TA, Consultancy and the Scope for Intervention and Change

TA, Consultancy and the Scope for Intervention and Change

January 15th, 2011 // 6:36 am @

Frames of Reference

The term Frame of Reference is used (Schiff et al., 1975) in Transactional Analysis (TA) to describe what is understood and held in mind as the basis for related communication, interaction and relationship.  The sum of our experiences, beliefs and expectations determines what we see and how we see it — and, of course, what we fail to see and, consequently, discount.  It is where we are coming from.

I work as a management consultant, coaching and facilitating organisational and leadership development and change.  I use the concept of five separate yet interacting frames of reference (Napper, 2009) to understand more about my practice — where I’m coming from in the work I do with my client — and, more importantly, to help me understand more about where my client may be coming from in what he (or she) seems to want from me.  As we communicate and interact, so, too, our frames of reference continue to form, reform and crystalise as the scope for intervention and change is articulated, defined and accepted by both client and consultant.  Yet, I retain ownership of what is and remains the consultant’s mindset, distinct from the client’s mindset, which may be also distinct from the contract for intervention and change that both of us eventually agree between us.

I — The Consultant

The consultant’s mindset — how he (or she) understands his identity and practice as a consultant — already exists before the consultant meets the client.  It is this frame of reference that the consultant uses to make sense of what the client needs and wants in relation to what the consultant can offer.  The consultant has first person ownership of, proximity to and responsibility for his own frame of reference.

I have used readily identifiably different consultancy styles (Block, 1998; Schein, 1999) to illustrate and polarise the range of what a consultant might have to offer.  Of course, it takes two, so the client also has to be in the market to buy any particular consultancy style, and the fit between wants and offers will then extend to the relationship between client and consultant, and have considerable impact on the scope of the intervention and change.

The corporate doctor

is contracted because of the consultant’s specialist expertise that the client does not have as an in-house resource.  The client’s expectation is that such an expert will investigate and recognise the presenting symptoms, accurately diagnose what is wrong or lacking, and then prescribe remedial treatment, which may then be implemented under the consultant’s direct supervision.  The treatment may require a repeat prescription some time later to boost or correct the previous diagnosis.  The purpose of the corporate doctor is to repair and cure what is ineffective.

The spare pair-of-hands

is contracted because of the consultant’s efficiency in implementing the client’s own remedial treatment, again due a lack of in-house resource.  Not so much an expert, more of a mechanic. Success entirely depends on the client’s accurate diagnosis, which may be compromised if the client is part of the system that is responsible for the presenting issues.  The purpose of the spare pair of hands is to support and assist the client.

The facilitator

is contracted because the client wants to participate in the process of reflecting on what happens and why, its significance, the options for change and the motivation, resources and plan to make the change happen.  The client is then better able to understand and address issues and how they might present in the future.  Neither an expert, nor a mechanic, the facilitator or process consultant is a mirror, in whose reflection the client and his system and its issues are continually faced by the client and his system as the only means of adequately addressing those issues.  The purpose of the facilitator is to enable the client to reflect, understand, adapt and mitigate his practice, and ultimately to prevent future ineffectiveness and maintain future good practice.

I use TA diagrams to illustrate the differences in relationship and scope that might apply to each of these consultancy styles, although, if I share TA concepts with my client, I talk about mindsets and shoulds, needs and wants in preference to ego-states and Parent, Adult and Child. I find this language is more accessible.

I might say that TA envisages that each of us has an innate awareness of our needs that is wholly appropriate to the here and now:


As we grow up, however, our needs are influenced by the guidance of those — parents, teachers, community and faith leaders, bosses, etc. — whose control and concern for our wellbeing contributes a sense of what we should do.  We then have a choice.  We can ignore what others think we should do, and do what we want to do, regardless of whether it meets our needs; or we can adapt our needs to the influence of others in many ways from willing compliance, through grudging compliance to outright rebellion.

In this way, TA envisages that an adult fully functions when he has at his disposal three mindsets — a wholly appropriate sense of what is needed in the here and now that is able to take account of what others and his environment find acceptable, at the same time as an awareness of his own personal feelings, ambitions and desires:

shoulds, needs and wants

In TA, the term symbiosis is used (Schiff et al., 1975), firstly in a totally healthy way, to describe a child’s reliance on his parents to provide control and concern for his wellbeing and to identify all but his most basic needs.  Symbiosis becomes less healthy, however, when two individuals behave and relate to each other as though neither of them is able to function fully.  Instead, between them they constitute only one fully functioning adult.

It is interesting to apply the concepts of symbiosis and full functionality to the three distinct consultancy styles because it gives me a clear indication of what both consultant and client have in mind for their relationship, and how scoping will be undertaken and by whom.

In a Corporate Doctor — Corporate Patient relationship the client doesn’t know what he needs to do now or what his options are.  He wants to contract an expert consultant who will know exactly what to do.  In response to the consultant’s advocacy — Let me tell you what you need to do — the client can only adapt, either by being totally willing to do exactly what the consultant advises, or by responding with grudging compliance or rebellion.  Rebellion is unlikely, however, because of the expert-power of the consultant, and the (often implicit) contract that the consultant is being paid to be right and to be accountable for his effectiveness. The Corporate Doctor — Corporate Patient symbiosis looks like this:

Corporate Doctor symbiosis

In a Spare Pair of Hands — Issue Owner relationship the client, as the owner of the presenting issue, has already considered the options, and knows exactly what needs to be done.  It’s just that he doesn’t have the time or manpower or other resource that would allow him to get on with it himself.  That’s what he wants the consultant to do.  In response to the client’s advocacy — Let me tell you what I need you to do the consultant can only adapt, willingly, grudgingly or with resistance.  Strong resistance is unlikely, however, because the client can easily buy in another consultant who is willing to get on with it, and then all possibilities of a fully functioning relationship with the client will be lost.  The Spare Pair of Hands — Issue Owner symbiosis looks like this:

Spare Pair of Hands symbiosis

In the Facilitator — Collaborator relationship the client is often not sure of what his options are or what action to take, and consequently he may find it difficult to set rigid timescales, budgets, outcomes and indicators.  He is clear, however, that he wants a consultant to take him through that process.  In response to the consultant’s inquiry — Tell me how you see it — he can use his full functionality to reflect on and understand more about what is happening, how significant it is, the options for change and their relative chances of acceptance, achievement and success.  The process of support and challenge by the consultant throughout the intervention continuously scopes and re-scopes what is relevant.  The full functionality of the Facilitator — Collaborator relationship looks like this:

Facilitator full functionality

YOU — The Client

The client’s mindset also already exists before the client meets the consultant.  In fact, it is the client’s frame of reference that is usually entirely responsible for the invitation to the consultant to attend an initial meeting in the first place, at which the client is expected to know what he wants from the consultant, regardless of what the consultant can offer or what the client can actually get.

Where the client is coming from depends on how he understands the presenting issues and their significance, given the internal capacity and capability of his system, the involvement and values of its stakeholders, the prevailing internal culture and the external operating environment.  The consultant owns no part of the client’s frame of reference.

IT — The System

Stuff happens.  Someone may be responsible, but undoubtedly someone will be accountable for how the system deals with what happens.  Stuff also happens that does not need to be dealt with, either because it’s not significant and can be lived with, or because it changes anyway over time.  What is of concern are those issues which are significant — that is, they make urgent or important demands on the organisation that cannot be tolerated — and which require the targeted deployment of resources for specific intervention.

Those who are accountable for dealing with presenting issues will, doubtless, have expended all readily available internal resources in an unsuccessful attempt to address such issues before they put together the business case for bringing in a consultant — all the more so if the consultant is external to the organisation.  That business case, even if it only exists in the client’s mind, is a robust defence of the need for further expenditure to achieve specific results within a given timescale and budget.

The scope for intervention and change then emerges from the client’s understanding of how issues explicitly present, their significance and impact on the organisation, the capacity for change within the system, and the willingness and ability to change, given the cost of reaction, and possible resistance, in terms of finance, labour, time, skills, attitudes and the prevailing culture.

It is with at least the basis of this understanding of his system that the client meets the consultant to explain his needs.  How the client has arrived at his understanding will determine his wants — whether he wants someone to make it better, wants someone to help him make it better or wants someone to help him understand what better would look like, and how he might work towards it.

Of course, the system has no frame of reference of its own.  It only exists in terms that are perceived by the client.

THEY — The Stakeholders

In his book, The Structure and Dynamics of Organizations and Groups (1963), Eric Berne compares and contrasts the public and private structures of organisations:

The public structure

of the organisation is what is available for all to see and experience — its buildings, governance structure, leadership, departmental functions, roles and responsibilities, policies and procedures, manufacturing capability, service delivery, etc. — all of which requires animation by individuals for its operation and survival.

The private structure

of the organisation exists only in the mind of each stakeholder — each individual who affects or is affected by the achievement of the organisation’s business.  It follows that there are as many private structures in an organisation as there are individuals who comprise the organisation, and each private structure is individual and distinct from each other.

Consequently, it is at the individual level that people make sense of the organisation, its internal and external boundaries, the functionality of its roles and responsibilities, the acceptance of its policies and procedures, its membership, its leadership and tolerance of authority, and the appropriateness and quality of its professional relationships that enable its operation to happen and keep happening.  This is the psychological contract that each individual has with the organisation, in addition to any formal contract of employment.

Each stakeholder, therefore, has his own frame of reference for his involvement and his values in the client’s system, and it is only the client’s perception of where each stakeholder is coming from that the client brings into the scope for intervention.

The client can have no empirical understanding of stakeholder values, apart from his own.  Therein mind-reading lies.  In any case, stakeholder values are dynamic and constantly change over time.  It can be supposed, however, that each stakeholder has the capacity to function fully — that is, that each stakeholder has the capacity to understand and hold in mind a wholly appropriate sense of what is needed in the here and now that is able to take account of what others and his environment find acceptable, at the same time as an awareness of his own personal feelings, ambitions and desires.

WE — The Scope of Our Contract

The contract between consultant and client needs to be jointly owned by both.  Otherwise, the client risks adapting to the expert advice of the consultant to the extent that traction may be difficult, acceptance reluctant and ownership merely lip-service to what the consultant advises should be done, but, based on results, the client clearly does not want to do.  Alternatively, the consultant risks diluting his function to support and challenge the client to the extent that it may become collusion.

There needs to be shared understanding of frames of reference — client needs and wants and consultant offers — that is acceptable to both.


Each of the five frames of reference discussed here offers a consultant a lens through which his own process and that of his client may be observed, better understood and more readily held in mind in determining the scope for intervention and change.



Berne, E. (1963) The Structure and Dynamics of Organizations and Groups. New York: Grove Press.

Block, P. (2nd. ed. 1998) Flawless Consulting – A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used.  New York: Pfeiffer.

Napper, R. (2009) The Relational Practitioner. Organisational TA Training Notes.

Schein, E.H. (1999) Process Consultation Revisited. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Schiff, J.L. et al. (1975) The Cathexis Reader: Transactional Analysis Treatment of Psychosis. New York: Harper & Row.

© Alastair Wyllie

Wyllie and Reid Corporate Communications


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