Why Systems Coaching Skills are Essential for Leading Change

April 21, 2022


ICAgile Team

Achieving organizational agility requires significant mindset and cultural shifts that are fundamentally a process of human change. Understanding organizations as human systems and working with them as such is essential for today’s agile coaches and leaders.

What is a System?

A system is a collection of parts that function together to achieve a common purpose. This collective function and purpose cannot be achieved with isolated parts of a system - it can only be achieved through the system as a whole. There are infinite examples of systems in the world, combining both the animate and inanimate. Systems often have nested systems within them and operate as part of larger systems. For example, a car has many systems within it such as the engine, the electrical system, and the braking system which all must work cohesively for the car to function. Cars interact with each other and with other systems as part of a larger traffic system. Organizations include large human systems composed of smaller human systems such as departments and teams. Organizations also exist within larger systems of society, economic systems, etc.

What is Systems Coaching?

Systems have unique characteristics that are distinct from those of the components or individuals within them. In the space of systems coaching, the system is the coaching client, allowing us to work with the whole system as opposed to focusing on the individual components. Coaches can begin to understand the systems’ unique aspects and goals and work with them in a way that serves its overall purpose as well as the larger purpose of the systems in which it takes part.

Systems Coaching is a profound area of study and practice with many contexts and schools of thought. Within the realm of leading change, we see it as an essential part of the skillset for Agile Team Coaching, Enterprise Agile Coaching, and Agile Leadership, not as a distinct role. Coaches and leaders involved in supporting agile teams and agile transformations need to be able to shift between and among a number of stances (e.g. mentoring, facilitation, training, professional coaching, leadership, consulting) depending on the context. Having a baseline understanding and toolkit for working with human systems is critical for helping teams and organizations achieve high performance.

When it comes to organizational change, especially as it relates to increasing organizational agility, human systems are at the heart of the change effort.

Systems Coaching is Paramount for Organizational Transformation

When it comes to organizational change, especially as it relates to increasing organizational agility, human systems are at the heart of the change effort. This is amplified by the fact that agility at scale is achieved through people, not processes. In addition, genuine transformational change cannot happen in organizations without human change. Therefore, it is paramount that change agents who are supporting organizational transformations can coach a system and hold an overall systems perspective. Oftentimes, people within an organizational system do not have a common understanding of the systems in which they interact. Coaching human systems in the space of transformation commonly starts with applying tools and techniques to generate collective awareness and shared understanding of the system, its characteristics, patterns, unique goals, and pain points. Trained systems coaches often discuss the need to “reveal” or “expose the system to itself.” Developing systems awareness also allows for the identification and/or establishment of important feedback loops to help the system evolve in its chosen direction. This is a prerequisite to unlocking a system’s true potential and evoking transformational change.

Taking a systemic approach in today’s uncertain world is as important or more important for leaders than it is for coaches. Leaders at all levels of an organization need both to understand the importance of system coaching in organizational transformation and to increase their own systems awareness and thinking. One of the first rules of change is don’t try to change it if you don’t understand it. Leaders must continually develop an awareness of their own impact on organizational systems and how their mental models and behaviors might unintentionally undermine the organizational culture they seek to create.

“To be successful, organizational transformations must start in the mind of the leader, since a business can never outperform the effectiveness of its senior leaders,” notes Michele Madore, co-creator of the Integral Agile Transformation Framework. Systems thinking approaches and tools greatly enhance a leader’s ability to see the big picture and create an inspiring vision for change. Without this ability, an organization will fall short of achieving its full potential.

More about Systems Coaching in an Agile Context

A common stumbling block for agile coaches working in different levels of the enterprise is striving for continuous improvement in a specific area without an understanding of the system as a whole. Often, this results in sub optimizations or gains in one area with disproportionately larger losses in other areas. For example, without looking across the whole value stream, increasing velocity in one team by limiting work in progress may have no positive impact on overall collaboration and value realization; instead, it may create new shift bottlenecks further up or downstream.

When team coaches and enterprise coaches put systems coaching techniques into action effectively, they increase shared understanding, collaboration, speed of decision-making, and sustainability of change initiatives. As John Nicol, an agile coach trained in the ORSC model of Systems Coaching states about organizational change, “I'm looking at the organization holistically, not at one particular department or business unit or product line. How are we going to design what we want to move and change and shape so that it goes across the entire organization? It's the human connection that's going to make this large investment in change stick.”

Organizational clients of Adventures with Agile, a provider and trainer of enterprise and agile coaching, noted the following after experiencing a systemic approach to transformation, "The problems and solutions we uncovered have been holding us back for years and we never even knew they were there." They added, "We were never able to discuss the 'elephants in the room' before, but now we have the techniques and vocabulary to do so safely and with excitement.”

Build Your Skills in Systems Coaching

In the world of business agility and agile transformation, systems thinking and systems coaching approaches and techniques enable organizations to continuously improve and thrive in uncertainty. If you are a leader and/or agile coach guiding an organization through a transformational journey, take an ICAgile-accredited Systems Coaching course to improve your ability to work with complex systems.

Elevate Your Learning

Join our community of agile learners and get the latest news and resources delivered straight to your inbox.

* indicates required
Leading Change

About the author

ICAgile Team