Thursday, March 3, 2011

Book Review - COVERT Processes at Work (Robert Marshak)

Covert Processes at Work – Managing the Five Hidden Dimensions of Organisational Change by Robert J Marshak (2006) Berrett-Koehler Publishers, CA.



‘Covert’ is an English word that signifies secrecy. Somehow, in common parlance, it has acquired the monstrosity of being negative, almost sinister. Hence, the motivations to read a book like “Covert Processes at Work” could be investigative intent, confrontative mission or plain exploration. The author of the book Robert J Marshak (Bob) is however a scholar from Washington at the American University and a practitioner of Organisation Development (OD), considered by many experts in the field to be a worthy successor to the legacy of the grey-beards in the profession. Ed Schein, the originator of process consultation, and a legend in OD himself, wrote the foreword to this book.



So what could then be the motives of the author? After all, this is the first book of its nature, and as co-creator of the Dealing with Covert Processes Workshop, Bob’s incisive thinking has acquired a pulpit like pedestal for those affected by and interested in organisational dynamics. Judith Katz along with Bob provide an interpretive model in their workshops that span the classical units of analyses frames – individual, group, organisational and societal. The focal system could be viewed through a prism of Lessons Learnt in Childhood, Beliefs, Assumptions and Values, Formal Theories or Explicit Systems of Thought, Paradigms and Cultures. The end of the prism that is delightfully insightful is the spectrum it addresses from the subconscious to the superconscious –
1.       Questionable, Illegitimate and unacceptable;
2.       Legitimate, proper and Acceptable; and
3.       Too good to be True
Bob unfolds a closely woven integration in a singular scheme of all hidden organisational dynamics. He asks the question “What do all types of covert processes have in common and what can you do about them?” The book reveals answers to this principal inquiry in a manner that resembles Bob’s synthetic prowess during diagnosis of complex organisational issues. These are teased through for us into repressed processes, denied processes, overt processes, unexpressed processes and untapped processes. At a certain level such elegance and simplicity may seem inconspicuous in its relatedness to a diagnostic scheme; unless the initiated mind cuts through to the inherent profundity it entails. So how is the book itself organized?
Chapters 1 and 2 lay the foundation to the scheme. The author goes on to highlight how and why paying attention to the overt alone does not yield sufficiency in outcomes. He introduces six covert dimensions in Chapter 1, namely – ‘out-of-everyday-awareness’ issues such as – Reasons, Politics, Inspirations, Emotions, Mindsets and Psychodynamics. He then presents the integration of these in a framework he calls the Covert Processes Model in Chapter 2. With this the reader could get to ‘how to go about seeing what is not there’ in the next chapter.
Chapter 3 presents and explains a formula for diagnosing covert processes. It offers a method – if you will - on developing hunches. It is principally about diagnoses of covert issues. There’s magic of cognition in that theorization that is best read than reviewed here. Chapter 4 is an extension of the diagnostic theme, although the primary treatment here is on communication, intentionally symbolic or unintentional. Here is where the reader delights in the paradox that implies that we should explore symbolic messages literally and literal messages symbolically. We’ve known from conventional change theory about private and public withdrawal of participants in organisational change. Symbolic communications serve as early indicators of these symptoms (symbols). Some may refer to such uncovering as consumptive knowledge.
Practice or action based themes commence in Chapter 5. The significance of such nuanced practice considerations stand starkly in the potential that fears, untested assumptions, unconscious reactions and under-the-table dealings of members have during organisational change. Practice is about reaching change effectiveness by using the basic 5 keys in this chapter to unleash hidden creativity, removing unspoken blocks, altering mindsets, and giving voice to ‘unspeakable’ visions of greatness as Bob terms them. Scholars may classify this section to be the mark of procedural knowledge.
Chapter 6 is an extension of Chapter 5 with special focus on engagement strategies to manage covert dynamics. Bob calls it ‘putting things on the table’ – by establishing legitimacy, creating enabling conditions, being strategic and using subtlety through astute judgment.
In fact, by the time I reached this part of the book several alternate or related theories whizzed through my mind. Prominent among them are that of Gestalt – the figure and ground aspects of sensory perception, and Neuro-Linguistic Programming  – the symbolic representations that language throws up to be opposed skillfully for their violations – whether they be universal generalizations, simple deletions, modal operators of necessity, presuppositions or lack of referential index. I would be delighted to integrate such ‘use of self’ into the diagnostic scheme that the Covert Process model holds out.
In quite organic connect Chapter 7 follows with how to recognize or rethink interventions. The significance of figure and ground come alive in the prominence Bob accords to the focal system that blocks it from seeing or sensing important issues. Hence the inferential consequence of rethinking and reframing interventions follows. In such a schema, the unity of awareness in purpose of intervention as shared between change facilitator and client system helps lay relevant ground rules that foster legitimacy and safety for change participants.
Chapter 8 is an extension of Chapter 7, in that it is about Reframing. The difference here is not so much about change in focal system beliefs, as much as it is about change in the way something would be interpreted in the system’s context. Bob quotes a giant’s intervention in such a scheme, when Edie Seashore says ‘Up until now”…i.e. if someone on behalf of the organisation says, “That is not possible here; there’s no way that can be done” Edie would say “Up until now”. This example suggests the spirit of reframing in that the dignity of the speaker is preserved, and the challenge is about the thinking process. 6 ways of addressing reframing are discussed in this chapter – primarily from a change facilitator’s point of view.
Chapter 9 is about Rethinking Organisational Politics. The seasoned reader may in fact consider this as a special case of reframing! However what is revealed is Bob’s own take from his own ‘prism’. Dealing with both political and management frames, Bob reveals another aspect of his synthetic mind. They hover around decision arenas, degree of participation, decision rounds (how many iterations), required degree of agreement, access to information, reciprocity, expected styles and types of sanctions. The dimensions he frames are as under.
  1. Who decides
  2. Decision Process
  3. Time-frame
  4. Nature of Change
  5. Purpose of Change
  6. How others are seen
Chapters 7, 8 and 9, are in my opinion, the author’s special contribution to the discipline of Organisation Development. It is here that his insights emerge like the nectar in the air that the nose never sniffed without being trained to do so. The savant and the processual components of behavioral sciences weaves into the book here like a stitch through an ailing body part, and quite like the integrative spirit of Eastern ‘wholeness’ in remedy despite the origin of analytical and almost partitive western diagnostic temperament. Like the good architect working to a plan, he elevates the foundation in Chapters 1 to 3, and raises the edifice deftly thereafter with structural material that houses the diagnostic and the interventionist aspects of classical Organisation Development.
Chapter 10 on Managing Covert processes is like the canopy or the rotunda to the book’s architecture. Written partly like an epilogue, or a good teacher’s summary (the OD practitioner’s Humanistic orientation); it is especially useful for the reader who takes the trouble of going through this book’s organisation. The telling punch is that premise from which the book begins – ‘remember that organisations are both rational and political systems’. The mitigation is however a phased collapsing of both these anchors through humane challenge, conscious judgment, multiple levels of diagnoses, clarity of purpose and  requisite thinking to suit the political thinking of the system when one frames reality.
Perhaps Bob’s pronouncement of psychological safety issues is a shade deeper than the consideration of ethics in such art of change management. If there were one more dimension he could have addressed deeply in the scheme – that would be it – ‘ethics’ as frames of reference in covert processes. Else, this book is compactly done, integrating complexity of theme with lucidity in explanation; elevating abstractions that are grounded in real case examples and theorizing to the extent that it holds out a qualitative promise from tireless and methodical application. It aids concrete grasp for the phenomenologically inclined reader; especially for the one in search of a product of evolved thinking in organisational dynamics. Ed Schein puts it well in the foreword when he says, that ‘in this book finally we have a coherent approach’ to all of what we hurriedly label as hidden agendas, unconscious desires, elephants-under-the-table, latent functions and shared tacit assumptions that seldom get to the table. No more as ‘covert’ as the title first suggested?