Reflections on the relation between

Institutional Transformation


Organizational Development

Leaders, managers, and consultants in institutions of many sorts have used the word change frequently and even carelessly.  Institutions face "change" when they are in continuing (or even accelerating) decline, when they are focused on survival, when they expand rapidly, when they appear hyperactive and frantic, and, more rarely, when they want to be innovative and generative.

After World War II, some thinkers made a distinction between institutions and organizations in order to differentiate the attitudes, behaviors, and motivations between the members of social systems.  Organizations meant systems whose only goal was to accomplish a defined task; their stereotype was the corporation.  Institutions represented systems such as armies, churches, and schools, which had an explicit goal of generating meaning in and for the society in which they existed.

The change process itself was seen as simply the ability to accomplish a task.  Other internal factors were not considered.  Soon, however, a more complex formulation of social systems was developed by Wilfred R. Bion and his associates in post-WWII England, who brought psychoanalytic theory to group dynamics, and by A. K. Rice and Pierre Turquet who applied the theory of open systems to social organizations and termed this study that of group relations.  This model differentiated between the institution and the organization and focused on the conscious and unconscious processes affecting authority, role, and task in both these systems.

As more and diverse perspectives and models have been linked with or incorporated into group relations work, these concepts have broadened to a perspective which could be called Institutional Transformation.  Institutional transformation not only includes psychoanalytic and open systems theories, but also draws on sociopolitical, philosophical, and spiritual dimensions.  It deals with defenses and learning and focuses at the points of conflict, often unconscious, between the hatred of learning and the desire for learning and and between the requirements for learning and the defenses against learning arising in the context of the whole system, from both inside and outside any institution or organization.

Along with their learning experience, people unconsciously develop individual and collective defenses that are ever more sophisticated and effective.  Each one of us can notice the permanent and incremental struggle between learning and defenses against it.  This struggle is inevitable, unless one denies the force of the id and the unconscious, the engine of humanity.  Institutional transformation is a process in history, not an end in itself.

Thus, at this point in history, this broader, more inclusive concept of institutional transformation may be helpful in understanding systems and the leaders and followers in those systems.

Four reflections summarize what we have learned in our experience as leaders, managers, or consultants, supported by the work with the methods of analysis and research mentioned above.

One:  To work towards the transformation of systems (institutions being systems), people must attempt to transform their own roles.  What they need to focus on is the transformation of the chosen or projected-introjected roles and not the transformation of themselves as individuals.

Two:  Achieving the transformation of our roles implies that we accept the mobilization, not only of our thoughts but also of our feelings and desires, and that we enable ourselves to acknowledge and work out the unconscious factors that affect them.  More precisely, our work lies in exploring and transforming the unconscious elements of our attitudes and behavior.  The transformation process largely involves work with our resistances and defenses and implies their transformation.

Three:  As a consequence, the institutional transformation process forces us into an interaction between the work on individual roles and the work on the system (the institution).  For this reason, we consider the Institutional System Event in group relations conferences to be the place where the political and the spiritual dimensions emerge as products of the psyche.  The revelation of this emergence and the interactions in and by management-in-public (unheard of in most institutions, thus promoting the flourishing of unexamined and irrational projections and introjections) become determining conditions for fruitful learning for all participants, members and staff.  Similarly, the daily life of institutions could also be understood as an "institutional system event."  Leaders, managers, and consultants engaged in institutional transformation may learn from their "here and now" experiences in the institutional system event in group relations conferences and connect this learning to their daily work life in institutions.

Four:  The trans-formation process is not easy to forecast, with a clear initial state, a final state, and the possibility of regularly measuring the gap between the two.  It is a journey in "zig-zags," which we begin without any guarantee of arrival, without any certainty of a happy ending, and with only the satisfaction of learning, of undertaking, of living the human condition with its joy and despair, its progressions and regressions, its fertility and sterility, its repetitions and surprises.

Thus, the concept of institutional transformation continues, enlarges, and deepens the group relations approach.  The core of the work focuses on institutional systems and their subsystems, and not only on groups.  It also underlines the importance of transformation as a journey composed of various states of development, progressions, and regressions.

Leaders, managers, and consultants who refer to institutional transformation favor a hermeneutics of events as they happen in and between systems, subsystems, and the environment--from the individual, as a subsystem, to the ecosystem.  The heuristic posture adopted stimulates perception and interpretation, by all the participants, of the feelings they have, the projections that are at play, and the drama and the issues that are at stake.

Doing this, they offer other participants as well as themselves the occasion to transform their roles, their relations, and their projections and to contribute to the transformation of the institution, rehabilitating the initial, and, subsequently, the actual meaning of politics.  Thus, institutional transformation aims not only at analysis and in-depth understanding.  Institutional transformation is also committed to continuous action.

When leaders, managers, consultants, or members of any institution deal with the increasing complexity of the political, psychic, or spiritual dimensions, this process can enable the institution to leave the path of decline, survival, frantic acceleration, or hyperlife and to move toward a state of generativity and reflection: LIFE.


Gutmann, D. (2003).  Dialogues with O. Iarussi:  Psychoanalysis and management: The transformation.  London, England: Karnac.

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ii 2016
iii 2010
iii  2006