In thinking about relations between people in a working situation such as a group relations conference, it is useful to distinguish between two ways of seeing those relations.
1. To see relations and interactions in terms of personal relationships. That is, how I as a person relate to and feel about you, disregarding context, position or role, and background. If we see our relations with others (Members, Consultants, Managers) in this way, we place emphasis on getting to know, trying to be friendly or at least civil, judging the quality of our relations with them in terms of liking and disliking or whether we share interests or goals in common.
2. To see relations with others in terms of system or task relatedness. Relatedness in this instance is similar to connectedness. That is, recognizing that although I may or may not know someone in the system, I have a relatedness to them as co-participants of the system, whether in our similar or different roles. This relatedness is not based on the fact that as persons we happen to be in the same situation, but rather on our being persons-in-role within a common, shared body of endeavor referred to as a system. We are related to each other through our working roles, whether or not we are aware of it.
If we see our relations with others (Members, Consultants, Managers) in this "relatedness" way, we place emphasis on our interactions and connections in terms of the task that we are working towards together. We recognize each other's roles and their part in the system's overall task effort or aim. We become aware that insofar as we are working to the same task, we are doing something on behalf of each other, even if we disagree or dislike each other. To the extent that we acknowledge the same task, we are free to disagree, challenge, and be challenged, become angry, all without fearing that we will prejudice a personal relationship. We avoid feeling guilty because we accept that the criterion for what we say or do is whether it advances the task that together and separately we are working towards. We remain open to being proved wrong in the process.
Relating to each other around our tasks and the relatedness that comes from our sharing the overall conference system task, is important at the boundary between Managers and Members and also at the boundary between Managers and Consultants (at the Management's physical boundary) during the ISE, because in fact there already exist many personal relationships of different types (teacher-student, colleague-colleague) that are alive and active. Whether these relationships are open or latent, they may impaiir our rational, task-oriented functioning in the system.
In group relations conference systems, staff's managerial and consultative work is based in relatedness. Relatedness does not ignore that people may also have or establish personal relationships, though the study, improvement, reproduction, analysis, or intrusion of those relationships into the conference work with Members or Managers is not the focus or task of the ISE.
In the ISE, it can sometimes be observed that each subsystem formed by the Members represents its own function or special interests, and may not be aware or considerate of the work of other subsystems and of the fact that all conference participants interact and are joined to the same task. Management, with the contributions of the Consultants, exercises its leadership of the system by highlighting and modeling, in understandable fashion, the primary system task and the tools (i.e., working hypotheses) available for addressing the task. Without consciousness of the system's boundary, the respective subsystem territorial and topical boundaries may gain importance beyond their due. This is micro-view of the system task and method of working is manifest in such contributions as "In our subsystem, we...." or "In my group, we...." or "The Consultants decided...."
The system as a whole is the focus of study, and therefore the conference system's boundary is what holds all participants together. Management is the boundary. Members have access to the role of Manager of the ISE, both in their ability to be authorized to directly meet with Management and in their ability to engage Management's or their own system-as-a-whole working hypotheses. Both the system boundary and the primary task are "carried" or "held" or "contained" by the management function. Members are authorized and able to collaborate in management of the ISE.
However, during the ISE, Members sometimes restrict themselves unnecessarily to a very limited concept of management. They may not be exposed to the concept of shared management for the event. And, consequently, they may regard the role of boundary manager for their subsystem as the maximum expression of their capacity for management during the event. Occasionally, individuals in a subsystem may see themselves as a group of individual managers and not a subsystem with a common goal tied to shared management of the instutional task. Is it possible for Consultants to work with the subsystems in ways that permit them to spread their wings? Not force them to, but maybe inspire them to? Management can lead the task, but leading assumes responsible followership. Management and Consultants, by continually focusing on the ISE's primary task, can challenge Members' deskilling and passive, counter-learning behaviors by working with the Member's and their own systems-in-the-mind.
Transformation requires energy and if it is to be effective and the work is not to regress to the status quo, transformation requires the exercise of authority. There is latent energy and capacity for task-oriented work within the conference Management, the Members, the Consultants, and the ISE structure.
When this energy is being activated by individuals who make use of inanimate objects (resources) and personal relations with others to achieve something for their own purposes, whether these are "good" or not, power is said to activate this energy. When the energy is mobilized by a person-in-role (e.g., the system-as-a-whole focus and hypothesis-building effort undertaken by Managers or Consultants) for the benefit of the system in which he or she works, this person is said to be exercising personal and role authority.
A Manager exercises power when another member of conference staff does what they are told or expected to do because of his or her relationship with the Manager, because he or she likes her or has confidence in her or fears her for what she could do or say. The Manager's subordinates or colleagues, in carrying out their jobs and responsibilities, may be more aware of pleasing "the boss" than finding satisfaction in the work and its completion. Under these conditions, staff will be concerned to get on well with the Manager, not because it is best for the task, but because it makes life easier. Discussion of mistakes, problems and weaknesses is likely to be strictly limited, because it could lead to pain, arguments, and anger, which then lead to breakdown in the relationship that they want to preserve, even at the cost of disregard for the shared task (Reed).
What about leading or inspiring departure
from "pleasing 'the boss'" and making life "easier"? A Manager exercises
authority when members of staff know how their work contributes to achieving
the aim of the system and when they do what they are expected to do because
they understand its relatedness to the system task. The Manager's
obligation is to brief staff members so that they can grasp the significance
of what is to be done, know the extent and limits of the resources available
to them, and be reassured and confident that they have the requisite authorization,
competence, and skill to contribute to task completion. It may also
be useful for staff members to know that they are trusted by conference
management and that they will be supported in the competent exercise of
their authority by conference management. This trust, however, must
not be based on personal relationship or sentient interpersonal connections.
Hence, the need for management to engage conference staff members for their
task competence, above all else.
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© 2013, 2016 by Dr. Stan De Loach All rights reserved.