Overcoming the counter-resistance of sponsoring systems

The value stairs and the double diamond provide ways of thinking about potential maladaptation. Maladaptation presents opportunities to develop new forms of value creation that involve lifting the strategy ceiling. Pursuing these opportunities involves a doubling of the double task facing individuals working within it, work that often fails to deliver effective change because the immune system of the organization ‘kills’ the changes as they come up against leadership resistance akacounter-resistance’. The source of this counter-resistance is the sponsoring system of the organization, the challenge it creates at its most extreme when the organization is seeking to compete in turbulent environments.  ‘New forms of value creation’ are thus a response to the customer’s insistence for something better, an insistence experienced by the sponsoring system as resistance to its current offerings being sufficient.

When supporting action learning projects capable of working with this doubling of the double task, the organization as a client system must be distinguished from its sponsoring system. This sponsoring system describes the way power is exercised directly over the client system and indirectly by setting the strategy ceiling under which the client system must work, constraining what assumptions may be questioned from below that ceiling.

The assumptions that remain above the ceiling form the basis of the governing mentality of the organization that become ‘none of the business’ of those working below that ceiling. We shall see that this sponsoring system is both a referent and a regulatory system. I explore the basis for this in the definitions of referent and regulatory systems, definitions that distinguish such systems fundamentally from operative systems with their primary tasks. I explore what does distinguish referent and regulatory systems if primary task does not, and how the organization of a sponsoring system may span multiple operative systems not only within an organization but also potentially spanning multiple organizations. I conclude by outlining the form of analysis needed of a sponsoring system to identify how its counter-resistance may be overcome i.

Distinguishing referent or regulative systems from operative systems

Socio-technical open-systems thinking reaches its limit because it describes the operative systems to which primary task applies but does not describe the regulatory or referent systems that remain external to those operative systems. While self-regulation, as a general systemic property of a living system, was the main focus of Bertalanffy’s writing (Bertalanffy 1950), these regulatory or referent systems remained external to operative systems through the adoption of Ashby’s cybernetic thinking (Ashby 1956). This associated the primary task of an operative system with managing its boundary conditions:

“Primary task was from the beginning associated with the task of the supervisor in managing the immediate boundary conditions of the worker-task relation within a larger organizational structure (Emery 1993[1959]). Whether or not such a worker-task relation constituted a workgroup that was capable of responsible autonomy depended on whether its work could be performed within definable boundaries of technology, territory and/or time (Miller 1959). Such workgroups necessarily were socio-technical, their boundaries enabling those responsible for the workgroup to identify easily what was ‘theirs’ and who belonged in it (Rice 1958). Their boundaries later proved to have been of vital importance in their effectiveness (Miller 1975).” (Boxer 2014)

An operative system had to be distinguished from a regulative or referent system because while the former could be characterized in terms of its primary task, the latter determined the conditions of exchange that defined those primary tasks:

“Open-systems models deal with the equifinality of material exchange processes between an organization and elements in its environment but not “at all with those processes in the environment itself which were the determining conditions of the exchanges”(Emery and Trist 1965).  Furthermore, the laws connecting parts of the environment to each other were themselves “often incommensurate with those laws connecting parts of the organization to each other, or even with those which govern the exchanges”(Emery and Trist 1965).  Emery proposed restricting the term “socio-technical” to ‘operative’ organizations engaged in material exchange processes (Emery 1993), distinguishing them from ‘regulative’ organizations.”  (Boxer 2014)

Regulative systems thus defined the conditions under which operative systems were defined, whether those operative systems were situated within a single or multiple organizations. They were “concerned directly with the psychosocial ends of their members and instilling and maintaining or changing cultural values and norms, the power and the position of interest groups, or the social structure itself” (Trist 1981: from Tavistock Anthology Vol II). Trist also called regulative systems referent because they were defined by the particular intra- and/or inter-organizational relations and boundary conditions that they held in place within a larger ecosystem, functioning as a ‘reference group’ for the operative organizations subject to them.[1] The characteristic of a sponsoring system to which a client system was subjected, therefore, was that it acted as both the client system’s referent and regulatory system. Now consider what happens when we extend the scope of a sponsoring system to span multiple organizations.

What defines a sponsoring system if not primary task?

Emery and Trist introduced the concept of an inter-organizational domain in order to distinguish field-related organizational populations from the systems of relations which any single organization needed to maintain with its transactional environment:

“An organizational population becomes field-related when it engages with a set of problems, or societal problem area, which constitutes a domain of common concern for its members. The set of organizations is then ‘directively correlated’ (Sommerhoff 1950, 1969) with the problem area.” (Trist 1983)

Such a problem area of common concern formed a problem domain within which various demand situations could be identified together with the effects ladders that addressed them. The inter-organizational domain was thus identified with an ecosystem of organizations relating to a problem domain in which “the issues involved are too extensive and too many-sided to be coped with by any single organization, however large” (Trist 1983).

This addressed the regulatory aspect of a sponsoring system. To address its referent aspect, we must ask what brings people together around such a problem domain in order to tackle the issues it presents. This brings us to Freud’s third identification based on “the possibility or desire of putting oneself in the same situation”. Freud used the following story to describe this identification of the third kind:

“Supposing, for instance, that one of the girls in a boarding school has had a letter from someone with whom she is secretly in love which arouses her jealousy and that she reacts to with a fit of hysterics; then some of her friends who know about it will catch the fit, as we say, by mental infection.  The mechanism is that of identification based upon the possibility or desire of putting oneself in the same situation.” (Freud 1955: p107)

Such identifications are not with a person or with a person’s way of behaving (Freud’s identifications of the 1st and 2nd kinds), but rather with a situation that supports a particular affective relation to it that matters and that can be shared with others. This making of common cause around matters of shared concern gives rise to affective networks (Dean 2010). Trist went on to identify two complementary classes of relation to a problem domain – the purposeful referent organization and the affective network taking the form of a social movement that was not in itself purposeful:

“…those which display some kind of centering in terms of a referent organization (of which there are several variations) and those which remain uncentered and retain a purely network character. These latter comprise social movements concerned with the articulation of latent value alternatives. … Such movements … are not in themselves purposeful. Once, however, a referent organization appears, purposeful action can be undertaken in the name of the domain. To be acceptable the referent organization must not usurp the functions of the constituent organizations, yet to be effective it must provide appropriate leadership. (Trist 1983)

What distinguished a regulative or referent system was therefore its dual role as both regulator and reference group. The scope of a sponsoring system, particularly one that spanned multiple organizations, required that its members shared an identification to a cause in the sense of a shared problématique associated with a problem domain and in relation to which it sought to act purposefully. Examples of such purposefulness range across such things as the shared vision of a commercial organization’s founders, mitigating climate change, renewing the life of a city or pursing a shared professional interest (such as through ISPSO.org).

The functions of a sponsoring system

Any organization will have its sponsoring system if we are to understand it as ‘alive’. Turbulence (Emery and Trist 1965) is a defining characteristic of a problem domain, however, in relation to which a sponsoring system must necessarily span the multiple organizations forming the ecosystem responding to it. This brings us to what the organization of a sponsoring system might look like. Trist identified three different classes of organization – existing, emergent or wholly informal, the latter being ‘just’ an affective network:

… one class of such system: namely, that in which member organizations are linked to a key organization among them which acts as a central referent organization. It does this even though many of them are only partially under its control or linked to it only through interface relations. Let me add that interface relations are as basic to systems of organizational ecology as superior-subordinate relations are to bureaucratic organizations. Interface relations require negotiation as distinct from compliance. This, as I stated earlier, is a basic distinction between the two types of system. … A second class [of such system] in which the referent organization is of a different kind. It is a new organization brought into being and controlled by the member organizations rather than being one of the key constituents. … In a third class [of such system] there is no referent organization at all. (Trist 1977)

Three broad functions could be identified for the existing or emergent organizations acting as sponsoring systems – regulation, appreciative enquiry and mobilization of resources:

“The first is regulation as distinct from operation—operations are the business of the constituent [operative] organizations. Regulation entails setting the ground rules, determining the criteria for membership, maintaining the values from which goals and objectives are derived, undertaking conflict resolution, and sanctioning activities. … The second entails the appreciation of emergent trends and issues and the working out with the constituent organizations of desirable futures and modifying practice accordingly. [The third is] mobilization of resources may be an especially important item, as is developing a network of external relations.”(Trist 1983)

To these three we can add creation of employment opportunities as a fourth broad function – making it in the interests of those working for the existent or emergent organization to work in ways that are aligned to the challenges presented by the problem domain. The need for this fourth function was apparent in the relation between the members of the affective network and those taking up the functions of its organization on their behalf:[2]

… Members may be more certain of controlling the referent organization in the latter [second emergent] class, but successful referent organizations of the first [existing] class tend to include a wide cross section of interest groups, so that they have network-connectedness to most of the key constituencies of the domain. … One might hypothesize that referent organizations concerned with newly recognized domains, which require an innovative response capability, would have these characteristics.” (Trist 1983) [italics added]

With this distinction between sponsoring and client systems emerges a new consideration – how we are to think analytically about the systemic properties of a sponsoring system, a need that becomes crucial in responding to turbulence given the need it creates for dynamic adaptation. What follows outlines an approach to addressing this.

Overcoming counter-resistance

A sponsoring system is identity-defining through its referent characteristics and identity-conserving through its regulatory characteristics. Overcoming counter-resistance to change therefore involves thinking analytically about these characteristics as systemic properties of a Libidinal Economy of Discourses (LEoD). A LEoD describes the interdependencies between the ways in which its members are using an organization or organizations to support their identifications. It is these systemic characteristics that can limit the ability of a sponsoring system to adapt through the way they block a circulation of discourses.

Two issues are at stake here. First comes the way an individual takes up his or her identification and its possible transformations, described by three moments, reflecting identifications of the first, second and third kinds, and three crises challenging these moments. These three moments and three crises form a cycle of identifications through which an individual can engage in the double task of holding the tension between changing individual needs and the evolving requirements of his or her role (Bridger 1990).

Second comes the way individuals use an organization or organizations to support their identifications, taking the form of four generative discourses and their perverse forms. Of particular significance here is the way a first-moment identification results in the ‘truths’ of a discourse being held as literally true. The occurrence of these first-moment identifications give rise to anti-patterns in individuals’ behaviors that block the systemic relations within a LEoD, both setting the strategy ceiling and limiting the capacity of the sponsoring system to adapt to new competitive conditions. A circulation of discourses becomes possible when individuals move away from these first-moment identifications, enabling them to work the systemic characteristics of the LEoD.


[1] Described in terms of the supracontractual norms they conserved, the blog on the regulation of ecosystems explores how governmentalities extend the scope of a sponsoring system to include aspects of government.
[2] Those with an interest in ISPSO will recognize this in the repeating crises in the relation between its members and Board. See our parallel process in (not) working through differences and the future work of the ISPSO is the psychoanalytic study of organizations.


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