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Coaching and systems thinking

John Blakey

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Systems thinking – the belief that the relationship between things is the driver of change – is a vital tool for leaders, says John Blakey, co-author of Challenging Coaching

When I meet my executive coaching clients, I often ask them, “How have things been since our last coaching session?'”

It is surprising how often I hear the same answer: “It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster.”

The last time this happened to me I teasingly replied, “A rollercoaster? That sounds exciting. If I want to go on a rollercoaster I have to go to Alton Towers and pay for the experience.”

It’s a comment that is not meant to discount the real stress of modern business life, but is meant to challenge the prevailing mind-set of needing to be in control of everything in order to feel energised and motivated.

In a globalised, technology-enabled and fast-paced business environment, leaders continually face ambiguity, complexity and paradox at every turn.

It is like being on a rollercoaster. So how can we reframe our mind-sets, not just to survive but also to thrive in this new reality?

Systems thinking is a tool that can come to our aid.

First popularised by Peter Senge through his book The Learning Organisation, systems thinking has taken hold in academic circles but is not often used as a practical way of life.

At its core, systems thinking is a belief that everything is inter-connected and that it is the relationship between things rather than the things themselves that is the primary driver of change.

For a leader who subscribes to systems thinking, the focus shifts from wanting to control everything to wanting to leverage every relationship.

Since our sphere of influence always includes our relationships, focusing upon these re-empowers us and has the potential to release us from being victims of the pace and complexity in the world around us.

Making the shift

Let us briefly look at three systems thinking tools that can assist leaders in making this shift.

First, there is the idea of the 'butterfly effect,' whereby a small change in one part of a system can lead to dramatic changes elsewhere.
This term arose from the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in South America could lead to a tornado in Japan 10 days later due to the complex interactions of the global weather system.

For a leader who subscribes to systems thinking, the focus shifts from wanting to control everything to wanting to leverage every relationship.

It makes us wonder whether the 'flapping' of a leader's 'wings' could also have a similar exponential impact on the wider organisation.
Or, in other words, how a focus on the little things rather than the big things might be our most significant contribution.

Second, there is the systems thinking idea of 'fractals'.

A fractal is the term used to explain how examining the smallest scale component of a system can reveal vital information that relates to the wider system as a whole.

So when I am coaching one individual leader, I am always alert to information that is being communicated that reveals truths about broader organisational challenges, opportunities and pitfalls.

Similarly, one short conversation with a member of your team could hold the key to unlocking a much bigger organisational issue that you have been grappling with if you have your full antennae switched on.

Finally, the systems thinking idea of 'leverage points' helps a leader discern where to apply their limited time and energy for maximum impact.
Leverage points are those sweet spots in the organisation where tension is being held and the subtle release of this tension will lead to dramatic results.

A popular example can be seen in martial arts, where a wiry, seven-stone t'ai chi master can throw a six-foot-three hulk across the room with seemingly no great effort at all because the master has spent a lifetime studying the leverage points of the human body.

When I was a business leader myself in a global matrix structure, I gave up trying to build a perfect analytical model of what was going on because it was simply too complex, but instead started to develop an instinct for leverage points.

For example, I knew that if I could persuade a managing director to manage our global accounts differently this would act as a leverage point to cascade the change (and justify at a stroke the value and reason for my role).

Letting go

It takes a brave leader to abandon the Newtonian idea of wanting to label, analyse and control everything like billiard balls on an ever-expanding stage.

Yet is the business rollercoaster really going to become any less twisting or tortuous in the coming years?

If we want to create leaders who can stay resilient, empowered and balanced amid such dynamic change then maybe it is worth the risk of letting go and giving systems thinking a go.

The prize is that business leadership could then become the most exciting rollercoaster of all, both for ourselves and those who we lead and influence from day to day.  Challenging Coaching: Going Beyond Traditional Coaching to Face the FACTS by John Blakey and Ian Day is out now (Nicholas Brealey Publishing).

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