Humpty Dumpty on 'Systemic' work

4th August 2020

I asked some friends and colleagues recently what they meant by “systemic” and was reminded of Humpty Dumpty, in Alice in Wonderland. “When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." Of course, we can all agree that seeing through a systemic lens reveals patterns of relatedness and interconnections. But there are many kinds of “systemic”. I think this diversity of what we mean by “systemic” is deeply important, little discussed and somewhat problematic…

It seems like progress, that systemic approaches are becoming vogue – but perhaps we should be concerned. In the last few years the attention of OD practitioners has turned from coaching, to systemic coaching, and more recently to systemic team coaching. This is worrying because it is actually a distraction from the core issue, which is not whether we coach individuals or teams, or even if we coach systemically. Nor is it about which tools and approaches we use (including Constellations as the flavour of the month). The core issue is, how do we change the ways we think? If we are supporting simplistic solutions with teams instead of with individuals, then whatever our paradigm nothing really changes.

We frequently over-estimate our capacity to understand the world around us

Gregory Bateson said that we frequently over-estimate our capacity to understand the world around us. We jump quickly to conclusions and make plans that we charge confidently ahead with. Then we get into a muddle. Business is renowned for reducing complexity to the limits of a vision statement and a 4-bullet point strategy – then pressing the ‘fast forward’ button.

We coaches, consultants and constellators exacerbate the problem when we encourage clients to make goals and pursue them, without also challenging their underlying habits of thinking… I have seen some coaches, for example, take a client through a constellation without once even gently challenging that client’s stance, perspective or assumptions; without illuminating blindspots, reframing perceptions or offering alternative assessments.

Constellations and other systemic practices do not matter as much as how we use them – and how we use them best is related to exposing and exploring the ways we think. I’m in a peer-learning group at the moment where there is a lot of talk about “empowering our clients” which seems to be code for “don’t challenge them too much”. Nothing is more empowering than truth, yet the pressure to collude rather than contest is seductive.

Nothing is more empowering than truth, yet the pressure to collude rather than contest is seductive

Paul Lawrence, at The Centre for Coaching in Organisations, codifies five ways of seeing systemically:

  1. Linear Systems Approach: Linear systems thinking is where the coach breaks the organisation down into its constituent parts and sees the relationship between those parts as relatively easy to control. A coach working with this lens approaches the issue like an engineer - focusing mechanistically on improving team dynamics through looking at roles, responsibilities, co-ordination of process and functions, KPIs, and so on… As an example, there might be an assumption that as marketing and sales processes become more streamlined through team members clarifying their roles, responsibilities and targets, then more business will result.
  2. Non-Linear Systems Approach: Here, coach and leader see connections and relationships between parts of the system but don’t jump to conclusions based on causal relationships. Rather, they expect the unexpected, consider unanticipated consequences and other discontinuities. A coach looking at why productivity has improved suddenly when a member of staff went on sick leave (with fewer people productivity should go down, right?), might not be surprised when people start talking about workforce bullying.
  3. Relational Systems Approach: When the coach and leader see their own perspectives as subjective and limited, they recognise the need for collaboration with others who have different places in the system and therefore see things differently. There is a wider consultative emphasis, and coaches focus more on relationships than roles and rules. They behave in ways that are more dialogic and enquiring, and routinely seeking out different frames of reference. Here decision-making is less ‘Command and Control” and more influenced by collective insight.
  4. Complexity Approach: Through this lens coaches and leaders focus on both local interactions as well as wider contextual patterns. Unpredictability is assumed, as is the phenomenon of sub-systems playing out what happens at higher levels of the system. Attention is paid to examples of parallel process. Coaches cannot think of themselves as separate or neutral, but as co-influencing and co-influenced by the teams they are working with. Change is less a matter of making plans than of engaging in different conversations within and beyond the team. Improvising with what emerges is the art of change from this perspective.
  5. Meta-systemic Approach: Engaging with this lens, the coach and leader do not view the organisation as a system at all, and do not consider that boundaries are real (for example, between systems and subsystems). Instead, they see systems as metaphorical – useful but arbitrary. Team dynamics are related to how power is constructed and enacted inside and outside of the organisation. Because power ebbs and flows over time and influences meaning-making and decision-taking, a coach looking through this lens will notice how different forms of power influence team dynamics and performance.

Lawrence makes the point that we should not harbour value-judgments about these different approaches - no one way of thinking is better than another. What is important is to be able to access different ways of thinking, as the situation demands, and to identify and challenge our own (and our clients’) habits of thinking.

We use cookies to give you the best possible experience on our web site. Please refer to our Privacy Policy for more information.