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Joe Djemal

From Baby to Boardroom:

A Review of Ross Lazar's Seminar on Observation:

OFEK Workshop Neve Shalom 2010


Anticipation and curiosity were the primary feelings that I had in deciding to attend Ross Lazar's seminar, with 14 other OFEK members, in the Neve Shalom (Wahat Al-Salam) Guest House. The seminar took place over 2 intensive days, the 15th and 16th of April 2010. I had met Ross once before when I had the privilege of working with him at OFEK's 21st International Group Relations Conference, which Ilana Litvin directed in 2008.


After having read Ross's fascinating paper, "From Baby to Boardroom - The Tavistock-Bick Method of Observation and its application to Infants and Institutions", which he presented at the Tavistock Conference in October 2008, I was intrigued to see how a technique developed for training child psychotherapists with weekly infant observation over two years could be applied to observing institutions and organizations. This method was developed by Esther Bick at the Tavistock Clinic in 1948, and has been adapted to observing organizations "to provide insights into organizational structure, behavior and dynamics which are not available by other means". This adaptation was proposed independently by Anton Obholzer and by Hinshelwood and Skogstad in 2002 and 2003, and further developed by Ross Lazar. I would like to relate to the reader part of the instructions that Ross gave before the workshop so that the reader will have a better understanding of this technique as it applies to institutions. Each member was asked to prepare an observation of one hour in a setting which is unfamiliar but of interest, and to define for himself the "object" of observation, its boundaries, its primary task and the "actors". A very important part of the process is negotiating the framework and getting permission to observe. Much learning takes place on this crucial boundary of the observational task. The duration of observation was to be for 60 minutes without the observer taking any notes. Using all six senses, the observer is to be open to all of the impressions and observational material that can be gathered using himself as a "recording device". The detailed protocol is then written up afterwards from memory while still fresh, and should include as much observable information as possible and not to include reactions, fantasies and associations unless they are in the form of footnotes or separate comments. During the follow-up meeting with all the participants in the workshop the observation is then read aloud, and in this forum the group would provide reactions, fantasies and associations. In this sense the group's collective mind and its unconscious becomes a valuable resource in forming a picture of the organization being observed. This forming a picture of the organization comes into being only when the group works on the observation together and there is a chance to infer more and more about emotional, psychodynamic and other issues of relatedness.


Less than 10 days before the seminar I conducted my observation in a hotel lobby of a communal village somewhere in the Hills of Jerusalem. This community was founded in 1971 by Finnish pioneers together with like-minded Israelis who believe in the New Testament with "the aim to help build the Land of Israel". Although I had visited the village before, being there as an observer was a completely novel experience. Obvious as it may sound, working in the role of an "observer" involved seeing and feeling things in a completely different light. I was there with another observer as both of us are presently studying in the two year OFEK "Program in Organizational Consultation and Development: A Psychoanalytic-Systemic Approach" (POCD).  For me this was interesting as I was both a student of the program and also attending the workshop as an OFEK member. In the larger context, we all function within different roles and across multiple boundaries in all the complex organizations and groups we belong to. It makes our lives that much richer if we pause along the way to reflect and think about these issues. For me, this is what makes belonging to OFEK and the Group Relations community so precious.  

Neve Shalom, the setting for Ross Lazar's seminar, is truly a lovely place and I had remembered it from a previous OFEK workshop held with Earl Hopper in July 2008. I looked forward to working with friends from OFEK and meeting up again with a member who does not live in Israel. Listening to Ross's introductory talk was a pleasurable way to cross the boundary into the workshop. We listened as he told us that he has been observing all his life, and how natural it was for him to move in his personal journey from observing objects as an art historian to observing real people, and now moving on to real living organizations. We were all reminded again about how observation is really a dynamic process as we chose, much like in filming, what object we observe or film. The technique that Ross describes, where an observer will have his "Aha! That's what I felt then" moment, as he works with the collective mind of his peers, is radically different to how a sociologist might approach an observation.


There were 8 observations in all, including one that took place in the Neve Shalom guest house lobby during our seminar. This last one was most interesting as some of the characters observed were OFEK members and part of the OFEK organizing committee of the workshop, and the observation took place in real time. Another interesting observation was one done on a 5 year old child and her mother, where an OFEK member had misunderstood the instructions and opted to observe a young child and not an organization (after all this was a "Baby to Boardroom Workshop").  Altogether there were two observations which took place in hospitals, one in an academic institution, two in a hotel lobby, two in coffee shops and one in a bakery. The observations were read out-loud to the group, and a quick round of first impressions was given by everyone. We then read and discussed the texts in detail.

All 8 observations were interesting and had much to teach all of us. I will only choose to write about two in detail, and even then I will need to be selective for the purpose of this article.

My Own Observation

For my own observation, I made initial contact by phoning the reception of the communal village Guest House and was quickly put through to the general manager. I found myself explaining what I meant to do and also hinting at the marketing benefits to the guest house. I offered two possible dates and was to call back for confirmation. I felt that I was being a little pushy, assertive and a little bit sneaky, but I was proud of myself for setting a time and getting permission for the observation. In the workshop and after reading out the observation I came to understand how this kind of negotiation tends to skew and distort the observation. The observer must be prepared to accept no as an answer to a request to observe. This pushiness and sneakiness becomes intrusive to the observation as will be illustrated below.

On the appointed day I arrived at the guest house and noticed how beautiful and peaceful the setting was. The reception area was filled with Scandinavian wood. My colleague and I approached the two receptionists and asked for the manager. They were unsure where he was, called him on the cell phone, and he then appeared from the door next to the reception. I wondered what the meaning was of a manager sitting behind a closed door behind the reception area while his workers were unaware of his being there. The manager was clear about our time boundary and that we were to sit in reception pointedly saying "there is no point in sitting or observing my office because I sit there on my own and there will be nothing to see". I felt that this mild man was setting clear boundaries and this made me feel happy, a little less guilty and less apologetic for forcing this observation upon him. This is the first example of the consequences of the negotiation process. In the reception area I noted that there were 5 small round tables, 4 of which had 3 chairs and one with 2 chairs. During the reading with my colleagues an association was offered about the popular song found in the Passover Haggada "Who knows one?" Already a Jewish theme was hinted at in my reporting of the observation before I was aware of it myself. I later noted that only the two main doors had mezuzot affixed to the door posts(1). My unconscious motivation was to check-out how "kosher", or legitimate, this place was where the community was comprised of both Christians and Jews, all believing in the New Testament. How does this all fit together? When noting the internet corner an association was offered that "the internet is the Messiah of today" so the theme of who is or was the genuine Messiah, or will he come again, was a question that was clearly in my mind.

Hanging on the wall outside the souvenir shop was what looked like a bunch of Hyssop in a place that in a Swiss chalet for example, would conventionally hold a cross. My immediate association was dipping hyssop in the blood of a Jewish sacrifice, or warding off a vampire with a cross that should have been hanging there. The feeling I had was that the hyssop branch was hung there and not a cross in order to make the lobby more "friendly" for the Jewish visitor. In my description and counting of tables, light fixtures and workers' cards for signing in and out of work, I was asked by the group what my obsession was with counting and checking. There were many workers and staff constantly coming in and going out of the reception area, many guests of various nationalities and only 2 guests who were Israeli. There was an overall impression of too many staff members to make the guest house economically viable, but in the context of building Israel and encouraging the ingathering of people to Israel as part of a messianic dream, this over-staffing made sense. There were frequent attempts to close a concertina door behind the reception desk which usually appeared to be open. I felt this was to prevent the observers from looking in, and in fact when we left the reception area to wander around we came back to find this door open. One of the male guests who checked out was a young man who was only prepared to pay in cash and I had a fleeting association of a secret sexual liaison. The group felt there was a good deal of libido, but the question arose about where it goes, to task or to anti task? While walking around the grounds of the Guest House I asked a female Scandinavian volunteer about the rooms and also noticed that every door here did in fact have a mezuzah on the door post.  An association or thought was offered that observations of the kind we were doing deconstructed reality, were judgmental and involved losing empathy.


By the end of the hour it was clear that no one cared anymore about the time boundary since we could have carried on for much longer. When we asked to thank the manager we were invited behind the reception desk to enter his office: again the boundary that was agreed upon was relaxed. The manager made an attempt to explain what the community stood for and invited us to use the facilities. Here I felt again that my hint about marketing the place, made when I negotiated entry, was being brought back to me by the manager. We declined further discussion but both the other observer and myself offered that we would consider using the hotel facilities at a later time. 

Reading and Discussions

What became apparent to me was that my understanding of the institution that I observed became much clearer for me in the subsequent reading and discussions. Most clear however, was what I introduced into the observation even while trying to be as accurate and objective as I could. What I brought in became more obvious when I listened to and thought about what others said in the group. I had further insights when hearing the same observation presented independently by my colleague in the POCD Program with whom I was conducting the observation. His observation had marked differences with that of myself, but was also complementary. An obvious question raised is the importance of having observations of organizations performed by more than one person, and what is lost when an observer works on his own.

This technique of observation combined with the reading and discussion later gave many insights into how the communal village and its guest house worked, what kind of belief system the workers share, and what their stated and un-stated goals are. An insight into the hierarchy or lack thereof was also made. In our group reading and discussion there was also a great deal of suspicion directed at the institution, with comments such as "with friends like these who needs enemies".

The Confusion of Languages

I now want to describe the last observation which was read out to the group. This took place in the lobby of Neve Shalom's guest house during the course of the seminar and was titled by the observer "The Confusion of Languages".

Here I would like to quote directly from the written observation:

"I went to the lobby of the Neve Shalom Guest House, waiting to ask permission from the woman at reception to do an observation.

S. (one of the two OFEK members responsible for organizing the workshop) arrived and told me that we already have permission and that I can go ahead and perform the task".


"An Israeli Arab was waiting a long time to talk to the receptionist, when suddenly a Jewish Israeli woman, neither of them staff members of the hotel, started talking to the receptionist ignoring him. He tried to speak out but she persisted. A male member of staff arrived and asked the receptionist in Hebrew if she needed help".


"There was a constant switching between three languages, Hebrew, Arabic and English which made it difficult for me to identify who was who. A few minutes later an elderly man wearing a Kippa(2) and with a long beard came in from the left door, dressed in a very dirty and torn white coat, carrying boxes filled with cakes to the bar area. Two Arab men took the boxes and the three began to joke and laugh in Arabic. They asked the old man if this is kosher and began to laugh. He started to tell them, half in Hebrew and half in Arabic, that two Palestinians were arrested in Gaza by the Hamas and executed because they were "mashtapim" (collaborators). They laughed and said that they didn't know that they were called "mashtapim".


"Just about then, an English couple with two children came to check in. It turned out that they were here last year as well, when the man's watch disappeared. While they were checking in Ruthi (the Israeli Jewish woman receptionist) addressed all the staff on the spot, especially the two Arab men and warned them "Dir Balak" (beware in Arabic) to behave as she was sure that last year his watch was stolen".

During the reading back there were some comments that this observation was felt to have a political agenda and that much of it related to racial discrimination. At one point S., one of the participants and organizer of the seminar, shared that he was the Israeli Arab referred to as waiting a long time to speak to the receptionist and that the Jewish Israeli woman who interrupted was the other OFEK member who was organizing the seminar. This prompted much discussion around the treatment of minorities in Israeli society and the discrimination by Jewish Israelis, felt by many in the group. I also wondered what it meant with regard to OFEK, a predominately Jewish Ashkenazi Organization with only two Israeli Arab Christian members and no Moslem members(3). Was this observation also attempting to show sensitivity in a situation where there was little or none? What was the significance of the fact that the observer and myself both belong to the Sephardic minority in OFEK? What might this be saying about Israeli-Palestinian relations in general and about the way minorities are treated and tolerated in Israeli society? 

Learning to Observe

The two day seminar was fascinating; I learned a great deal and was left with much to think about. It was clear how valuable observing an organization is for building up a picture of how an organization works. It was also clear how difficult it is to conduct such an observation, and how much practice and work it takes to improve ourselves as observers. It was disquieting for me to see how much we as observers bring of ourselves into the observation, and how this distorts our images of the organizations we observe. In the context of a full consultation to an organization this technique appears very useful as part of the work that is done in the overall evaluation, which should include speaking with various individuals within the organization as well. This first contact takes place before a consultant has had time to meet representatives of the organization to be studied and therefore in a sense a golden moment which once passed cannot be subsequently recovered.

Another interesting adaptation of the theory and method would be to observe board meetings on a regular basis and to provide feedback to senior management. It is my understanding that Ross has been doing this on a monthly basis with an engineering company for some ten years and the feedback is given as group feedback and not individual feedback. As a presentation of work in progress this feedback is very much like Eric Miller's concept of the field note and the working note as an interim account of observations and findings. The field note most resembles the observations we were doing for the seminar, and the working note is prepared from this raw material and other data which may include minutes of committee meetings, interviews with members of the organization and other internal documents. This kind of work may point to "discrepancies between what people in the organization ought to be doing, what they believe they are doing and the task that they seem to be engaged in and of which they may not be consciously aware of" (Miller 1995: 28). As a result of this dialogue, reasons for these discrepancies can be raised within the organization, discussed and ultimately addressed. This environment of dialogue and collaborative consultancy also encourages the client to use his expertise for the benefit of the group or organization, and allow for the expression of fears and anxieties so that they do not surface in destructive ways when change is being implemented.  


It was my privilege to have attended this seminar, and OFEK's privilege to have hosted Ross Lazar. I look forward to reading more about the technique and to practice observing. I remain inspired by Ross's self description of how he moved from being an Art Historian to an Organizational Consultant and how observation is essentially at the root of both disciplines.   


Hinshelwood, R. D. Obholzer, A. and Skogstad, W. (2000) Observing Organisations: Anxiety, Defence and Culture in Health Care. London: Routledge.

Lazar, R. (2008) From Baby to Boardroom: The Tavistock-Bick Method of Infant Observation and its Application to Infants and Institutions. Presented in a Conference held at The Tavistock Centre, 17-18 October 2008.

Miller, E. (1995) Dialogue with the client system: use of the "working note" in organizational consultancy. Journal of Managerial Psychology 10 (6): 27-30.

(1) A mezuzah [singular] is a piece of parchment, often contained in a decorative case, inscribed with Hebrew verses from the Old Testament and is usually affixed to every doorway in the home apart from bathrooms and closets

(2) A kippa is a skull cap associated with religious Jewish men.

(3) Ashkenazi are Jews of eastern European decent as opposed to Sephardic Jews who are from Spain and North Africa.

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