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A good prognosis

Widget finn is a freelance journalist who writes for The Times and Daily Telegraph.

What can you do to make your family business happier, healthier and more productive? You can make a start by applying the principles of the effective constellation method and give everyone a thorough healthcheck for optimum outcomes, writes Widget Finn

There is a Chinese proverb "If you don't know the village you're coming from then you'll never find the town you're looking for". It reflects the thinking behind the constellation system, a unique method of problem-solving that explores the history of a business, establishes where it aims to go, in order to resolve conflict and enable the company to operate harmoniously.

Businesses operate on two levels – the analytical level, which deals with objects, products, technical issues and so on and the systemic or level, which is concerned with people, culture and behaviour. Executives may be familiar with the former but diagnosing and treating issues that arise on the systemic level has always been time-consuming and murky – but not any more if you believe the claims that The Constellations Partnership makes for its diagnostic approach.

Brian Marcel, a partner in The Constellation Partnership, explains: "Many of the problems in organisations stem from a simple lack of understanding and communications between these two parts of the organisation. Symptoms of this can be where the business leader feels uncertainty about which course of action to adopt, confusion about the causes of a particular problem or lack of clarity about the likely results of his planned solution. between management and employees." The constellation method was developed by Bert Hellinger in Germany as an approach to problem solving by portraying an organisation systemically rather than analytically. Whenever there are performance problems in a company, sales go down or a leader has lost his way, a simulation of the situation can tease out the issues and point the way to a resolution."

Family businesses are particularly prone to this type of confusion because they are often steeped in history and can combine the double problems of family and business issues. Barwick Construction, which was founded around 1850, has a turnover of £25 million. and Richard Barwick, the current chairman, is the fifth generation of the family to be involved. He explains "The company has been going through a period of management succession, where family members have retired and senior employees have become directors. Some people had been in the company since my grandfather's time, and I wanted to know whether they were genuinely happy that the environment was changing with the handover from family control. I also wanted the freedom to pursue my other interests but did not want to let the directors or the family down."

Barwick attended a workshop run by The Constellation Partnership and participated in a simulation exploratory session based on his company. Using the workshop attendees he chose people to represent past and present members of the family and a group of people represented his family in the past, others acted the role of the present family and the senior staff.
 
He says: "I briefed them on the situation in the business then became an observer as the mediator facilitator guided them through their interpretation of the situation. Each person imagined themselves into their role and gave feedback on how they felt. It was interesting how total strangers were able in a few minutes to put themselves in the shoes of my staff and give me feedback about their possible feelings."

The new information message he received from the Constellation role-play was that the previous generations of his family were happy to hand over control of the business to other people, while those who were taking over valued the opportunity to run the company. It sounds like a nice cosy conclusion, which one would hope for in the best of all possible worlds. But was it just the role players feeding back a reaction which they knew Barwick would want to hear?

Barwick tested it out by appointing the senior members of staff as directors and taking on a non-executive part-time role himself. "One year on from the workshop the business is successfully in the hands of my directors and I take a back seat in the company."

So what is the thinking behind the Constellation approach? Brian Marcel explains that it is based on the fact that a company or business family is a living organism subject to systemic principles.  "When the principles are ignored or violated there is a knock-on effect, but it may be a long way down the chain. Sometimes the situation is complicated by family issues and people do bring their problems to work; the Constellation gives us access to the hidden dynamics available within the system so that we can bring the organisation into harmony. Causes of conflict in the workplace are deep-rooted in family situations; people bring their problems to work, and we may have to resolve the family issue before resolving the organisational one."

Bert Hellinger first developed Constellations in the 1970s as a family therapy, and more recently it has transferred into the organisational arena, dealing with problems that are difficult to pin down, understand or act on. They may be recurring problems, cultural ones embedded over time into the way the system operates, or caused by different groups of stakeholders with competing interests.

Psychotherapist Alannah Tandy Pilbrow, a partner director of The Constellations Partnership, describes how a session helps to solve the problems of diverse companies.

"Representatives of an organisation stand in a configuration called a constellation, which is like a map or blueprint of an organisation. When working with a facilitator entanglements or hidden dynamics come to light, so that a much larger perspective and clearer understanding of relationships is gained."

An experienced businessman bought a family business but failed to understand why he had problems in getting on with the directors who had already been part of the organisation despite a generous benefits package. Through a Constellations Partnership workshop he learned that there was resentment among the staff that he had shown a lack of respect for the history and culture of the company. Employees felt that although the family had failed them by selling the business they deserved respect for having built it up over two generations.

Is the Constellation approach a valid business solution? Richard Barwick believes that it can work well for family companies and businesses that are at a crossroads moving from one generation to another. "But its success is dependent on the businessman being willing to accept information from the invisible part of the system and to use it respectfully. Participants who need to be prepared to open up their mind and accept that there is more influence from the past than we usually give credit for."

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