The Tavistock Method is essentially:
a) a method of analysis of institutions, aiming at action-research or organisational diagnosis;
b) a training tool for managers, technicians and professionals;
c) a consultancy technique for organisations that are going through some difficulty and their members.
It has its roots in the theoretical corpus and the applicational experiences carried out by the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and the Tavistock Clinic in London in the field of social research and group and organisational psychodynamics.
Over the last 50 years the Tavistock Institute and the Tavistock Clinic have developed, both in cooperation and separately, an intense activity focusing on group relations, the analysis of institutional processes and consultancy to public and private organisations, applying its results to an understanding of the work team functioning, the analysis of socio-health services, the exploration of helping professions, to organisational diagnosisi and business consultancy, and paying close attention to authority and leadership issues.
From this research path, among other things, stemmed:
• the notion of group emotional functioning developed by Bion with his theory of "basic assumptions" (fight/flight, dependence and pairing);
• the notion of social systems as defenses against anxiety, developed by Elliott Jaques and Isabel Menzies;
• a large body of studies on authority, leadership, roles and institutional boundaries, chiefly informed by Eric Miller and Kenneth Rice’s work;
• the discovery of the social meaning of the dream by Gordon Lawrence ("Social Dreaming");
• the notion of the organisation-in-the-mind formulated by David Armstrong;
and more generally the studies on the importance of emotions in human work and in the life of organisations.
This complex of ideas and concepts gave rise to what has been called the Tavistock Method, an eclectic conceptual paradigm, originated from the encounter of two different theoretical matrices that, over time, have found an excellent mutual integration:
1. Group psychoanalysis that W.Bion initiated in the 1950’s and his followers developed (E.Jaques, I.E.P.Menzies, H.Bridger, P.Turquet, R.Gosling, etc.)The latter re-founded it as socio-analysis and also exported to larger institutional contexts.
2. Systemic theory, formulated in the USA and in Great Britain, it had its roots in the systems general theory and K.Lewin’s studies and later developed as a socio-technical theory in the field of groups and organisations by A.K.Rice, E.Trist, E.Miller, W.G. Lawrence and others.
Along these matrices, after which it was named as "systemic-psychodynamic approach" (or "Group relations"), there are important contributions from other disciplines, such as economics, political science, social psychology, business and administrational science.
In this sense, the Tavistock Method is not a closed and exhaustive theoretical system. It does not aim at a complete explanation of the institutional processes and does not contrast or want to replace the more known and proven notions on business management or work psycho-sociology. However, unlike the latter, it is based on a "clinical theory of organisations" that is in fact conceived as a complex human system with its life cycles, its health and illness cycles, a "body" that can experience suffering and vulnerability but can also activate generative or destructive and self-destructive behaviours, a "mind" that can learn and think, but also an organisational unconscious working below the surface and full of fantasies, myths, prejudice and powerful primitive emotions. That is why the method explores, in particular, the blind areas of the organisational life and the unconscious components of individual and group behavious within an institution, with the conviction that they can affect deeply the functioning of the institution itself and its ability to pursue its primary task, the quality of the relations among its members and between the institution and the external environment, the people’s capacity to think, work creatively and manage themselves in their roles.
The general assumption is that in any organisation plans and strategies – although designed rationally, competently and accurately, using the necessary resources and being largely supported – are often defective or remain more or less unapplied. The consequent working hypothesis is that the reasons of the problems and the failures or of strong resistance to change may depend at least in part on unexpressed psychological factors and unexpectable emotional processes that can affect the behaviour of the leadership, the management and the staff. As these factors and processes, unconscious in nature, go rationally unnoticed, the psychodynamic-systemic approach of the Tavistock Method seems to be better equipped than other approaches not only to identify and modify those processe but also to use this experience for organisational learning.
In this light, the applications of this method seem to prove clearly that the idea of rationality of organisations is essentially a myth.
Having originated in the Anglosaxon area and having developed in the Middle-European culture, the Tavistock Method was gradually processed and adjusted for a more suitable application to the socio-cultural specificity of our country and the Mediterrenean area. The need to promote exchanges and synergy between the world of human services and the world of commercial business has been particularly emphasized, trying to overcome the mutual communication difficulties between the considerations of wellbeing and the considerations of profit, between the culture of thinking and the culture of acting, as we are convinced that each part has a lot to earn from a dialogue and an exchange with the other one.