Raising system awareness through coaching

I just read a book about Stockholm Syndrome. It was pretty bad at first, but by the end I kinda liked it.

My curiosity has always been driven by two things.

The first is: “How do things work?”. As a kid I played around with electronics kits and early home computers. Through my degree (Chemical Engineering) and subsequent technical career (IT Systems Engineering and Operations) I learned to appreciate emergence — a phenomenon whereby larger entities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities such that the larger entities exhibit properties the smaller/simpler entities do not exhibit1. We see this everywhere: the snowflake, a chemical plant, our mobile phones, transport systems, the Giant’s Causeway, a termite colony.

The second is: “Why do people behave like they do?”. Scratching this itch is part of what drove me to the Meyler Campell Mastered Programme.

An individual’s performance is dominated by their environment. The Stanford Prisoner’s Experiment and Abu Ghraib may feel like extreme examples, Dr Stanley Milgram’s experiment on the NYC Subway somewhat more benign — but from them we see that the psychological contracts between people are forged by the relationships between them, as much as by their own personalities, capabilities and values.

What happens in the workplace? Systems awareness is poor. We place a great deal of weight on the competence of individuals — indeed, our business as coaches depends on the weight placed on individual competence and behaviour — and yet taken alone, coaching an individual may have only a limited impact on their performance.

I have run a number of “transition to management” sessions for first-time managers in growing technology companies. The organisation is scaling up, orders are abundant and the engineering function is bursting at the seams. However, morale is low, confidence in the engineering function is low, deadlines are missed, customers are disgruntled, the managers are having a miserable time. The senior management team’s diagnosis is that this situation is caused by the nascent managers’ inexperience. The remedy is some training to boost their competence and confidence. The managers are introduced to some tools and techniques in group sessions, but in 1:1s they are still miserable, and feel powerless. The issues they present include “managing up”, resilience, time management and “those idiots in sales”.

The senior manager’s view of customer value creation looks like this:

They know they have skilled engineers, so the performance problems must be due to the skills of the managers in box three, right?

From the perspective of the managers involved in delivery, customer value creation looks like this:

Their situation is affected adversely if:

  • Marketing attracts customers with a poor fit for the existing solution
  • Technical pre-sales designs a solution which doesn’t actually exist
  • Sales closes deals (and wins commission) by making promises to customers on timescales
  • Program management can’t access the resources to implement on promised timescales

To perform to the expected level, the delivery manager would need to:

  • Fix marketing
  • Change standards and quality in technical pre-sales
  • Change the incentives (and therefore behaviours) in sales
  • Push back to program management, and only accept work within the team’s capacity to deliver

…as well as improving their own competence.

What we’re asking of the Delivery Manager (to improve her team’s performance) is very difficult. She can change herself and her team — a bit — but the mountains she’d have to climb to change all of these other components are huge. Not only are the causes of her pain some distance away across the org chart — there may well be very different operating cultures, and possibly physical barriers too.

Consequently, her morale falls further, she finds herself having difficult conversations with customers (“Why aren’t we getting what we want?”), Commercial (“Why are you letting the customers down?”), her team (“Why do we have to work all weekend again?”) and her family (“Why are you so angry and upset when you come home from work”)?

This isn’t just a “worker bee” problem. The ecosystem is different but the CEO can be just as helpless as our delivery manager. Shaw and Linnecar highlight this in the following chart:

(Business Coaching — Achieving Practical Results Through Effective Engagement — Peter Shaw & Robin Linnecar)

“Staff” — the internal organisation — is relegated to one of fourteen factors, which itself is not a comprehensive view. At least for our embattled delivery manager, most of her challenges are internal.

Patrick Hoverstadt is a consultant and author who uses systems methodologies for organisation diagnosis, design, transformation and strategy. He describes the gap between executive coaching and systems consulting in “Systemic Coaching (Coaching Perspectives — The Association for Global Coaching Magazine — July 2017)”:

It is one thing to diagnose an organisational situation systemically and flag up the underlying systemic issues, the probable symptoms and even the likely effect on individuals.

It’s quite another to be reasonably sure about whether the best option is intervening to change the individual, the organisation or the relationship between the two.

Part of the responsibility clearly lies with the systems practitioners — to take their tools and methodologies, and democratise them — moving beyond the confines of Organisational Development and into the mainstream of management practice. But as coaches, we can build some of these tools into our own approaches.

Hoverstadt calls out “Connections” and “Dynamics” as key features of systems analysis — what are the relationships between these components: how do they work; how will they evolve over time. If our goal is raising system awareness through coaching, perhaps there is a way forward.

We already have some arrows in our quiver: FIRO-B/MBTI, 360 feedback, and three-way contracting.

FIRO-B helps us to understand the interpersonal interactions of a local group of people. It can guide the coachee towards mis-matches between their behavioural needs and their close peers. Similarly, MBTI can also shine some light on similar mis-matches (the infuriating tension between -P and -J preferences, for instance).

360 feedback can also bring much valuable information to the table. Even simple “Start, Stop, Continue” structure can help the coachee understand the nature of their relationships better — and sometimes, asking these questions of the coachee’s peers can bring about powerful change in them, through reflection.

However, structural, as opposed to interpersonal relationships tend to be less well- explored. There are three approaches which the coach can use with the team to help them to “see the system”:

The first maps out stakeholders. For our Delivery Manager, they’re primarily the (key) people on the org chart, together with customers. By asking her to identify her stakeholders, and asking “what do they need from you?”, “what do you need from them?” and “where are the gaps”, a rich picture can be built up quickly. Most people find it easier to do this on a broad canvas — a mindmap on a flipchart or whiteboard can help. Other roles may have more complex internal/external relationships, such as the CEO example earlier — but the same approach still works.

The second maps out decisions. By asking “What are the most important decisions which affect your work? Who takes them, and what’s the process?” the coachee can start to map out some of the structure and dynamics of their wider network. While not being able to influence all of it directly, they can at least make more sense of their place within it, and start to develop a common language to discuss deficiencies with others elsewhere in the hierarchy.

The third maps out the value creation process. By asking “How do you create value for your customers?”, all participants can create a shared view of “the machine”. From this common understanding, a coherent view of strengths and weaknesses will develop, which can then guide the team back towards appropriate systemic interventions.

Value Creation Process Mapping in action

This brings us to our final point of intervention — 3-way contracting (coachee, their manager, “the organisation” (typically HR)).

The coaching process needs to be able to plug back into the organisation — because for a coachee to succeed, both they and the organisation need to change. But channeling this entirely through self-reporting by the coachee through the line management relationship won’t work. By way of metaphor — if your running speed is impaired because your foot hurts, it’s your foot’s job to report that it’s hurting; but it’s not the job of your foot to plan your physiotherapy, or to buy you some new trainers.

This comes with issues — of confidentiality, trust, and the willingness of “the organisation” to act on systemic insight. But as we’ve seen, a purely individual intervention may at best be ineffective and at worst be actively destructive by reducing the individual’s self-confidence. By bringing a systems approach to business coaching, we have the potential to help individuals and the organisation to cope, adapt and prevail. But there is plenty to be done to make this robust.

About Gareth Marlow:

75% of venture-backed tech startups fail. They fail to find and exploit market demand, struggle to develop a high-performance team, and can’t build a scaleable organization.

I help CEOs of startups and scaleups to unlock growth in their business by providing 1:1 and team coaching, which:

  • Clarifies the direction of the organization
  • Improves the dynamics of their team, and their own performance
  • Structures the design of their business for scale.

I bring success and battle-scars from a decade of scaling tech companies, 1000 people-years of leadership experience and coaching mastery as a Meyler Campbell-trained executive coach.