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The Double Task

The Double Task Approach originated by Harold Bridger

Harold Bridger Lisl Klein Ken Eason Tavistock Institute Bayswater Institute

The double task approach was developed by Harold Bridger at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in the 1950s. Harold’s starting point was that we are all driven to complete our primary task: the currently most pressing one, the deadline to meet, the customer’s order to fulfill, the problem to be solved. But if we are continually obsessed by the current task we can miss the bigger picture: are we tackling the right task, are we going about the best way, why are we not all working together on this?

Harold was fond of saying that, every so often, we need to ‘suspend business’: to stop work on the first task and switch our attention to the second task, that of reviewing the what, why and how of situation we find ourselves in. This switch is a move from a ‘doing’ mode to a ‘learning’ mode, a move to reflecting, gathering evidence and testing assumptions. It can be a challenging process and Harold was particularly concerned to create safe places, space and time for the reviewing processes to be effective. The need for a double task approach is pervasive in work organisations. It exists at all levels of human activity and there are methods to support it at all levels.

  1. Individual counselling We all need opportunities to sit back and ask ourselves deeper questions about our working lives. Sometimes this is about thinking through what has been happening and reviewing it in a cool, rational way. At other times it may be more a case, as Harold said, of ‘listening to your gut’: asking ‘why am I feeling anxious’ and ‘why doesn’t this feel right’. This process can be greatly helped by a skilled counselor who is not judgmental but helps you to explore, to articulate half-conscious thoughts and examine the implications of possible courses of action.
  2. Group dynamics We spend much of our working lives in groups and often groups appear dysfunctional, its members ‘not all pulling in the same direction’. ‘Suspending business’ so that group members can review how they are working together can be very important in helping everyone become more aware of group processes and can be revealing for each person as they receive feedback on their own contributions to the group.
  3. Organisational learning Harold was an organisational consultant and recognized that each organisation had its own double task: to get the day’s work done and to plan how to cope in the longer term with a changing world. It is dysfunctional if the majority of the employees only do task one and a small group have all the responsibility for task two. Harold saw a need for everybody to be involved in task two and there are now many action research and action learning methods that provide mechanisms for everybody to review the consequences of their action plans and, as a result, create a learning organisation continually adjusting to new demands and opportunities.

Commentaries on Harold Bridger and the Double Task

‘ To oversimplify somewhat, what Bridger had in mind was the engaging in an activity – task one – (e.g. a boardroom discussion), and ‘suspending business’ and reviewing the underlying psychodynamics and other processes – task two – affecting the discussion. Thus learning cycles of doing and reviewing can help the orgnisation to function at an increasingly sophisticated, and one might say, more mature level in the work that it does. By so doing we might say that the organisation develops reflective practitioners who, together, create the learning organisation.

In Wilfred Bion’s terms this working in a double task manner helps the group stay in work mode rather than in basic assumption mode. In the work mode the group focuses intently on its task and remains in close touch with reality. Whereas in the basic assumption mode, the group gives way to primitive processes which make it function as if its primary purpose is to reduce the group’s anxieties and avoid pain or emotions that further work might bring. This is not to say that Bridger’s task one is the same as Bion’s work group or that task two is simply basic assumption mode. Rather the common element is that irrational forces below the surface of group functioning can undermine the group’s work. Reviewing and exploring both aspects of group functioning is a means of achieving sophisticated and effective group

Derek Raffaelli (2008) Working the other way In D. Graves (editor) Sense in Social Science: A collection of essays in honour of Dr. Lisl Klein  Graves, Broughton 109 – 122




Message from the Trustees

Pursuing a Strategic Vision for the Institute

It is just about a year since we met at the Hallam Conference Centre in London to consider the strategic options available to the Bayswater Institute. Since that time a lot has happened but it is only now coming together in a way that means we can pursue the strategic visions that we discussed. We have been successful in securing a number of contracts in our specialism of health and social care but for some time we were hampered by a lack of funds to take more strategic steps. The situation has now changed, however, and I am delighted to be able to tell you that at long last we have received our inheritance under the terms of Lisl Klein’s will. We now have a firm financial base, therefore, on which to build our future.

I can tell you that, as a result, we have already made two key appointments to the staff. The first is Professor Simon Bell, who will take up the position of CEO of the Institute from 1st September. Simon is well known to the Institute having been its director from 2007 to 2009. Simon is currently Professor of Innovation and Methodology at the Open University and his brief is to significantly broaden the reach of the Institute by developing new partnerships, expanding our professional development portfolio, extending and innovating the ‘Working Conference’ and developing our methods.

The second appointment is Adam Hoare as Executive Director of Sociotechnical Systems. Adam has extensive experience of technology development and implementation latterly working with health and social care providers. He was previously a client of the Institute when he was the managing director at Red Embedded Systems Ltd. It was then that he discovered that what he had been advocating for many years was a sociotechnical systems approach and that we were the place to join in order to really develop that approach. Adam’s role is to open up new lines of work for the Institute and in this capacity he will both broaden our client base and complement Simon in bringing fresh ideas and approaches to the Institute.

Simon and Adam are now working with Bill and Ken to put flesh on our strategic ambitions and to present a new more contemporary image of the Institute (although very firmly rooted in the objectives and values Lisl set out for the Institute). Expect to see a new version of the website in the next month or so. Chris retired as the Institute Administrator last September and Priya Davda is now fulfilling an administrative role for the Institute although we hope she will resume as an active research member of staff before too long.