(NOTE: This article originally appeared in Coaching At Work magazine in June 2017).


Leading systemic coach Edward Rowland explains the “hidden architecture” in organisations and how leaders can work with it to create effective organisational cultures

Working with leaders across the world for more than 17 years, supporting them to create sustainable and effective organisations, I have learned that achieving breakthrough coaching results requires skilfully navigating the client’s systemic context, and in doing so courageously stepping into the unknown.

At the Whole Partnership, an organisation I founded to catalyse purpose-led leadership, we’ve developed a systemic coaching framework that pays specific attention to systemic factors – the complex human systems and relationships, often unacknowledged, in which all our clients live and work. This framework prepares and guides the coach and client on a journey into the unknown, toward dependable, though unpredictable, breakthrough insights. And it engages the full range of human faculties and resources to enrich the journey, especially by paying attention to the unity of body, feelings and mind, with all the power, insight and creative potential an appreciation of that unity offers. It is a “whole person, whole system” approach.

The Web of Life

When we work systemically, we acknowledge that all of us live within a web of relationships. In systemic coaching we call these webs, systems. Working this way taps into a large array of psychological and therapeutic research and practice from the last few decades, and aligns with a systemic perspective that is transforming the outlook of 21st century science. And this method is also creating it’s own body of research, with a range of PhDs exploring the effectiveness of the systemic approach in coaching, organisational change and even branding.

Everything we do is shaped by relationships and systemic forces, whether we acknowledge this dimension of reality or not. Our body is a system; we are born into a family system, the main ‘pattern generator’ in our lives; we join and leave other systems from school onwards and in the world of work. Our businesses survive and thrive because of their dependence on a wider ecosystem of customers and suppliers, as well as the planet herself.

No matter how well an organisation plans and defines its future goals and strategies, factors in the wider ecosystem, such as market conditions, changes of government policy or natural disasters can also play a critical part in an affecting an organisation’s success.

There are also more hidden forces at work. This invisible ‘architecture’ of systemic forces is often poorly understood, even though they can powerfully activate those systems dynamics, that – as our Dutch colleague Jan Jacob Stam says – “can in one moment give us wings to fly and in another moment hold us paralyzed and unable to act.”

Working with Systemic Forces

The various systems we’re part of can pull on us with powerful force. We are all deeply influenced by our sense of belonging in various groups. We ask ourselves: do we really belong here? How do we balance the loyalties of our belonging to different groups? And in our work systems, what is each person’s role or right place? What tensions does this create in each person and in the team? These are the kind of systemic forces that we learn to notice, model, navigate and align to in systemic coaching.

When people ignore such systemic influences, they often experience unexplained pressures and tensions, which feel enormously powerful, driving their behaviour and that of others, either facilitating or blocking plans, strategies and goals in ways that seem mysterious or inexplicable.

On the other hand, when the systemic context is considered and engaged with skilfully, remarkable breakthroughs can happen overnight, where seemingly intractable challenges simply dissolve. Our understanding of the systemic gives us a much deeper insight in each case into “What Is?”, and regularly opens up many unexpected possibilities about “What Could Be?”. In systemic coaching trainings, coaches learn to help clients navigate these often unseen pathways with skill and grace, often opening the way to unexpected breakthroughs.

Seven Orders of Systemic Change

In the systemic coaching and constellating tradition, we use the term ‘orders’ to describe these underpinning structures that influence organisations and other living systems. Often invisible, these orders can be difficult to attend to. Negative manifestations include employees suddenly leaving, power struggles, massive drops in sales and effectiveness, or a crippling stagnation.

More positively, when these forces are well attended to, they can powerfully orientate a system to its true purpose. Such attunement can help resolve issues by re-patterning the relationships between key systemic elements, thus enabling a better flow of leadership and purposeful action across the whole ecosystem of stakeholders.

Using them as a lens to quickly and accurately ‘scan’ an organization, team or system, we work with the following seven orders to help identify where crucial systemic issues and the points of highest leverage are located.

1. Purpose. The founding purpose needs to be respected, but also continually evolved to meet the changing needs of the marketplace & society. From a systemic perspective, purpose is inherent to systems and not constructed. True purpose therefore needs to be discovered and articulated rather than simply invented. It is the deepest order in organisations, and – with its constituent principles – answers the profound question of what an organisation’s place & function is in the world.

Possible Considerations/Questions

• What was the founding purpose? Is it remembered, and respected?
• What is the espoused or stated purpose currently? To what extent does the organisation ‘live’ and embody this stated purpose?
• To what extent does it really ‘light up the ecosystem’ and activate the potential of the business?

2. Belonging. Everyone in the system has a right to belong, including and especially the founders of the organisation. Of course, belonging is dependent on performance and more time-limited (than in families, for instance). However, it is important to ensure that all participants are acknowledged for their roles and contributions, and that any dismissal is done as transparently and respectfully as possible. Entanglements can emerge when prior participants are excluded from overt institutional memory or when the current roles and contributions of particular individuals and groups are ignored, belittled or excluded.

As case example of how such a pattern can lead to an ‘ejector seat’ phenomenon in organisations is included in our recent Troubleshooter piece in the March edition of Coaching at Work (see here).

Possible Considerations/Questions

  • Who is missing, and who needs to be included?
  • Were any earlier or recent members of the system excluded, devalued or forgotten?

3. Place. Priority goes to those with greater responsibility for the whole. This means that leaders need to acknowledge and “own” their authority, and carry the responsibilities that are theirs. Leaders need to step up and lead; and other participants need to feel comfortable in leading and following, as appropriate. The expectations and rewards of each person’s role need to be seen as fair and ‘right’ – mutually – by the incumbents and by others working around them.

Possible Considerations/Questions

  • What is the flow of leadership? How much do leaders really lead?
  • To what extent are people playing to their strengths, and in the best place for the task?

4. Time. Those who come before have priority over those who come later. Length of service needs to be respected. Often just acknowledging the experience, knowledge and insight that comes from long institutional memory releases entanglements, letting more experienced participants contribute more fully – and newer entrants learn – in surprising ways. This in no way limits change or innovation, rather it allows the new to emerge proudly, creatively and resourcefully in the presence of, and on the foundations of, what has gone before. Simultaneously, new systems have a certain priority over older systems, for example in mergers.

Possible Considerations/Questions

  • How long respectively have people served the business?
  • How are the contributions of the older or longer-serving members valued?

5. Exchange. There needs to be a balance of giving and taking. Resources and rewards need to be made available in ways that engender trust and perceived fairness. Exchange is rarely of precisely equivalent things, especially over relatively short periods of time. Inherently, people give what they have and seek to receive what they need. But it’s essential to assure that each participant is contributing value, and also receiving things they need (e.g. money, respect or development).

Possible Considerations/Questions

  • To what extent do merit and responsibility go where they belong?
  • How fairly are resources and rewards allocated?

6. Space. There’s a spatial order for organisations, when all the other orders are attended to, where everyone feels in the right place and facing in the right direction. This is a subtle point, often ignored. It is valuable to notice and attend to spatial relationships in working life – how physically close people are, where they work, where they figure on organisation charts. In addition, when we explicitly and visibly map a system, paying attention to relationships other than the asserted formal ones, we can see which ones appear to be aligned or in conflict and get spatial clues as to where a system may be stuck. Freeing movements or adjustments to the system often appear very readily under this kind of lens.

7. Acknowledgement. The basic principle of acknowledging reality or ‘what is’, and not-denying, is in a sense an enabler for the other orders to apply and function. Research into big complex change by my systemic colleague Deborah Rowland (not a relation!) shows that agreeing to things as they are is one of the most crucial capacities of successful change leadership 1. Acknowledgement has two main aspects: first, it means a friendly but unflinching truth-telling, including naming of difficult realities and inconvenient facts; and second, it means consciously owning those realities in relation to relevant others (eg. “this was my decision and I take full responsibility for the consequences”). It is a natural order that when reality is faced in this way, a system gains in strength. Conversely, when reality is denied, difficult patterns get passed on.

Possible Considerations/Questions

• How honestly are the difficult realities & undesirable facts facing the business discussed?
• What is denied, suppressed, belittled? What is the organisation’s ‘kryptonite’ (the thing it cannot do), and is it named and owned?

Force for Positive Change

For a variety of reasons, there has been little attempt to date by systemic practitioners to share this hidden architecture with leaders, other than revealing its impact when things are out of alignment. However, the more leaders can develop their systemic intelligence to understand and work with these ordering forces, the more they can remove obstacles and elegantly orientate their teams and organisations around a potent purpose. By integrating this understanding into their ongoing work and conversations, leaders can activate and co-create vibrant and effective organisational cultures.


For information on upcoming Systemic Coaching and Constellations trainings, go here.