I work in organizations, individually and collectively, and in the Axiome firm, very often with colleagues, and what I am going to share with you now is the intervention that we carried out with my colleague and friend Olivier Millet . And, in the space-time that has been allocated, I will try to give some indications on an intervention that we carried out and which represents different aspects of this approach.

What can I tell you about what characterizes our approach? Of course that it is part of systemic epistemology, all the work of the Palo Alto school , and that it has integrated in particular all the contributions in terms of constraints since in the environment of organizations as well as in the private and in the public, a lot of people we meet also come with a non-consensual approach, desired imposed by someone. And so it is important to be able to integrate these aspects, especially since they do not appear in the original Palo Alto model; I would like to emphasize that it is European work that has been carried out. Notably at the IGB , but also at the Problem Solving and Strategic Therapy Center of Giorgio Nardone in Arezzo. And so we integrated into our approach some of his treatment protocols, and then of course, we will also use more paradoxical strategies, which is also a characteristic of the Palo Alto model.

So, to enter directly into this presentation, we are going to put forward some key ideas, based on a real case, and I will try to highlight what were the main steps, the main techniques, and strategies that were put in place. implemented.

To stall a little bit the case, I specify that it is happening near a municipality, a city of 250,000 inhabitants. We are in Switzerland, and the context prior to the intervention is as follows: It is a merger, at the start, of two entities of this municipality; historically there was a department that dealt with works in the municipality, and a department that dealt with everything that was more like roads or other mobility.

These two departments are being merged to pool resources and achieve economies of scale. Per person, because in fact we kept everyone. That was the work that was carried out upstream by other stakeholders and the result was the birth of a new entity called "the planning division" made up of around 600 people.

Very concretely, when my colleague and I are about to intervene, this planning division is already in place, and we have a fairly traditional structure in the administrations for the distribution of roles and responsibilities.

We have everything at the head of a Politician who lets things happen as often as possible. Then just below, there is a general manager, an engineer who comes from outside; he is someone who has worked in the private sector and whose political adviser thought he was the right person to lead this new entity. There is also a new HRD, the architect of this whole merger. It was he who really built all the job profiles, redid all the hierarchical lines, all the calculations to be able to rehabilitate the work.

Then position themselves, in a rake, 6 sub-directors, with more or less important staff according to the sub-directors. And then we have a study division, an urban planning division, a parks and gardens division.

All these deputy directors are pure products of the administration. This means that they were already in office, under contract with the municipality, and then they were appointed deputy directors I would say on the double merit of their experience and their good political color....

Start of the mission. The situation is blocked

When we start the mission, there is a rather particular context; this new division in this municipality is in charge of a very important project, a bypass road of the city, a ring road.

All the impact studies have been done, the public inquiries carried out. There have been expropriations; in fact, we are almost at the stage where we have to launch the machines, and concrete.

And yet this project has been enormously late and it must at all costs be able to be finalized on time, otherwise the municipality risks losing credits, funding from the region and the federal state - this is happening in Switzerland -

The stress is therefore acute.

In this context, there will be a fairly significant increase in internal complaints from all kinds of people; it goes from people who say we are under pressure, others who do not feel respected, still others who say they are harassed. And in fact, it will attract the attention of a listening unit which is there at the disposal of the municipality.

So it is this concern that makes me say that we should perhaps propose regulation. The 6 deputy directors and other managers are brought together and invited to listen. But at the same time, you have to "tighten the bolts" so that the work is finished on time.

It could have worked; in reality, there will be a worsening of the situation which will manifest itself in a very, very symptomatic way, by the fact that the 6 deputy directors will co-sign a collective letter in which they denounce the attitude of the general manager, the engineer, saying that they are not respected or even harassed. He is described as incompetent, his intransigence is denounced: "we can no longer work effectively with him". At the same time, they accuse in this same letter the head of human resources of being partisan, of having favored certain people to the detriment of others, of not listening to them and of being in close contact with the general manager.

The situation is blocked; the works are not going to progress and the organization "is going into the wall".

What will characterize our intervention.

Try to determine what are the sensitive points of the system and what will be the best levers for change.

At a stage where we do not yet have a mission contract, we must establish what is called an interactional map. It means identifying what is at stake, who is concerned and how to define a scope of action. And in this first stage it is also important for us to try to give ourselves some leeway, with which we will try to work because, when we find ourselves face to face with the elected official, the politician, who benchmarks us with other firms, who knows that he has not been able to regulate the situation internally, things have to go quickly. "I want to give you the mandate to intervene, but my recommendations are that you have to go very quickly, be discreet; I don't want to lose my political credibility and so I'm going to tell you how to do it. .You do a few interviews, you see people, you make up your own mind and you give me a little report telling me which heads to cut off."

That's kind of how we're told things.

"If you want, I can already give you some names and you confirm that for me in your little audit and you also tell me how we are progressing."

That's kind of what we're supposed to start with. So that raises several questions already. He imposes on us and prescribes how he thinks we should deal with the situation. From an ethical and deontological point of view, this is perhaps not the most elegant way to intervene. And so, the first technique that we must implement in this dialogue is what I call making the language of the problem speak and not that of the solution envisaged . It is therefore in a dialogue that we are going to bring him to this terrain of the language of the problem; it is our expertise.

We will thus gradually bring him to talk about the deterioration of the situation, the cabal approach he will say which is being carried out against his general manager, the approach of disloyalty of the 6 deputy directors and therefore it is like that's how we get information on the genesis of the intervention, and for him to really give us a mandate, to give us the possibility of intervening, we also have to get him to give us a march maneuver and in this context, what will be decisive with him is that we will use one of the techniques that comes from Professor Nardone's approach: to evoke for him a greater fear.

We are therefore going to ask him, according to him, what are the risks and the implications if we applied what he recommends, namely cutting off heads, just doing a little audit. We will ask him: "in your opinion, if we do that".....?. If we apply what you want, will your peers in the municipal college see you more as someone who is able to manage the problem or as someone who treats things harshly? say otherwise, do you think it's good for you or do you think it's something that could have harmful consequences?".

At that point, he will say that he is afraid of jeopardizing his credibility on the political level, and that we risk seeing him as someone too intransigent and therefore suddenly, he will evoke the means of consider things differently and ask ourselves the question "what do you offer?".

So, you see, we really have a level of dialogue right from the process of reconsidering the problem. I used to say that we transform the complaint, the state of suffering that people tell us about, into something that lends itself to intervention. We don't really know which one yet, but we already feel that we should be able to have small touches on it. From then on, we ask him who it concerns and we come back to the cartography; we define together a perimeter that will concern the 6 deputy directors, the CEO, the HR, and himself since he is involved in the situation.

On the strength of that, we are starting with a series of, how shall I put it, meetings for a phase of more operational definition of the problems that are raised by people, and we are going to initiate with my colleague a series of bilateral meetings during which we receives all the actors of this relevant system.

So we met with the elected official, the HRD, the general manager and the 6 deputy managers, establishing rules for these meetings, which is to ask people to participate on a voluntary basis. From our point of view, we do not force people, and we also give them the following indications which are that all the information that people communicate to us within the framework of these bilateral meetings, we give ourselves the right to study it for the benefit of the intervention. It is also to empower people and involve them in what they want to share with us. I specify this because on several occasions, people have told us that it is “off record”.

What is very important is that we really put ourselves in a constructivist perspective, like in Palo Alto epistemology, I would say even more narrative inspiration, for those who know Walt's approaches to narrative approaches, where we are not guided by the quest for truth, we are not here to carry out an investigation, that is not what interests us, the idea is rather to try to reconstruct with them something, a meaning, another understanding of the situation which opens up opportunities for intervention, other regulations, and therefore we are not there to establish the truth of the facts. That's not what matters to us.


So we start. We see all these people, and with these people we have an interview grid which ultimately is more or less the same for everyone: we ask them to explain how they perceive the situation. To do this, we go through the following questions:

  1. Who do you think are the different actors involved?
  2.  how disturbing is the problem for you, for others?
  3. How ready are you to take part in the change process?
  4. Do you think you have things to do in there?
  5. Are you more in a waiting position?
  6. Have they ever tried anything?

And so there, we find the idea for us of trying to question on, "is there any logic of attempted solutions? Regulations that have been imported? Very important also for us, what are their positions in relation to the problem? Are they affected, do they suffer from it, are they more of a spectator? And so we try to measure what is the degree of clientelization or is it Are they more like complainants or visitors? Do they have objectives? In relation to the intervention that we can carry out or in relation to regulation? and if that raises some concerns for them, that's what we'll call resistance levels.

So these are all the questions around which we are going to dialogue in a fairly free manner over the course of an hour, an hour and a half with each of the people.

This approach will lead us to have a multi-faceted understanding. And we're going to be careful to try to see if there aren't more personal impacts on the different people. Because we start from the idea that we don't all have the same experience of reality simultaneously and that necessarily people can be more impacted.

For example, the general manager who is angry with his collaborators; he finds that it's completely disloyal, that it's a lack of respect, that it's really good in the administrations that we do that and that "it would never have happened in the private sector. That you have to put your people in step".

We have an HRD who is in great pain, because he was the linchpin of all this reorganization in the merger, and the fact of attacking him by saying that he was partisan, that he favored some at the expense of others. For him it's as if we were attacking his baby and he really feels that we are degrading him, we are hurting him in what he has done, he who wanted so much to be fair and transparent.

Another person will tell us: "I have more personal difficulties, I howled with the herd, but that's not really why."

And in this context we can propose interventions in these different people, identify what the different sensations are: are they impacted rather in terms of fear, anger, pain or pleasure and try to see if, faced with this they feel, we spot exceptions. Or is it a more general feeling.

So we check whether it penalizes their way of interacting with others, with themselves, with their colleagues? And we realize that this is the case with his three people, on offers of individualized interventions, and so I believe that it is also one of the characteristics of the interventions that my colleague and I carry out, it is that 'we will jointly, at the same time carry out collective interventions with this committee, but at the same time make offers of individual support which contribute to improving the situation, and we juggle relatively well with the idea that we can be both a consultant, an intervenor on the collective level, and at the same time provide personalized coaching. But what you have to understand is that the two steps are done concurrently. It's not one and then the other. We are advancing in parallel on the two planes. And the one I'm going to tell you about the most is the one that was done with the general manager, because it was the most striking.

This general manager is, as I said, in anger; this is its basic sensation. He is deeply angry with his collaborators and finds them disloyal. And really this anger is turned against others, and that constitutes for him a first level of incapacity, which we call a primary incapacity. And so suddenly, as he finds it difficult to temper himself and he cannot help reacting, this very strongly affects his action and his interactions with his collaborators, to such an extent that in fact he is incapable of being constant.

Faced with this, he realizes that he has his excesses of anger; he tries to settle by turning things off.

And the attempt at a solution that we will find particularly at home is that he will try to calm down, to hold himself back, he will try to put the lid on the pan, he tries to start his days in a positive way saying to yourself: "today you stay zen, you'll be fine". But in fact he only puts the lid on a bubbling pot, and at the slightest slip he explodes.

This has a very strong impact on his quality of interaction, his relationship, because his communication is very variable; he can explode, or there is a collaborator who says something to him which reminds him that the others have been disloyal or that someone has not done what he expected and therefore suddenly he is very unpredictable, I would even say paroxysmal. It will explode like that in the corridors, in the meetings. And in fact it is permanently a ticking time bomb.

And when we report to him, he tells us: "I really want to change that. It's something that really makes me uncomfortable, it's something that I wish I could change because it hurts me. "

And so we made him an offer to be able to learn how to reduce that so that we can find the bases of communication, of functioning in this management committee and he is very keen because he says "the situation is starting to ruin my health. ".

We are going to use tasks that are fairly standard. And the first task is what we will call "killing the snake with its own venom". It's trying to calm his anger by channeling it. So we're going to ask him to write angry letters. And so we are going to ask him to take a specific time, in which he puts everything he still thinks about, everything he feels about the situation, everything that could make him come out of his hinges. And to do that in a very ritualized space, in a space where he isolates himself. And we are going to match that with a behavioral prescription which is a strategy of choice. We tell him "faced with this, you can adopt a different attitude; vis-à-vis your collaborators, you can decide either to announce that you are again in danger of exploding and going out of your hinges, or to prepare for the How are you going to apologize afterwards". And in fact, the choice is illusory because in either case, the only thing he can't do is not think about it. So we need to encourage him to keep calm, help him bring his anger down to a manageable level for him. And quite quickly, we only did 3-4 sessions, he will begin to find much more correct, less explosive relationships with his collaborators. Let's add that he was someone who had a good regard for him, who thought he was very competent and that he was a senior and a good manager; so we reframed his anger a little bit by telling him that professional life sometimes reveals aspects of oneself that one would have liked not to have discovered, perhaps at the bottom of the acts of weakness that manifested themselves in this way. I thought it was maybe a little bit below the belt, but it was also the way to lean on his position to get him to seek better control of his anger.

See how we combine these approaches both individually and with very specific tasks. We followed another line during other sessions that happened with the HRD where we intervened on his pain; we also proposed things in relation to this attempt at a solution which was not to think about it. Trying to convince others that he was whiter than white. So much for the very specific tasks and requirements.

And then we also did something in parallel with the deputy director who was very anxious, because he was afraid. There too, we used very specific strategies to teach him how to manage differently, I said in particular "the technique of the worst, that is to say adding wood to put out the fire", in order to learn how to treat his anxiety, his fear, rather than hiding it, trying to hide this so-called weakness from everyone.

This intervention took place for him over 3-4 sessions, for the HRD 3 sessions, for the CEO 4 sessions. These individual interventions were carried out in parallel with the collective approach.

It's a huge job trying to pinpoint what characterizes today in this team, in the relevant system, the, how shall I put it, the state of communications relations. And so this is what we call restitution.

We do a very, very detailed analysis of everything people say and what we are looking for are redundancies. We try to pay attention to how the behaviors of some respond to the behaviors of others. How finally the complaints which are formulated are perhaps to be put in parallel, in echo with modes of communication, behavior, reaction of others. And the approach is really to share that.

During the restitution, we will submit to them our understanding of the situation and the functioning of their organization. And the idea is really to try to get them to have a more shared representation of the situation. Because everyone makes their representation as I indicated, everyone seeks and finds their meaning and what we try to do is to get out of these individual representations to offer them something more shared, more involving.

Very concretely, what will it give? it will give rise to an attempt to highlight that the different levels of complaints that they communicate to us are characterized by vicious circles between these people. That's what they've been called, vicious circles as opposed to virtuous circles. And we tried to highlight that basically there were a certain number of items that characterized the state of their communication, their relationship in their professional functioning. Questioning the legitimacy, the authority of the hierarchical line. Questions about the definition of a job well done. There was a vicious circle with regard to the reproach of partiality, of the bypass exercised by the 6 deputy directors to gain direct access to the elected official without going through the DG. But the reciprocal also because the chosen one, who had doubts and who saw that things weren't going well with his CEO, spoke directly to the deputy directors.

Here I am not going to detail all these vicious circles, but I am going to present a more specific one to you to try to show how we start from a situation which in general is seen in a unidirectional way and how we show that these are redundant situations, which respond to each other and feed themselves.

 Very concretely, we had a first level of expression:

  • the general manager who complains that he can only trust his deputy managers to a very limited extent, 
  • and on the other hand we hear the 6 deputy directors who say to themselves, we are devalued, he does not trust us and therefore suddenly we share our information less because we still want to have areas where we still feels competent and where one masters.

And we, we put that to music and we say:

  • the more the CEO lacks confidence, the more he multiplies the lack of control information,
  • the more the 6 deputy directors receive requests for control or information, the more they feel devalued and the less they communicate information.

We are therefore trying to reverse the situation. And we ask them to react:

is it really in there that you are. And we try to validate that with the 6 deputy directors. For all the vicious circles we've identified. Then we ask them if there are others, if we missed something. And it is a long job of explaining our understanding of the situation to all those concerned. This exercise allows them to correct us and restitution is an act of intervention in itself in which everyone can find themselves if not in all, at least in part. But in a more involving way, a way in which they can all have their say. And that's what we're going to engage them on. And so suddenly that will lead us to offer a series of workshops with them on how we are going to correct the characteristics of the state of the system.

First thing, we're going, because they were very involved, I told you in a context of stress, they wanted things to go very quickly, paradoxically we're going to take the time. And so we're going to brake, but brake strategically to try to get them to engage more obviously. Because none wanted to be responsible for failing to complete the work on time.

And then, we are going to ask them to set the minimum objectives for the change, because most of the time people want everything to go well, to have harmonious relations, to be able to collaborate effectively. And in general by dint of wanting to try to reach the inaccessible, we neglect what is attainable. And we will ask them for individual approaches. So we're going to tell everyone to move towards collective changes. Take their time, and remain cautious because it is not because we decide to improve things that we necessarily improve them. There may be accidents along the way.

They are given collective tasks; it took 3 working sessions with them to determine them.

The first thing we asked them was to list the first signs that will show that the situation is changing for the better. For those familiar with the approach, it's called a self-fulfilling prophecy. By trying to focus their attention on this, they are asked to be oriented towards improvement rather than the constantly recurring observation that nothing is going well.

After that comes the description of the collective tasks; we will ask them to note, to identify all the positive behaviors that could appear in them or in others between now and the next meeting. Not only to identify the signals, but what they themselves could do, or what others could do to further reinforce the feeling that they can be attentive to having micro-interventions, regulations that favor a process of correction. So we ask them that and then in these interventions, we often have one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake. We are at the same time oriented towards the solution of the improvement but we remain on, orienting the problem and therefore it is important to make them vigilant to the fact that everything has not disappeared and therefore we ask them to note, to identify all the habits that they or others could take, voluntarily or not, but which would be likely to worsen the situation, or even maintain it.

Everything will fall into place little by little; we'll have a bunch of productive sessions on how they identify, how they don't work well together, and ultimately how effective or ineffective they are. And so we are also going to validate the experiment in progress; it's very important to show that they can communicate effectively, be structured, build well together. We also validate the experience and we support and we use what they implement to be able to change the situation.

I'll end on that. We made them co-responsible for continuing to express fears, for having more frank communications, particularly with the CEO, to continue to allow him to improve in his communication, and we also asked very, very specifically the sponsor who was the chosen one to stop the bypass to reinforce the credibility and the renewed, found authority of the CEO. And so that's how we consolidated the change. And we ended with a consolidation workshop that was held over several months after the changes and the restoration of operations were well in place, during which we really anchored things with a task that came from the work of Ericsson. We made them work on "imagine that you have this bizarre project of finding the initial degraded situation, the one that led us to intervene. And we asked them to remember it, and we asked them how could you, go about it with the utmost certainty. And so let us know of all your most malicious, most toxic ideas that you could implement if you had this really twisted, weird plan, to try again to worsen the situation. It made them laugh a little but at the same time what is interesting is that through these workshops they brought out everything that could potentially set the fire to the powder or everything that was their attempts at solutions. And there's a lot of work being done there, on our part, to really take all these bad proposals and identify them as "not to be used in the event of a return of the problem" .

Our intervention lasted a total of 6 months and I think it is important to emphasize that we are part of the long term and that in the end, they achieved their objective in the sense that they restored clearly their functioning, have made organizational changes. And we delivered their work on time, the subject of their contract, and no one was fired.