Systemic team coaching: seeking to understand interdependencies


Systemic coaching is more than thinking about culture or bringing the perspective of stakeholders into the room. It is the application of systemic thinking and complexity to view issues differently, develop new understandings of interdependencies and new solutions. Here is a simple example of a systemic team coaching session yesterday.

The context

I was contacted by an existing client to facilitate a workshop yesterday. I rang all the team members to find out what they would want as outcomes of the session. It became apparent that there were significant troubles in the team – emanating predominantly from one team member. By the time I arrived to deliver the workshop yesterday morning, that person had resigned.

Identifying recurring patterns

A quick catchup with the CEO, and we decided to swap to a team coaching process and allow the team to set the agenda. This resignation was the third in three years, from this role. It is a pattern that is easy to overlook but shouldn’t be. In the flurry of thinking about how to manage while recruiting another incumbent, it can be easy to forget, asking: Is this more than coincidence? What structures within the organisation are producing this unintended result?

When faced with this question, the team started reflecting on how all three incumbents had displayed a similar pattern of behaviors before resigning. They had become more withdrawn from the rest of the team and defensive when peers had inquired and tried to help.

Questions to reveal the structures producing the patterns

What pattern of work may produce this behaviour?

The team found a pattern that exists in the timing of regular, annual projects/tasks. They spent some time discussing how the ‘distance’ between departments seems to grow at certain times of the year and it is the flow of work that catalyses this outcome. They started identifying how they could influence that flow of work.

What else may contribute to an increasing sense of stress for people in this role?

The team identified communication patterns that emerged from who from which groups, attends which specific meetings. Additionally, they identified the inconsistent usage of specific communication and project management platforms. They determined to model and ‘champion’ the use of these.

How might the capacity of others influence the role?

They were on a roll by now and the conversation flowed even more strongly as they started to identify the lack of team management skills in the organisation. Not anyone’s fault, but that lack of capacity has resulted in new managers working longer hours and feeling more stressed. It also means that the organisation is more vulnerable to the departures of key people. The conversation was now about organisational culture, training and succession.

Decision not to re-fill the role

Resulting from these insights, the team has decided not to recruit for this specific role again. They are redesigning the role, splitting it into two different existing positions that sit in different parts of the organisation. They are disrupting the structures from which the behaviours emerge. These structures are both organisational structures and the thinking patterns within the executive team.

In less than an hour, they generated a robust conversation – heated at times – that genuinely responds to the deeper structures. The organisation will be stronger as a result. They anticipate that this redesign will change the system that produced the stress and patterns resulting in good people resigning.