Systems Thinking in organizational coaching

30 oktober 2019

In this article, we will be sharing an example of organizational coaching, in which we successfully applied the Systems Thinking approach. We were working with a service organization and found fundamental solutions to several chronic problems. We believe that effective organizational coaching is not possible without Systems Thinking.

Why Systems Thinking

Large organizations are complex social systems. Although the causes and effects are not obvious, possible solutions are found in the most unexpected places.

Systems Thinking recognizes mental models and structures in work and in everyday life. It reveals the reasons for chronic problems in complex organizational contexts. It is an important thinking approach for creating a general picture of reality, by means of engaging individuals with different viewpoints. 

In one service organization

Recently, we worked with a group of Scrum Masters in a large service organization. During multiple interviews, we asked how much time they spent on organizational coaching. The Scrum Masters gave evasive answers while agreeing that it was an important part of their job. They complained of a major lack of time. In their words, team activities were absorbing all of their time. 

The company understood the importance of full time Scrum Master role. Each Scrum Master was working with only one team. We became fascinated by their lack of time for organizational coaching, and conducted investigation. Now we are going to share the results with you.

The language of systems diagrams

In this article, we’ll be employing systemic diagrams. They depict the stories of people’s behavior patterns and help observe the whole system. Causal-Loop Diagrams (CLD) are one of the most widespread tools in Systems Thinking. The main elements of the diagrams are:

  • Variables (behavior, condition);
  • Cause-and-effect relationships (direct and opposite);
  • Reinforcing and balancing loops (indicated by “R” and “B” respectively); 
  • Time delay;
  • Quick fixes and non-fundamental solutions (QF);
  • A strong deterministic cause-and-effect relationship (the bold arrow);
  • A short-term cause-and-effect relationship (“short-term”);
  • Mental models (the cloud icon) that stay behind the cause-and-effect relationships.

Now that you are familiar with the language of systems diagrams, let’s have a look at the results of the investigation.

The team’s dependence on the Scrum Master

We observed how the Scrum Masters were working with their teams and discovered that the teams were highly dependent upon them. For example, the Scrum Masters conducted all the Daily Scrums, even though the teams had been working together for more than a year and could have learned to do this themselves (see ScrumMaster Incognito pattern). A Daily Scrum is an event that is for the Development Team. The Scrum Master’s (see Scrum Master pattern) job is to teach their team to conduct it effectively within a timebox.

The teams were also unable to independently facilitate other Scrum events. There was also no discussion regarding how to address impediments or internal conflicts. The Scrum Master was required to participate in everything. 

A Scrum Master has two options: to get involved and solve the issue/problem themselves, or coach their team, making it more self-managed and autonomous (see Autonomous Team pattern). 

The teams and the management regarded the Scrum Masters’ roles as being exclusively to serve their team. The mental model that we came across in many of our interviews was that “Scrum Master is a team level role.” If we visualize the story in the form of a diagram, then we obtain a “Shifting the Burden” system archetype, which explains the dependence on the Scrum Masters. As a result, we get two balancing loops and one reinforcing loop. 

  • B1 (quick fix): the less ability for the team to handle their own challenges the more the Scrum Master’s services are required, the more often the Scrum Master tends to get directly involved, and the problem temporarily goes away.
  • B2 (fundamental solution): the less ability for the team to handle their own challenges the more the Scrum Master’s services are required, the more often he or she makes decisions in favor of coaching the team. In time, the team becomes more independent and shows high levels of self-organization and independence. Thus, it increases the ability of the team to handle challenges themselves.
  • R1 (dependence on the Scrum Master): the more frequently the Scrum Master chooses to get directly involved, the more the team will come to depend upon him or her, and the less likely it is that the Scrum Master will be able to apply fundamental solution B2.

Organizational impediments uphold new challenges

Since the Scrum Masters have been entirely absorbed by the “operational stuff” on the team level, they have not been devoting time to organization coaching. But organizational dysfunctions were still present. They were the reason for many of the team’s challenges, with which the Scrum Masters subsequently had to deal locally. 

Examples of dysfunction might be multiple dependencies between teams due to narrow product definition, coordination between teams, insufficient Product Owner authority, handoffs, and so on. Needless to say, organizational dysfunctions were decreasing the ability of the team to handle challenges themselves. By visualizing this on a system diagram, we obtain reinforcing loop R2:

  • R2: the less ability of the team the more the Scrum Master’s services are required, and the more direct involvement occurs on the part of the Scrum Master, the less time he or she devotes to the organization and to the elimination of organizational dysfunction, which in itself decreases the ability of the team.

An organization’s dependence on external consultants

The organization’s management was employing the Go See approach. Organizational dysfunctions were on their radar. But since, in the management’s mental model, the Scrum Masters were not suited to working with organizational impediments, for many years the company had engaged external consultants to work with top managers and organization. The consultants did not work in tandem with the Scrum Masters and did not develop them (see Scrum (Master) Coach pattern). Thus, in time, dependence upon external consulting arose. Let’s indicate this on our system diagram with the three loops, B3, B4, and R3, which depict the second archetype, “Shifting the Burden”:

  • B3 (quick fix): the more organizational impediments there are, the more the company needs to engage external expertise without mentoring Scrum Masters, which temporarily clears up the issue.
  • B4 (fundamental solution): the more effort to develop Scrum Masters, in time, the more they are capable of coaching the organization themselves.
  • R3 (dependence): the organization is dependent upon external consultants, and a mental model is formed, in which Scrum Masters are not capable of removing organizational impediments.

Combining two archetypes we get the resulting system diagram:

Three steps for change

The investigation we conducted and the resulting system diagram would have been impossible without the three steps for change, which we practice during organizational coaching. It seems that there is nothing simpler than conducting an honest and independent audit and subsequently presenting the results. In practice, however, it is very likely that there will be resistance, since it is difficult for people to accept reality and take responsibility. Evolution has taught us to avoid conflict and social confrontation.

The first step: interviews with the individuals and Go See. 

We had dozens of conversations with Scrum Masters, team members, and top managers. We were present at various Scrum Events (Sprint Planning, Daily Scrums, etc.) We painstakingly noted down any repeating patterns (anything that happens more than three times) in behavior and looked for the system structures that were supporting them. In other words, we delved deeply into the context.

The second step: teaching system thinking and the basic archetypes. 

We conducted several Systems Thinking workshops for everyone we had interviewed. Why was that important? The issue is that we do not recommend you compiling a system diagram yourself and imposing it on people. There is a big difference between the insights that people obtain as a result of creating model themselves and by the one-way transmission of information by an external consultant.

The third step: creating a system diagram and solutions.

After the staff had been taught the basics of Systems Thinking, we gathered them in one room to create a system diagram. We also brought in and presented the most important variables.

The world of large organizations is made ever more complex by politics. Occasionally, the most important question that came into the minds of those in the room was: “whose fault is it?” We therefore created a safe environment, by getting the message across that in social systems there is no blame. 

If you are part of the system, then you are also part of the problem. In a system, everyone is right, but only partially.

By working in small groups, we came up with several versions of the diagram, each of which shed light on the real picture in a different way. The final result of the workshop was the final system diagram that is presented above. Those who took part in the workshop agreed that it depicted precisely their organization. “That’s us,” said one, with a sigh. When people create a picture of reality together, and then a common solution, then they are significantly more inclined to support it. 

Here are the systemic solutions that came out of the workshop:

  • The Scrum Masters are starting to coach their teams in conducting events, resolving conflicts, problem-solving, and facilitation. This is no simple matter, when you consider the teams’ reluctance to do so because of the established mental models. It is important to do this gradually, giving teams the opportunity to make mistakes, but not subjecting them to excessive stress.
  • Scrum Masters are beginning to work in tandem with external consultants in order to learn to work at the organization level and with top management.
  • The company’s management is communicating to the whole organization the message that the role of a Scrum Master is not limited to the teams only.

Key points

  • A Scrum Masters always have two options: to get involved and solve the issue/problem themselves, or coach the teams, making them more self-managed;
  • It is a myth that Scrum Master only works at a team level;
  • One of the essential services of a Scrum Master is a service to organization;
  • Systems Thinking is an important approach for creating a picture of current reality, by means of engaging individuals with different viewpoints;
  • Bring the whole system into a room;
  • Establish an atmosphere of trust;
  • Create a system diagram together and come with a systemic improvement experiment.
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