“Tavistock, we have a problem…..!”

“Tavistock, we have a problem…..!”

(with apologies to the crew of the Apollo 13 moon flight...)

Dr Mannie Sher reports on one of the typical reasons why companies/ organisations call upon the Tavistock Institute for change consultancy.

In the past 6 years, The Tavistock Institute has worked with five companies and organisations from different sectors – construction, policing, third sector social care, high tech global and vehicle manufacture – who, surprisingly, all asked for assistance with the same challenge...

...help us to raise the level of strategic leadership competence among our second tier senior leaders, so that they can step up and take the business/organisation to it’s next level of development in the next 5-7 years. We have surveyed the talent of the 2nd tier, and as the executive board, we have found them to be highly skilled operationally but deficient in strategic thinking.

The 5 organisations made similar judgments about the 2nd tier:

  • They are stuck in silo thinking and behaviour
  • They are irrationally dependent on the top tier that limits their overall leadership capability
  • They are concerned about their jobs, promotion and seeking approval from their bosses
  • They are more competitive; less collaborative
  • They are conformist and risk-averse
  • There are trust issues between the executive team and the 2nd tier leaders
  • The 2nd tier appears reluctant to use their authority to take decisions

What we did

  1. We interviewed all members of the executive board and fed back our findings with recommendations
  2. We ran consultation syndicates with a selection of 2nd tier leaders to find out their views and assess their willingness to collaborate with us in any future intervention
  3. Everyone in the 2nd tier level formed themselves into action learning sets under self-chosen relevant business/organisational themes.
  4. We consulted to the action learning sets with the aim of improving the leadership capability of the 2nd tier working in groups, careful not to threaten the status of the top tier. This was challenging because strengthening the 2nd tier was experienced as a threat to the top tier despite it asking us to upskill the 2nd tier.
  5. To off-set this threat, we urged the executive boards to work with us in action learning set mode.
  6. Our proposition is that successful training for leadership of the 2nd tier is increased if it is integrated with training of the executive board.
  7. The action learning sets were synchronized into one system
  8. Using our understanding of systems psychodynamics, we addressed fears and other self-limiting behaviour of the 2nd tier leaders, working towards greater collaboration with the executive board.
  9. Twice during the year, the action learning sets presented and debated their work and their plans for the future to the executive board and up to 200 members of the organisations
  10. The action learning sets focused on their internal behaviours and their external relationships with other groups alongside them, their subordinate groups and their bosses on the executive boards.


There were measurable improvements in:

  1. Creating a culture of empowerment in the organisations within existing hierarchies and business-as-usual needs
  2. More risk-taking by the 2nd tier leaders, taking initiatives and presenting them as decisions of the 2nd tier, not asking for permission
  3. Collectively better able to push for organisational and operational change
  4. Increased review and evaluation capacities – conducting research projects in the organisation to investigate the hopes, fears and realities of their subordinate’s working relationships and conditions.
  5. The 2nd tier sustained the interest of their subordinates in the work the 2nd tier was doing.
  6. The 2nd tier gained confidence in better managing themselves in their leadership roles.
  7. The 2nd tier raised their sights and gained skills in industry-wide perspectives and strategies, and developed flexible and agile leadership capability.

This article is part of the series: ‘All research is consultancy; all consultancy is research’ 

The title of which describes the work of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations as an integrated social science research and consultancy organisation. Research and consultancy are two sides of the same coin, the ‘coin’ being a deep curiosity about the human condition and a drive to study all aspects of it in order to advance knowledge of society and people that leads to improvement. Study and change are basic to the Institute’s aims that are expressed via high-level professional research and consultancy activity.

Some clients of the Tavistock Institute call for our independent research capability and expect to move forward by implementing the research or evaluation results themselves; others call for consultancy in order for change to be produced before fully knowing what the problem is or what needs changing. In both situations, the Tavistock Institute approaches assignments in two stages – first, researching the designated problem, and secondly, engaging the client in partnership to resolve the problem through a research and consultancy and change process.

Over the next few months, we will be posting a number of articles that describe important aspects of work with individuals, teams, organisations, partnerships, coalitions and federations. From a very wide field of themes, we will select examples of work that we think will interest readers.

  1. The first article “Tavistock, we have a problem ……!” about lifting the leadership capabilities of the 2nd tier of organisational leaders, appeared in January.
  2. The second article “It cannot be us; it must be them”, is about amplification peaks and stock-level swings in the supply chain.
  3. In April posted an article concerning the impact of redundancy.
  4. In May we hope to post an article titled: “The client speaks” which will describe the experience of receiving consultancy from the client’s point of view.

We trust that readers will enjoy reading the stories of the work of the Tavistock Institute that spring from the experience of researchers and consultants and of their clients.

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