“If you want to go fast, go alone – if you want to go far, go together”

African proverb quoted by Paul Polman, CEO Unilever, BBC News, 16/01/2017


Systemic Coaching and Constellations work has emerged over the last 20 years as a powerful, awareness-based approach to seeing and transforming challenges in our organisational and professional 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.

During these volatile and uncertain times, the systems perspective of this work – as well as the method – will benefit HR professionals, leaders and change agents who want to open up the systemic intelligence and co-creative potential that is already there in leaders and teams.


The “persistent bias” of individualism

Barry Oshry, a systems theorist, has noted that our efforts both to diagnose and intervene in organisations have a “persistent bias”: we interpret things from a personal perspective. He notes that the leadership capacity of seeing the systemic contexts in which people operate is “missing”:

“When we don’t see systems, we see individual personalities. Our explanations are personal, and our solutions are personal. Fix the individual.”

 This prevailing view in organisations has many limitations. It encourages a view of performance, behaviour and even creativity as residing in the individual (rather than also in relationships or systemic patterns), making us more likely to blame others, take things personally or fight for our corner.

Much of leadership development focuses on the individual. We tend to think that we can solve many problems just by building new skills or instilling different behaviours. Whilst it is important to take responsibility for one’s own actions and impact, we have found that there is a limit to what can be achieved by working in this way.


The Web of Systems – aka Life!

All of us live within a web of relationships. Everything that 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; 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.

The systems of which we are part pull on us with powerful force. All of us are 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? In our work systems, we might ask, what is each person’s role or right place? What tensions does this create in each person and in the team? In systemic coaching and consulting, these are the dynamics that we learn to notice, model, navigate and align.


Five Features of Human Systems

There are five important features of human systems – and our understanding of them can expand what we see, how we intervene and the impact we have.


  1. A system (the whole) is different to – and behaves differently to – the sum of the parts.

Human systems are living ‘organisms’ that behave differently to the sum of the parts. As a simple example, a team made up of stellar individuals might function very poorly collectively. A change in the composition of the team can mean that the team suddenly starts behaving and functioning very differently.

At the same time, the health of the individual part is strongly influenced by, and influences, the health of the whole system. Indeed, 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 leaders and teams carry difficult patterns that belong to the whole system, as they are not being fully addressed by the leaders above them. Without a systemic understanding, leaders and HR professionals are often at a loss about how to deal with these stuck patterns.


  1. There is a hidden architecture governing the dynamics in human systems, which if respected and attuned to, supports the whole system

Organisations are subject to an invisible ‘architecture’ of systemic ordering forces that powerfully influence the dynamics arising in them, both positively and negatively. These forces – to do with belonging, exchange and place – both ensure the survival of the individual and safeguard the system itself.

If organisations 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. (See our other publications if you are interested in this extensive subject).


  1. Problems are solutions in progress, from a systemic perspective.

Another key insight of the systemic approach is that problematic patterns are typically reactions to something that happened, and the attempt of the system to find a solution. Given that systems have a natural tendency to move towards balance, the question we ask ourselves as systemic practitioners is: “For what phenomenon is this problem or pattern a solution?”

This principle can be illustrated by the following example, where an MD and Board are having difficulty filling a senior position (even by well-qualified candidates).


CASE STORY: the MD and the Ejector Seat 

A. Coaching Scenario – ‘The Problem’

Simon is MD of a mid-sized business with 500 employees, and 18 months into his role. Although his business has a globally recognised brand, and some good products, he feels that the business has become ‘stagnant’ – both in terms of its culture and its sales performance. There is a problem with ‘low morale’ among the staff, which is manifest in a steady revolving door of people entering and joining the organisation.

In particular, he and the Board have trouble filling a senior position. A particular role – that of HR Director – has had many occupants in just a few years and the role seems somehow incapable of being occupied, even by seemingly well-qualified candidates. The current incumbent, who Simon chose, is also struggling in the role.

Generally, Simon intuitively feels that there are ‘skeletons’ – and unfinished business – in the organisation that are holding it back, but a) he can’t put his finger on what they are and b) doesn’t know what to do about it. Attempts to improve the situation, through coaching the current HR Director, a new strategy process, and attempts to create a more open, transparent culture, have as yet yielded little benefit.

B. ‘Solution’

 Problems such as Simon’s are typically ‘solutions in progress’, from the perspective of Systemic Coaching and constellations. In other words, what we find – viewed through this mapping lens – is that problematic patterns are often reactions to something that happened, and the attempt of the system to find a solution. Taking a slightly different approach, the question we systemic practitioners therefore ask ourselves is: “For what phenomenon is this problem or pattern a solution?”

 We might begin with a fairly typical contracting process that includes: deeply listening to Simon, exploring feedback from others on his leadership style and also the outcomes he wants from the coaching process.

 However, our systemic perspective might then encourage us to ask some slightly different questions, such as: Which earlier or present member(s) of the system was excluded, devalued or forgotten? Has anyone been dismissed in an unnecessarily disrespectful way?

 In this case, these questions yield answers from Simon that have a certain energetic charge, which the systemic coach is trained to pick up. These include the facts that there was a ‘brutal cull’ to one business division 10 years previously, and also that a previous HR Director had been bullied and then fired for underperforming by Simon’s predecessor as CEO four years previously.

 The next step is to take Simon to a bespoke constellation workshop – attended by a business champion or two plus neutral representatives – so we can see the hidden systems dynamics at play.

 This process reveals the real issue that the prior incumbent in HR had been mistreated, disrespected and effectively excluded from the firm’s institutional memory. It also revealed the difficult pattern for that person’s successors as they assumed this “ejector seat” role, and – through identification with the prior incumbent – were also expelled from the system.

 This helps us find the resolution that the system is seeking: to remedy the prior imbalance by recognition of the earlier incumbent. Simon is happy to do this, and the follow-up coaching explores how this ‘re-membering’ can be embedded in the organisation through conversations with the HR Director and collective ritual (and dialogue) – while helping him navigate all his other challenges!


4. Change begins with agreeing to reality as it is.

Another principle is that trying to suppress, minimise or even get rid of problems typically keeps them around. This often leads to resistance to change or unintended consequences elsewhere in the system.

By contrast, identifying and acknowledging ’what is’ is a crucial first step in bringing ease to a system. In a leadership team this might mean, for example, acknowledging cynicism about making positive changes. Unacknowledged and explored resistance halts progress in its tracks.


  1. Successful intervening in systems requires an awareness-based, phenomenological approach and not just an analytic one (which focuses on details).

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, has called this lack of attention to our interiority and presence, the ‘blind spot’ of leadership and change.

Using our embodied presence is a critical skill in working systemically. We learn that knowledge about systems can be accessed not just through the mind but directly in the body, our feelings and intuition (‘Whole Self’). This expanded awareness enables us to ‘zoom back’ and take a birds-eye view so that we can see – and listen for – what the system overall might be trying to tell us (‘Whole System’.)


The Benefits of Systemic Mapping

 With these systemic principles in mind, it is possible to map complex systems in surprisingly simple ways. Spatially arranging objects to stand for elements in a system, for example team members, competitors and even market forces, creates powerful windows into the system. These insights can then be used to disentangle problematic relationships and carve out new pathways for moving forwards.

A systemic stance is often more inclusive than other approaches to change management. By people looking together at the context in which they are working, greater insights into how the system is working emerge, freeing up trapped energy – and creative ideas – and generating a stronger commitment to bring these ideas to life in day-to-day work.


In Closing: the value of a Systemic approach

When people ignore – or simply cannot see – systemic influences, they often feel pressures and tensions that they cannot explain. These invisible, yet potent, forces drive behaviour, and often block plans and strategies in ways that seem mysterious or inexplicable.

On the other hand, when the systemic context is engaged with skillfully, we gain deeper insight into “What Is?”, and many unexpected, creative possibilities about “What Could Be?” emerge. With systemic support and training, leaders, coaches and HR professionals can learn to navigate previously unseen pathways with skill and elegance. This opens the way to unexpected breakthroughs, unlocks collective intelligence and aligns people with the inherent wisdom of the system – and the creative flow of life – itself.


We would like to thank colleagues Judith Hemming and Jan Jacob Stam in particular, for their prior efforts to set out the systemic principles of this approach. We have obviously done our best to bring them to life with our own examples and words.


(This is the full version of an article that appeared – in an abridged form – in HR Director magazine in April 2017. It contains a case story that separately appeared in Coaching at Work magazine in February 2017).