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Bernard Chanliau

Xenergie Consulting Ltd


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How to increase the return of your engagements through the Concept of Fractal Organisation in Systemic Coaching?

default-16x9 my coaching journey, I really started coaching systems such as teams because I felt the coaching impact at an ‘individual’ level wasn’t truly effective at influencing the ‘whole’.

Although I love one-to-one developmental coaching and its intimacy, supporting high-performers on the corporate ladder, the impact of one part of the system at the individual level seldom impacts the whole.

Sometimes, when coaching team leaders,  I could see the mirror of the ‘whole’ reflected in ‘parts’ of the coachee; however the full exploration of the measures of the ‘whole’ success were outside of the coaching alliance. The dynamics that presented themselves from the ‘whole’ lens were complex; interweaved and messy as it involved the wider organisation, costly as it created residues such as wasted meetings, politics, overflowing in-boxes, lack of trust, accountability, conflict…. and toxic from chronic dysfunctional behavioural patterns, …etc it’s the “that’s how we have always done it” syndrome – does it sound familiar?

We call them cultural gridlocks or complex adaptive systems. They are complex in that the gridlocks are dynamic interconnected interactions within the organisations. They are adaptive; in that the individual and collective behaviour mutate and self-organize corresponding to the micro-macro interventions such as individual leadership coaching or collection of sessions such as Systemic Team Coaching.

I see them as an entry portal to scope team coaching engagements and this article describes the anchoring point in establishing a team coaching agreement with a potential client.

Unfortunately, I still see change management programmes treated as a machine as if organizational change could be “engineered” in a linear, mechanical way. For many years scientists saw the universe as a linear place where simple rules of cause and effect apply. This linearity has fed the L&D market with one-off, class-room style, skills based event (the part) as Peter Senge (Fifth Discipline) states “unfortunately given the linear thinking that prevails in most organisations, interventions usually focus on symptomatic quick fixes, not underlying causes. This results in only temporary relief and it tends to create still more pressures later on far further, low-leverage interventions.”

Systemic Coaching, defined as ‘developmental coaching as oppose to performance (doing) coaching’ from the academia, specializes in identifying all of the relationships/systems an individual, team or organization participates in, and identifying obstacles (i.e. cultural gridlocks), resources and solutions that lie within them. It gives priority to the system and provides process expertise, rather than content knowledge, to create healthy organizations. As a result, the identified cultural gridlock will eventually have an impact on the total system and its component parts.

When coaching teams systemically one needs to perform a thorough audit of the organisational system <organisational analysis>, we do this through one-to-one interviews mixing internal and external stakeholders and use 360 tools such as the Belbin methodology. Coaching contracts in systems coaching are more complex and require a lot more planning and coordination than one-to-one.

For me, the longer an organization has been in operation the more likely it is that much of what occurs in the organizational culture is happening at the level of unconscious norms and basic assumptions, built on obsolete mental models – “what got you there won’t get you there”. Any challenges to these basic assumptions are likely to give rise to anxiety and to “social defence mechanisms”. Through this audit one is usually able to sense those mental models and draw the ‘fractal organisation’ of the client – your entry portal and it feels like the ripples created by a stone in a pond.

This is a fascinating concept and if you reflect for a moment you have Fractals (see a You Tube video example) everywhere in nature “Fractals are typically self-similar patterns, where self-similar means they are “the same from near as from far”. Fractals may be exactly the same at every scale, or, they may be nearly the same at different scales. The definition of fractal includes the idea of a detailed pattern repeating itself” (Wikipedia).

So what is the implication of this concept on a team coaching engagement?

For example, everywhere in these fractals landscape I have encountered with coaching clients, there is self similarity. The gridlock I see at an individual level is only a mirror of what’s happening at the top of the organisation, and the top of the organisation is only reflecting back its own gridlock, no matter how deeply we look within the organisation, peering down through the magnification, the same gridlock will be evident. There is a pattern, within pattern within pattern, within pattern of the same defence mechanisms such as lack of trust, conflict, governance…etc this particular example, the client is so busy attending to its burning platforms, the culture has become so reactive to the VUCA environment (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) that everyone is running on a treadmill with a broken communication process flow, half-engaged, waiting for their pay-check and HR wanders how to engage with employees in celebration…sounds familiar?

The other example is an expert culture, typical within the R&D environment, where vertical knowledge is king, too busy thinking to listen properly, leading to a fear and blaming culture. follows is a process of enquiry that we initiate with all of our clients to elicit the cultural gridlocks, it’s not an easy process however can be very effective if the dissatisfaction with the current situation and the vision of what is possible in the future complimented by achievable incremental step change towards reaching this vision is greater than the resistance of change – than the impossible becomes possible.

Four Practical steps to start a Cultural Gridlock Enquiry:

Enquiry is an action learning process which enables an organisation to find important insights on key strategic questions whilst learning through the activity of the enquiry. It is particularly helpful for working with problems which can seem difficult or intangible to get a handle on, or issues that are obscured, denied or beneath the surface, can be surfaced in a respectful process of discovery and learning that helps the organisation to learn how to improve itself.

- Define what you’re looking for by tracking behaviours that occur more than once. Look for recurring cultural gridlock themes such as the ones posted above and stay away from the seduction of examining isolating factors and implementing a one-off coaching or training solution.

- To see patterns, step back from the problem to gain perspectives and detached yourself from the emotional story. There are many starting points for cultural gridlock enquiry:

  • Current burning platforms create the urgency and ears for driving success
  • Organisation effectiveness and structural reviews
  • Succession planning
  • Introduction of new systems
  • Strategic change eg opening up new markets, mergers etc

- Identify key internal and external stakeholders affected by the current situation, not necessarily open to change and conduct interviews and produce an anonymous respondent report to back-up your session

- Scope your session armed with the following:

  • the issues which will formulate strategic questions which form the basis of the enquiry
  • to identify sensible starting points and tangible burning platforms that will enable traction

Bernard Chanliau, is a highly experienced and qualified coach for CEOs and senior managers.  He holds Professional Certified Coach (PCC) status from the International Coach Federation and can be contacted on +353 (0)86 104 38 05 or LinkedIn.

Register with our FREE Webinar series: Group Coaching a Practical Guide

Join us with author Ro Gorell, on “Group Coaching A Practical Guide to Optimizing Collective Talent in any Organisation” for a conversation around the context of group coaching, creating a group coaching strategy, tools and processes and measuring success. ….we will be delivering some practical and actionable resources.

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Bernard Chanliau


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