Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Historical Perspective of Grid Methodology

Written & Delivered by Rachel McKee at the Grid User's Conference, Belfast City, Northern Ireland

Historical perspective of Grid methodology by Rachel McKee

There is a moment in a Grid Seminar where self-deception and fear give way to courage. Courage replaces fear as team members cross a threshold of mutual trust that makes candor possible. For some people, this moment is the most powerful they’ve ever experienced because for first time they see their behaviors through the eyes of others. That moment may feel like serendipity to seminar participants, but it’s actually very deliberate. It comes from a half-century of research and application in the field of group dynamics. This article traces some of the history that went into the moment, and into Grid OD.

Believe it or not, the first insight for Dr. Robert R. Blake, (co-founder with Dr. Jane S. Mouton of Grid International), came from child therapy right here in the UK. Wilfred Bion really started it all with his 1948 publication “Experiences in Groups”.1

In the years following WWII, Bion was an imminent figure in the developing field of psychoanalytic child therapy and Object Relations (Group) Therapy. Bion explored a revolutionary notion that the family was the critical unit of change for any child. Therefore, therapy must involve not just the child—not even just the child and the parents—but ultimately the entire family unit.

Blake saw the problems play out over an over again in clinical settings where a patient was removed from his or her family environment for treatment. Even if the treatment was successful, it was ultimately created in a vacuum, and was so often quickly undone when the patient left. As Blake put it, individual treatment was “hopeless” as long as the individual was expected to return to and function as a member of (a dysfunctional) family unit.

Blake also felt that long-term individual psychoanalysis (the norm for therapy at that time), even though valuable, was impractical for the average person. The time and energy spent in psychoanalysis did not merit the Herculean leap the patient still had to make, which was “What do I do now, when I go home or back to work now?”

The deeper paradigm that Blake wanted to shatter was the “I need you to fix me” mentality of personal change. Unlike one-on-one therapy, group therapy “cut to the chase” so to speak. Group therapy explored problems in “real time” by addressing the behaviors as they occurred. Blake felt that group therapy might provide the key to changing individual behavior.

When the UK shifted to socialized medicine after the war, London’s Tavistock Clinic enjoyed new opportunities for research in group therapy, and it was to Tavistock that Blake received an 18-month Fulbright Scholarship in 1948. The insight happened during these 18-months at Tavistock.

Blake worked as a co-therapist with Henry Ezriel conducting rigorous therapy with groups, some remaining intact for a year or more. They explored the impact of power and authority on groups. The therapist traditionally represents an authority figure expected to “prescribe and guide” patients through treatment. But Ezriel and Blake challenged this notion. They deliberately limited their guidance and then explored the “unconscious group tensions” that developed. Over time, common experiences (the lack of guidance) emerged as common patterns of behavior. These common patterns eventually formed the Grid theory of behavior styles.


Another critical learning point for Blake from Tavistock was how self-deception played out in groups compared to one-on-one therapy. They knew that individuals are often blind to their own unsound behaviors, which creates a strong resistance to change. Furthermore, they knew that individuals reject self-awareness when imposed by a therapist, but experience profound motivation to change when awareness came from within the group. Blake also knew that within-group awareness meant that ongoing support was more likely when group members comprised “units” of change, i.e. family, coworkers, etc.

The Power of Groups

Another major influence on Grid OD was small group and inter-group research. Blake and Mouton explored three primary issued related to group dynamics:

  1. Group relationships greatly influence individual motivation, perception, and action;
  2. Group members conform to behaviors more strongly when competing with other groups;
  3. “Super-ordinate goals” (a shared goal) between groups was the most compelling way to harness efforts away from conflict and toward a shared solution.

The group dynamics research proved to Blake and Mouton that, like the family, the organization was truly the unit of change for any individual expected to function as a part of that organization. Their research proved that an organization is not simply a collection of individuals, but is in fact a powerful unit of change. These dynamics represent a more highly organized, often invisible, culture that compels powerful uniformities of behavior, including “hidden” forces like convergence, cohesion, and conformity.

Blake spent 10 years after Tavistock with The National Training Laboratories in Bethel, Maine, working with T-Groups. T-Group facilitators provide some guidance and interpretation, but do not “lead” the group in the traditional sense. The lack of structure and limited trainer involvement created conditions where participants can explore behavior and impact in more objective terms.

T-Groups: A Revolutionary Approach

While working with NTL, Blake and Mouton began focusing their OD and university research on variations of the T-Group experience. They were searching for a way to shift the power into the group, and T-Groups were the next logical step.

Enthusiasm for T-Groups was tremendous. Corporate leaders began flocking to T-Group sessions at NTL in the 50s and 60s, seeking ways to transfer the learning to the workplace. Blake and Mouton also began offering T-Group classes at the University of Texas that experimented with self-directed groups. These became some of the most popular university classes at that time. They also began a ten-year worldwide effort with Exxon and other business applications during that time.

General Semantics

General Semantics was another key influence on Grid OD. General Semantics, developed by Alfred Korzybski, proposed using a “scientific method” for thinking and learning by continually challenging assumptions and beliefs and revising them as new facts and data warrant. Blake and Mouton appreciated two aspects of general semantics in particular, that of time-binding and two-sided thinking.

Time binding is the unique ability of humans to build on the achievements of previous generations to expand learning and understanding. Language and writing serve as the ultimate tools for time binding, and that influence can be seen in how prolific Bob and Jane were about publishing, and “offering” their work for continuous improvement. They published over 350 books and articles in their careers.

Embracing Conflict

Two-Sided thinking acknowledges ambiguity in the reasons for differences. It views possible causes across a spectrum or continuum (depicted as scales in Grid designs), rather than being satisfied with black/white reasoning.

There’s a gut level reaction in people to avoid conflict by quickly assessing differences in black and white terms and entrenching assumptions instead of exploring differences objectively. The fear of conflict and self-deception work together in groups to create seemingly insurmountable win/lose barriers to two-sided thinking.

Two-Sided thinking was the perfect companion to Blake and Mouton’s fascination with power and authority in groups. They saw power and authority as absolutely critical to group behavior, and they saw an inability to consider differences objectively as a key barrier to achieving ideal behavior. They knew that any attempt at creating the “work” mentality would have to involve instilling two-sided thinking into any work group.

In the years that followed those insights at Tavistock and NTL, Blake and Mouton embarked on a rigorous journey. They sought to do what no one thought could be done—to create a structured learning process, apparently without structure, or at least without the traditional expert-student structure.

Those years of research and the T-Group experience solidified two fundamental assumptions for Blake and Mouton. Both assumptions dealt with “fade-out”—the inability to effectively transfer learning back to existing relationships where change was needed. No matter how powerful and enlightening the T-Group learning experience was, fade-out prevented meaningful and lasting change from transferring and growing back in the organization. Like Bion’s assumptions, Blake and Mouton knew that “fade-out” was a severe drawback to any organization change effort.

The first assumption from the T-Group work was that they wanted to recapture the learning created by those sessions at Tavistock Clinic with Ezriel. Blake and Mouton ultimately saw trainers as a roadblock to group members learning for themselves. Members could stop and examine their process when invited to do so by a trainer, but were unable to critique behaviors effectively without guidance.

The bottom line was that Blake and Mouton wanted the authority figure completely removed from the group learning process. No matter how non-directive the facilitator tried to be, he or she was still subtly dictatorial, even more dictatorial (because of its subtlety) than the harshest CEO, because the control was often subtle and hidden. They wanted to create the same guidance in an objective setting where teams could “discover” and “manage” their own course for change.

The second assumption was that groups needed a way to make “intangible” behaviors more tangible—tangible enough for objective group discussion. Blake had seen Bion’s model come to life in the sessions at Tavistock. He knew that group behavior occurred in consistent patterns, but there was no way to create a shared understanding of those patterns without a tangible framework. They saw the benefit of theory for “grounding” discussions so each group wouldn’t have to “reinvent the wheel.” A theory of behavior styles would accelerate the learning process by focusing group learning on behaviors without prescribing conclusions about “right” and “wrong” behaviors.

Their research and worldwide application pushed Blake and Mouton to search deeper and deeper to prove their “theory” about using theory. They finally published The Managerial Grid in the now famous 1964 Harvard Business Review article, “A Breakthrough in Organization Development.” They followed with the first edition of The Managerial Grid book later that year. They published five editions of The Managerial Grid, as well as over 40 other books during their three decades of collaboration.

Grid Theory was folded into an organization development process that finally and effectively removed the facilitator or “expert” from the learning process. Grid OD included individual, team, team-to-team, and ultimately culture development, making the entire organization a potential unit of change.

Dr. Blake wrote in his autobiography that, “Satisfaction from effort comes far more from the processes inherent in teamwork than in its products or achievements.” The word “driven” does not begin to capture how Bob and Jane felt about furthering Grid. They examined every aspect of relationships through a Grid window, always looking for new insights through which to understand human behavior.

For more information about how to use the Grid Process to transform your organization’s culture, please contact us.

1 Bion, W. R. (1948b). Experiences in Groups, Human Relations, Vols. I-IV, 1948-1951, Reprinted in “Experiences in Groups” (1961).
2 Goleman, Daniel. Working With Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 2000, p. 64-65.