“If peace comes from seeing the whole,
then misery stems from a loss of perspective”.
by Edward Rowland
Systemic Coaching and Constellations has emerged over the last 20 years as a powerful, awareness-based approach to seeing and transforming challenges in our personal, team and organisational lives. By creating maps of the whole system, it enables the hidden dynamics of even seemingly intractable situations to be illuminated – and often resolved – quickly and effectively.
At the recent Association for Coaching conference in London, my wonderful colleague Sarah Rozenthuler and I had the challenge of introducing this “whole self/whole systems” approach – and its core perspective and method – in a creative, fun and experiential way; and doing do in only 90 minutes! We did so by exploring a question of relevance to all coaches: how do we best resource our self, and optimise what we do, as we enter complex organisational systems where much may be demanded of us? In this blog, we will share some of the main perspectives and insights from the day.
A New Approach To Coaching
Writing within a different tradition of working with systems in organisations, Barry Oshry has said this:
“Our efforts to understand & intervene in organizational events have a persistent bias: to interpret phenomena from a personal framework…when we don’t see systems, we see individual personalities…. And if the diagnostic lens is personal, then it follows that the interventions will also be personal: fix, fire, demote, replace, or suggest coaching or therapy for one or more of the parties”. Barry Oshry
Systemic Coaching & Constellations turns this bias on its head, and organically begins to dissolve it. We are of course embedded in systems. Our body is a system; we are born into a family system, which is the primary pattern generator in our lives; we join and leave other systems from kindergarten upwards, through school and into the world of work. Our businesses survive and thrive only because of their dependence on a wider ecosystem of customers and suppliers, as well as the planet herself.
Systemic coaching brings this wider systemic context into view. It is an approach to coaching which:
“coaches the individual client or team with the system in mind – exploring the part in the whole, and the whole in the part – so as to unlock the potential and performance of both”. (Systemic Coaching & Constellations: A Whole Self, Whole Systems Approach (2017) by Edward Rowland (forthcoming)
We can say that this way of working changes the game of coaching, in that each coaching encounter becomes a systemic intervention in itself.
Seeing the Bigger Picture, and Finding Solutions that Serve Everyone
How does it do this? Firstly, it sets up maps (“constellations”) of a question or challenge within its wider systemic context. This mapping of key elements in a system can be done in different ways:
- ‘tabletop style’ – using figures or post-its in 1-1 settings – to represent key elements.
- using floormarkers – usually to help individual clients ‘step into’ their resources, blockers and potential solutions more fully.
- helping intact teams to create maps of their own system.
- using people to represent other systems as part of a group simulation.
Whatever, the method used, these maps serve to illuminate systems dynamics that might otherwise be hidden or invisible. For example, since the leaders and teams we coach are always part of a larger system, they can often act as ‘symptom-bearers’ for that larger system (more on this later).
Second, Systemic Coaching and Constellations draws from a set of underlying principles that this particular lens and way of seeing systems has revealed. It works with the understanding that organisations are living systems subject to a hidden ‘architecture’ of systemic ordering forces that powerfully influence the relationships and dynamics arising in them. If organisations can attune to this architecture, there is a basic alignment in which all members of a system feel at ease – leading to a flow of leadership, trust and purposeful action. In other words, this hidden architecture – if respected and attuned to – enables us to find solutions that benefit the system as a whole.
Speaking personally (as Ed), this capacity to strengthen the whole system remains – after 15 years of immersing myself in, and passing on this approach – perhaps the most captivating, beautiful and worthwhile aspects of this way of working.
Benefits to Leaders
With these orders and systemic principles in mind, and using the mapping tools and processes it is possible to model complex systems in deceptively simple ways. This brings many benefits including:
- Simplifying complexity: the sense of complexity that sometime overwhelms people, in relation to their critical business and leadership challenges, is usually lifted. (In our experience, this is the feature of this way of working that is most appreciated by business leaders and executives).
- Untangling patterns: the hidden dynamics that exist in the relationships between the various parts of the system are revealed. This enables stuck patterns, misplaced loyalties and outdated allegiances to be addressed and resolved.
- Enabling innovation: People can see and sense the whole, including the ways forward that strengthen the whole system. This unlocks great potential for innovation and energy to achieve excellence.
As well as helping leaders crystallise elegant pathways forward, it also helps them to find their own place in the system, which in turn leads to a greater sense of belonging and well-being, and better performance.
What about Benefits to the Coach? Finding our Place
How does this way of working benefit the coach, and what does it require? Learning to become a skilled facilitator – who can guide leaders to intervene in their systems in an incisive way – can of course take significant training to master. For many, this can be a delightful journey into a simpler more powerful way of working.
However, there are aspects of the skill-set and stance of the systemic coach, which we believe can be learned in a few days and are of huge relevance and benefit to all coaches (whatever their background). These include:
- Setting up diagnostic (or ‘read-only’) maps of client systems to generate insights, that in turn help us to
- Experiment with ‘inserting’ ourselves as coaches to find our own best place in the client system.
Systemic coaching & constellations graphically reveals that finding our right place as a coach, in relation to both the client organisation and any individual or team we’re working with, is one of the most resourcing things we can do for ourselves. Our ‘place’ as coaches (or consultants) is crucially important – whatever our way of working – because:
- If we are too close to the system (on the one hand), we might be captured by it and get caught up in ‘parallel process’ or the unhelpful dynamics of the client system. We might also take on the work of the client. In a recent example, a management consultant acknowledged the accuracy of a supervisory map, and that he had “inappropriately joined” the executive team of his corporate client. This was causing resentment among some members of the executive team.
- If we’re too far away (on the other hand) we will have little impact on the system, and may be perceived as being withdrawn or ineffectual by the client.
We can of course be too close to one part of the system, and too far away from another, at the same time. This is a frequent dynamic for team coaches. For example, working recently with a team coach to the senior executive team of a global manufacturing company, her position was so close to the leader of the team – providing him with support in his complex role – that one of the other directors barely perceived her existence. “Team coach? There’s a team coach?” he said. When she stepped back to a place where she could see the team as a whole, and they could see her, both team and coach breathed a great sigh of relief. She could now make contact with everyone in the team.
Finding our ‘right place’ in the system as a whole in this way might perhaps sound a little abstract on the page. However, it is something we all know at a felt, embodied level as soon as we discover it – just as we do when we find a sense of flow in our work. We feel we have our ‘ground’, and presence to do our best work; we have the confidence to challenge when appropriate; we feel we can see our client and the system of which they are a part with a clear perspective. This in turn builds a sense of trust and reliability with the client. We feel impartial and that we can embody the systemic stance of being on “everyone’s side”.
This is a big subject of course, and there is much more that could be said about the art of finding our right place. This will also vary somewhat according to the nature of our work and how we do it. We also need to be skilled contractors – gaining real clarity around our actual work in the organisation and its true function and scope. We need to be skilled phenomenologists – drawing on our felt sense of the system from the first phone call onwards. However, simple supervisory constellations of the kind described here can be a hugely powerful resource.
The Wide-Angle Lens
There is another benefit to creating maps with a wide-angle lens in this way. As mentioned earlier, since systems – such as teams – are always part of a larger system, they can often act as ‘symptom-bearers’ for that larger system. As an example, we often see that senior teams carry difficult patterns that belong to the whole system, which are not being fully addressed by the Board or executive team above them. It is very difficult to see or understand such systems dynamics – let alone resolve them – without a wider systemic perspective (and method).
A Whole Self, Whole Systems Approach
Setting up maps in this way also builds our embodied knowing and presence. After decades of organisational and leadership development initiatives in his own businesses, Bill O’Brien, the late CEO of Hanover Insurance, wrote that: “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener”. The Theory U movement, developed by Otto Scharmer at MIT in the U.S., has called the lack of attention to our interiority and presence, the ‘blind spot’ of leadership and change.
Using our ‘Self’ as an instrument, including our presence or embodied knowing, is a critical skill in using a systemic approach. We learn that knowledge about systems can be accessed as a ‘felt sense’ not just through the mind but directly in the body, in the senses and in our feelings and intuition (‘Whole Self’).
This expanded awareness deepens our capacity to ‘zoom back’ and take a birds-eye view – as described in the previous section – so that we can see, and listen for, what the system overall might be trying to tell us (‘Whole System’). For coaches – as with leaders – the more we can raise our inner game, the more we can raise our outer one.
In the System but Not of It
As humans, we can never be entirely objective or impartial guides or interveners in a client system. Those familiar with supervision theory and practice will know that our intervention will necessarily create a further ‘coaching’ or ‘consulting’ system with that of the leader or team and their wider client system.
However, without the capacities described here – including our presence and our capacity to see the system as a whole and find our right place within it – we might easily find ourselves in the “loss of perspective” or even “misery” that Mark Nepo has described.
With these capacities, we can legitimately feel, and say, that “we are in the client system, but not of it” and feel relaxed and well-placed to do our best work. And the more we deepen these capacities, the more we can guide leaders to create optimal conditions for people to maintain a sound level of well-being and performance – and release their creative potential.