In 1955 Ralph was given a broad brief to set up an executive development programme for the Steel Company of Wales. With the help of his department head, Kenneth Dauncey, he began to survey the difficulties that executives in the company seemed to find in doing their job.
To make your way in life you need 3 things:
A deep sense of inner purpose and the will to renew it
A clear vision of where you want to get to and the energy to pursue it
And courage. Courage to take steps which others might fear to take
The Development of Coverdale Training
The first problem was a human one. The company tended to promote the best technical steelmakers to be managers, but they seemed to find it hard to realise that they were not managing steel but people. One symptom of this was a constant demand for better staff: 'four good men - and they must be technical graduates with industrial experience'. The company was spending a fortune on recruitment and was full of able young graduates. Coverdale was daunted by the prospect of taking on still more, to make the grim transition from university to working on equal terms with supervisors who had less education but far more skill in getting people to work for them. What managers needed was to recognise the strength of the staff they already had, and make proper use of them.
A second problem was that managers seemed unable to free themselves from the immediate pressure of work, and take a long term view of their job. However much they were pressed by their seniors to think ahead, there never seemed to be time.
Managers, then, needed two kinds of skill: first, in handling human relations in their work groups; second, in organising themselves - becoming more aware of long-term problems, knowing when to act, when to ask permission first, and when to spend more time planning. What they certainly did not need was more teaching in their own technology, for they were already highly competent. In fact the only difficulty they seemed to find here was in presenting their ideas logically, so as to gain the support of their seniors.
Obviously a training programme to fit these problems would be very different from the usual sequence of lecture and study. What had to be put across was skill; and this could only come through practical experience. Yet it is evident that experience on its own does not necessarily teach anything at all. You can find people on report-writing courses who have been writing bad reports for 15 years, and experience has done nothing to help them write better ones. What these managers needed was to learn how to learn - to acquire the actual skill of learning, so that they would go on improving, even after they left the training course and were back at work.
There had been a lot of research on how to convey technical knowledge, but very little on how to teach skill. While Ralph was casting around for sources of ideas, he attended a seminar on group dynamics, and this led him to look at the systems known as 'sensitivity training' and 'T-groups'.
Sensitivity training was originally a development of psychoanalysis - the theory and treatment of mental illness devised by Sigmund Freud. The purpose of psychoanalysis is to help the patient gain an understanding of himself, his drives, and the difficulties he has in expressing them. The assumption is that this understanding will give such a release of tension that he will be able to face life maturely. Originally psychoanalysts treated mental patients one at a time, but during the Second World War there were so many men in need of treatment for both battle fatigue and other psychological disturbance that the small number of analysts began to treat them in groups.
Soon it was found that this method was not at all a second-class substitute, for the cures were both quicker and seemed to last longer than with the traditional form of psychotherapy. After the war the work was developed for other purposes, including training managers. The student was placed in a group of strangers, and encouraged to dwell on his feelings about himself and the group, in order to develop self-understanding.
Ralph was convinced that, for training line managers, a small group was the right medium. After all, every manager is bound to interact with at least one subordinate, and with colleagues and superiors as well; in each of these relationships he is part of a team working with other people to achieve a result. But Ralph came to see that for his purposed T-groups, sensitivity training had grave drawbacks.
- They concentrated on looking backwards, and analysing the past; but a manager's job is to look ahead, and make sure that action takes place.
- They concentrated entirely on feelings. Feelings are of course extremely important, and have to be taken into account, but a manager is more concerned with thinking and doing than with emotions. He has to be pretty ruthless with his own feelings, and occasionally with other people's as well.
- Analysis of feeling can put a lot of pressure on people taking part. At best it may be embarrassing; at work it can do real harm.
Coverdale and Dauncey spent a year trying to find a training course which used the positive aspects of group training - giving managers a chance to talk through their problems - but which avoided the danger of leaving groups glooming for tool long over the past. In the end they decided that, with their knowledge of the steel industry, they could tackle the job best themselves. But they needed a reliable psychologist to help them design the pattern of training. (They also felt a need for some academic respectability, since what they wanted to do, however well thought out, might have seemed rather odd). Accordingly, Ralph approached Bernard Babington Smith, who had given him tuition at Oxford. Ralph had been struck by Bernard's work on the nature of human perception, and knew him as a man of quiet wisdom, not too readily influenced by current fashions of thinking. He also knew that Bernard was prepared to take his work out of the laboratory and into the real world, where not every factor can be controlled.
When he was approached for help, Bernard was attracted by the problem, but was not sure that academic psychology had a great deal yet to offer. Like Ralph, he had doubts about using psychotherapeutic methods for training managers. He agreed, however, to design and carry out some demonstrations in the fields of observation and perception that might be relevant to managers, e.g. on methods of solving problems, and the reliability of eyewitness reports.
The first courses were made up of group work, demonstrations and lectures. The group sessions were almost unstructured. The lectures dealt with psychological matters such as personality, and the prevention of accidents. The first attempts were not easy. It was found that if a group went on trying to talk through problems without doing anything about them, it could lead to frustration, and so to aggression. Sometimes several people would pick on one member to criticise, and the victim might not be able to handle it. At one of the earliest courses, at Avoncroft, Bernard remembers a frightening case of this when Ralph had to sit up for two nights with a man whom the rest had attacked. Clearly this would not do: it is one thing to put volunteers through this sort of thing as part of a scientific experiment, or even to treat a patient in this way if it is going to help his cure, but it is quite wrong to send a manager on a course as part of his job, and then expect him to start rummaging around in his own motives and feelings.
Luckily there was another way forward. As part of his initial research, Ralph had spent much time observing and talking to those managers who were generally reckoned to be first class, to find out what they actually did. The paradox was that very often the most effective managers could not explain how they operated; and those who were definite in their ideas about management tended not to be the best. The impression he got was that good management did not mean sticking to any particular sets of rules, but choosing the right approach for the particular situation. Could this be the way to train managers - to allow them to try out different styles in a variety of contexts, and judge the effectiveness for themselves? They would need to experiment in situations where the risk was low, so that if anyone made a fool of himself, it would not cost the company much money. Why not do this on a training course? The trainees could be given a job to do - one with a result that they could assess, rather than merely a case study.
Accordingly, on the next course, three groups were given the task 'State the principles of good management'. The job allowed little enough action, but its effect on morale was remarkable. As soon as the members of the group were able to break out from inconclusive discussion to a task with an end-product, their frustration disappeared. More tasks were soon improvised, all with the same result; and Bernard recalls coming into a yard and seeing a training group at work washing cars, but looking like people who have just announced their engagement.
Ralph's transfer to Esso led to further developments. By this time the courses were engendering plenty of enthusiasm, and people felt they were learning. The trouble was that when they got back to work, they had great difficulty in applying the new lessons - or even explaining them to other people. Ralph and Bernard cast around for a way of helping, and finally concluded that they could never foretell precisely what difficulties people would meet when they got back. The best hope was to equip them with a general method for tackling whatever cam up. Ralph wanted to find a way in which people could develop their ability to learn from experience, while Bernard had ideas on the need to alternate thought with action. Combining their ideas, they evolved 'A Systematic Approach to Getting Things Done', which is now a main strand in Coverdale learning.
It was found on the early courses that people could get so wrapped up in the small tasks they were set that they were incapable of learning; indeed Ralph felt that he himself learned more by watching from the side-line. The answer seemed to be to pull out students in turn, give them a chance to observe their colleagues, and feedback suggestions for improvement. Since then this has always been done, and is one of the most valuable learning experiences. It gives the student a chance to take an overview of the team's progress, and suggest ways of working together more effectively - precisely as a good manager does for his department.
At Esso the objectives of the course gradually evolved. At the beginning the emphasis had been on 'forming a group'. A change came from the introduction of tasks, when people were encouraged to form not merely a group but a team, capable of setting and achieving objectives. However, it was obvious that teams formed on courses were going to break up as soon as the week was over; the point must be to equip each individual with the skills of teamwork that he could use when he got back to work. But in most industrial environments a team is not self-contained, but carries out its functions within a wider organisation. Too tight a team can be a menace, if the people in it are blind to the needs of outsiders. In any case, most managers work in several teams, and switch from one to another quite rapidly. Accordingly, a second training course was designed, one in which members move from group to group, practising their skills in each of them.
During 1964 the concept of 'project' was developed. The idea was that if the learning helped individuals, it would have an even stronger effect if it was shared by all the members of a department, unit or organisation. The first project, in which some 300 people took part, was launched in 1964 at the Irish Refining Company's plant at Whitegate; and it was followed in the next year by a much larger project at Esso's refinery at Fawley.