27. April 2019
7 min

What does it mean to think systemically in an agile coaching context?

This blog post takes a look at what a systemic perspective means, and helps to understand how to improve your own approach to coaching in agile environments.

In order to answer this question we will take a look at the key perspectives of a systemic approach to coaching.

After reading this blog post you will be more familiar with the four main systemic perspectives that can be taken to engage with an agile team’s social system. The intention is to broaden your radius of action when engaging as coach with an agile team, and thereby build your confidence for your future interventions.

The four perspectives we will now take a closer look at are:

  1. Constructivism
  2. Circularity
  3. Cybernetics first and second order
  4. Autopoesis

Each perspective will be briefly described, and will then be made more tangible, by providing first ideas into how each perspective can be incorporated into your coaching practice.

Systemic perspective 1: Constructivism

Have you already accepted that your sense of reality is different to everyone else‘s?

If so, then you have internalized the first of the perspectives of the systemic view. Having done this makes it a whole lot easier to engage as a coach. Just because someone else views a situation in a different way to you does not make them wrong and you right. You both are right, partially. Helping your coachee to understand that their view of the world is only part of the truth goes a long way to helping individuals in your team take a step back and view a bigger, broader picture.

So how can you engage someone in this way of thinking?

The Agile Coaching Institute’s (ACI) Integral Agile Team View can help us here. Try asking the members of the team you are coaching to view their own situation through different windows. There are different views you can take and we often spend too much time in one of these, namely our own „I window“. The ACI four window model helps remind us to constantly rotate through one of four possible windows at any point in time.

So what are the four windows?

Window one is all about ourselves (I).
What do I see? What do I feel? What to I believe? What would help me?
Window two gives us the opportunity to take a team view (we).
What do we as the team think? What would we as the team do? What is good for us as the team?
Both these windows have a strong people focus. It is either about viewing the situation from our own or the collective team’s perspective.
Window three helps us view the situation from a process perspective (it).
What does the framework or guidelines in our process lead me to do?
Are there things we should avoid or increase when we consider our working process?
Window four then takes the situation even more broadly by looking from a total organizational perspective (its). What does our organization require from us? How would our organization expect us to act? What impact will these actions have on the organization?

So being aware that everyone has their own individual construction of reality is the first step. The next step is to remember that this reality is dependent on the window we are currently looking through. This is a good reminder in certain situations to take a look through different windows, to encompass our own full view of reality. I recommend this exercise especially in situations of conflict or misunderstandings, as well as for decisions with larger impact.

Systemic perspective 2: Circularity

Once we have mastered looking through our own windows we can take this a step further. Closely linked to constructivism comes circularity. We should not only consciously view the world out of the four windows available to us, we also need to regularly look through other people‘s set of windows. We do this by taking a circular perspective, that is imagining ourself in our team colleague’s or our organization’s position.

Ask yourself what would I, as colleague/as leader/as organization, notice and feel about this situation?

What would I, as colleague/as leader/as organization, recommend?”

What is influencing me, as colleague/as leader/as organization to act in the way I am doing?

What would I, as colleague/as leader/as organization, say in answer to the situation I now currently find myself in?
This is a powerful questioning technique that you can employ as coach in order to help people think more broadly and beyond their own constraints. It is particularly effective when trying to activate internal resources within your coachee. Quite often people are more forthcoming with ideas on their own strengths and capabilities when asked what their colleague or their leader would say about them. Bring people out of their own constrained thinking zone by asking them to view their own situation from another person’s perspective. Especially from the perspective of someone who is positively appreciative of them.

Systemic perspective 3: Cybernetic first and second order

Certainly you will have noticed that simply due to your presence in the room your team behaves differently, right?

That is the first order of cybernetics at work. The simple fact that an observer is present is enough to influence any social system. We need to be conscious as coaches that our expectations and wishes for our teams need to be modified dependent on whether we are present or not. Our aim, as Gunther Verheyen talked about in his blog “Scrum Master – A “management” position” is to ultimately be invisibly present. This means the team engages collaboratively whether we are in the room or not. At the beginning this will not always be the case. The team will be constantly looking for guidance on how to proceed. With time this need reduces as the team becomes truly autonomous.

We can help ourselves on this journey by understanding the second order of cybernetics. This is the equivalent of taking a helicopter view of our own situation within the team’s social system. We need to ask ourselves what is happening from this perspective when considering the dynamics of our interactions with the team.

What do we notice from this perspective when we view our own actions and interactions?

This vantage point can help provide useful insights for how we can develop our engagement with the team and it’s social system. Make sure you take this step up and view from the higher vantage point regularly to help yourself understand how you can adapt your interactions and move more effectively towards an invisible presence.

This is exactly where the agile coach can help. This is the equivalent of observing a team including a Scrum Master from your position as an external agile coach. The Scrum Master has the direct connection to the team (cybernetic first order), and you as agile coach are observing the Scrum Master and team (cybernetic second order). By sharing observations as coach in a follow up with the Scrum Master, you can help the Scrum Master from this second order position to become invisibly present in her own first order interactions.

Systemic perspective 4: Autopoesis

From an agile coaching viewpoint this is the perspective that you will be the most familiar with. A social system being autopoietic means it will self-organize in order to maintain and further develop itself. If we are not present to influence a team’s social system, it will guide itself in order to establish an equilibrium. This equilibrium may or may not be the state we desire. It is for us as coaches to recognize that the team’s social system in which we are collaborating will require impulses to keep it on track. How we apply these impulses will strongly influence how the social system responds in it’s own autopoietic development.

Establishing common shared goals across the team’s social system and appropriately adjusting the boundaries in which the team is engaging are key to enhancing a positive self organization. Having the sensitivity as coaches to know when to engage and when to step back will determine how effectively we enable our team’s own self-organization and thereby its success.

Summary

So in summary, the four main perspectives of a systemic approach we have talked about are:

1. Constructivism – remember everyone has their own view of reality, be conscious of this and keep your own view of reality broad. Use the four windows to view your world and that of others in your window frame of reality, and avoid falling into the trap of only viewing the world through your “I window”.

2. Circularity – always take a look from other people’s perspectives, in order to open up your own thinking or tap into hidden potential and internal resources. By changing perspectives we help our understanding of why we react in a certain way or why others take a specific stance in a given situation.

3. Cybernetics first and second order – the observer influences the system, so make sure you observe what the observer is doing. Recognize that your interaction as Scrum Master with the team needs to be an indirect one, and that you can learn a lot about this from a more distant observer or coach taking a broader view.

4. Autopoesis – team systems will self-organize to maintain and develop, and as coaches we need to sensitively guide this autopoesis. We need to help define common shared goals as well as understanding the right level of boundary setting needed at any point in time. Make the boundary too tight and we throttle self organization, too open and we risk running into a free-for-all.

Although this post is not intended as an all encompassing description of systemic coaching, these perspectives provide a good basis for a systemic coaching approach.

How well are you currently incorporating all of these?

What can you adapt in your coaching to take a systemic approach within your team’s entire social system?

In the next post we will take a look at a coaching workshop that utilizes the methodology of constellations. We will look at how this method helps a team cycle through all four systemic thinking perspectives in order to gain insights and develop a path forward. It will do so in a very practical and transparent manner making the theory presented here even more tangible.

Thanks for your time in reading this post, and please let me know about your own systemic agile coaching experiences in the comments section below.

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