Beyond Systemic Thinking in Coaching and Team Coaching

Ram Ramanathan  •  Aug 26, 2020  •  15 min read

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Beyond Systemic Thinking in Coaching and Team Coaching

Prof. David Clutterbuck will be conducting a mastery webinar on ‘The Holistic Coach’ soon. In this article, David explores the team and systemic aspects of coaching, in which the coach is central relating to the individuals in a team, the team as a whole, and the system the team belongs to, and the system of systems in which the system, all as nested elements interconnected and interdependent.

Once upon a time, coaching was quite simple. The client came with a problem; the coach helped them to step back and look at the issue from different perspectives; the client used their new understanding to craft a solution. All within a single coaching session. QED. The implicit assumption was that the client had within themselves all the resources they needed to bring about the desired change.

Then we gradually realised that the issues clients brought were often messy, tangled with other issues and not resolvable in the room. Neat and tidy processes such as GROW only worked when the client knew what they wanted and when the issue was relatively simple. The coach-client relationship became a closed system, in which the client’s goals changed as a result of the coaching. (Kauffmann and Coutu, 2009) The implicit assumption here was that the resources necessary for change existed in the coach-client relationship.

Systemic coaching emerged as a response to the realisation that the majority of issues brought to the coaching dialogue involved other players. For example, an executive’s ability to achieve behavioural change is dependent not just on their own efforts, but on the support they receive from their boss, their team and often their peers. The assumption now (no longer implicit but explicit) is that the capacity for change exists in the system. The role of the coach is to help define the system and enable the dialogues between the client and other parts of the system. These other parts of the system are typically described as stakeholders, but this term is inadequate because it defines only those, who are influenced by the client, rather than those who are able to influence the client. (Although they may often be one and the same.) I prefer to call them “partners in the system” – we are all in this system together and have equal responsibility for how it functions.

One of the drivers behind the systemic perspective in coaching was the increasing focus on teams, rather than on individuals. As a manager, you can only succeed through your team (whereas they may succeed through you or in spite of you!). Systemic team coaching (Hawkins, date) attempts to see the team as a system connected with a variety of stakeholders, who it serves and who influence its ability to perform.

But is this enough? Various authors in recent years (Cavanagh and Lane, 2012) have pointed out that the problems of a VUCA world can only be solved by complex, adaptive systems thinking. Among the implications for coaching is that problems and effective solutions to them lie in the system of systems. Understanding the role a client or team plays within these multiple systems allows us to respond with higher flexibility, seeking less to control than to ride with evolving change.

We can define these progressively complex perspectives in terms of decreasing attention to controlling and increasing attention to identifying the connections that increased our potential to influence.

Linear approaches aim to solve an issue in a narrow context. Characteristics of linear thinking include:

  • Fixing the problem, rather than understanding the context
  • Maintaining control, rather than enabling and empowering
  • Finding discreet solutions, rather than interconnected solutions
  • Predicted or predictable outcomes, rather than emergent and evolving outcomes
  • Static processes and procedures, rather than evolving process
  • Hierarchical communication, rather than unbounded communication
  • Seeking certainty, rather than living with uncertainty.

Simple (closed) systems work with a small number of feedback loops. They map the relationship between key components in a bounded system and seek to modify these to create optimum outcomes.

Systemic approaches work with the client’s or team’s connections with different stakeholders. In particular, they address the question “What do our stakeholders require of us?”. In theory, they should also address “What do we expect of our stakeholders?”, but this reciprocity is not always present. When we look at what many coaches and team coaches, who describe themselves as working systemically, actually do, they primarily address a series of simple systems perspectives with multiple stakeholders. A great value of systemic team coaching is that it brings into the picture a much wider range of stakeholders than a team would normally consider. Indeed, identifying the hitherto ignored stakeholder is a key contribution of systemic team coaching.

Complex, adaptive systems work with the interconnectedness between systems and between elements of systems. Let’s take a couple of examples:

Example 1: A healthcare team

A team of community mental health nurses is experiencing its own stress-related problems. Shortage of staff, budget constraints and what the team sees as arbitrary rules that limit the time they can spend with patients in their homes create frustration that compounds the problems. Engaging with patients simply produced a list of “wants” that were rejected out of hand by the budget holder (an administrator in the local hospital). Other key stakeholders include the doctors, who refer patients to the team; the executive team of the hospital; the town council; and the families of the patients.

A linear approach would be to produce a more strongly argued case for increased funding or to place limits on the number of new patients they can take on. A simple systems solution would be to go over the administrator’s head, to the executive. A systemic approach might be to talk with each of the stakeholders and ask what their expectations of the team are and what they can do to support the team in delivering these. A complex, adaptive systems approach steps back and look at how the various stakeholder groups interact with and influence each other. In this context, the team plays a pivotal role as the conduit between the patients and the bureaucracy. An even more productive way forward was to enable the patients to be heard by other stakeholders and the key influencers directly. Establishing an “expert patient” group of patients and carers enabled the whole system to experience first-hand what was happening and what was needed. There were multiple systems in play here, but things changed when the nursing team recognised that it was in a unique position to influence the system of systems.

Example 2: A project team

The Diversity Effectiveness Team was set up in haste to tackle the company’s lack of progress in achieving ethnic and gender targets, in the wake of a high-profile discrimination case brought by an employee, which had stimulated a flurry of further cases. The 12 members of the team were nominated by executive committee members, without much explanation of why they were chosen. The four most senior members of the team, including the team leader, were all educated white managers – three males and one female. The team was given the task of creating a diversity strategy. From the outset, it was evident that people had different ideas about the team’s purpose. The team leader interpreted it as “make the problem go away”. Some junior members of the team saw it as “the victims being asked to provide the solution”. After 12 months, the only outputs were a diversity training initiative and a sponsorship programme for potential C-suite women. Neither delivered the results intended. Part of the problem here is that it was a linear approach to a complex, adaptive systems issue. They had chosen two discrete elements of a system and changed them without recognising that the rest of the system would very quickly work to bring things back to where they were before.  A simple systems approach might have been to create a reciprocal mentoring programme, where junior black and minority ethnic staff would engage in a one-to-one learning dialogue with executives, to begin to change the culture at the top. A systemic approach might have viewed the Diversity Effectiveness Team as the company in microcosm. If they could together create an environment and culture of genuine openness and equality, where diversity in all its forms was valued as the team’s core strength, then the team would become a role model for the rest of the organization. A complex, adaptive systems approach would build on this role modelling to identify the levers that would make other parts of the organization eager to emulate this team.

Example 3: A two-person team

One of the most challenging team situations I have ever had to work with was a team consisting of a deaf senior academic and his sign language assistant, on whom he was highly dependent. (It took some getting used to speaking to her but looking at him!) The issue related to the tensions between them, as his frustration at being unintentionally marginalised by colleagues in meetings boiled over. A linear solution here would have been to focus on the relationship between them and how they could be more mindful of each other’s emotions. A simple systems solution might have been for the assistant to be empowered to interrupt conversations on his behalf, reminding colleagues of his needs. A systemic approach would have concentrated on educating the academic’s peers and contracting with them on how to support him and his assistant more fully. And all of these were relevant parts of the coaching conversation. A complex, adaptive systems approach, however, took the conversation to a much deeper level. What was it about the culture and the ways of working in the department (and the institution more widely) that was driving colleagues to forget how to include him? Among the systems identified was an increased requirement to publish papers that influenced people to concentrate on their own projects and discouraged teamwork. The pain is felt in one part of the university system was one symptom of a wider malaise, in which lack of teamwork undermined the performance of the organization as a whole. Tinkering with one team and its relationships might have had some benefits but changing the whole system’s priorities around teamwork had the potential not only to solve this problem but to improve performance of the system as a whole.

Using PERILL to engage with the entire system

In each of these situations, the complexities of these systems can be more clearly understood – and the impact of coaching greatly increased – using the PERILL model (Clutterbuck, 2019). PERILL stands for:

  • Purpose and Motivation – what contribution is this team here to make and how that energises team members
  • External systems and processes – stakeholders and other partners in achieving the greater purpose
  • Relations – the degree of psychological safety, trust and comradeship
  • Internal systems and process – how we get the work done, communicate, make decisions and so on
  • Learning – how the team evolves with its environment
  • Leadership – how the team leader and the team members take responsibility and make things happen

In the first of the examples above, the healthcare team were aligned about their collective purpose and its importance. They were demotivated, however, by their sense of failure to deliver the purpose. This related both to lack of resources and some inefficient processes, the result of having insufficient time for quality improvement and out-of-date equipment. The team placed the blame for these problems on the key influencers, who in turn blamed the team for missing targets. Complaints from patients (the key stakeholders), gathered by the team and sent up the chain, were seen to be ignored – so patients also blamed the team! All of these issues were compounded by lack of time to invest in reviewing practice and keeping up to date. The role of the team leader had degenerated to being mainly about damage control and protecting the team from interference from above.  The team members were grateful for this (they hadn’t the time to spare to provide any leadership themselves) but expected the leader to argue their case more strongly. Within the wider system, the administrator and her team did not see community care as a top priority – although the impact on the overall hospital budget of treating people in their homes rather than admitting them to the hospital was immense.

Looking at the system of systems showed that:

  • None of the issues identified could be resolved within any of the individual groups
  • Every issue or PERILL element was interconnected with at least two others – and could only be resolved effectively by considering them together, as a sub-system of the whole
  • Throwing money at the problem would have had relatively little positive effect without addressing these multiple interacting systems.

Similar lessons can be extracted from the other two cases. In the project team, a lack of shared mission doomed it to mediocrity from the start. Higher levels of engagement from the top team could have provided a clearer sense of purpose – for example, by engaging in dialogue with the team and listening to the diverse perspectives that the team members brought. What allowed the team to achieve limited successes was the team leader’s determination to build a strong and supportive social climate. The provision of an ample budget also allowed individual team members to create their own sub-projects, which motivated them. Two of the team members had extensive backgrounds in project management, so the team was relatively efficient in doing what it did accomplish, but the team failed to capitalize on its diversity in terms of creativity. Some learning took place from exploring each other’s different ways of thinking, but this was never captured in a way that would have allowed it to be disseminated to the rest of the organization. Subgroups took ownership of the projects that went ahead, showing collective leadership.

This example is typical of many PERILL analyses. The team had both strengths and weaknesses, but the weaknesses undermined the strengths and strengths were not being used to overcome the weaknesses. Like the healthcare team, this team never realized the pivotal role it had in the system. Although it had been given the role of solving the diversity problem, it could have achieved that most effectively by being the conduit, by which people from diverse backgrounds were able to influence the top team – and through the top team, the organization and the covert systems that fuelled bias and discrimination.

In the two-person team, the assumptions of both people about the purpose of the relationship were too narrow. It was about far more than being a translator. They needed to become a real team, supporting not just each other, but the environment around them to allow the academic to perform at his best. The immediate remedy lay in addressing the wider system of academic, assistant and the academics’ peers. If everyone accepted that purpose, then relationships would flourish around a shared acceptance of the need to care and be considerate. This would undoubtedly require learning on all sides. One possibility was for the assistant to teach colleagues to use sign language.

A touching outcome of the coaching assignment was recognition by both of them that – in spite of the pay grade and formal hierarchy – they were co-leaders with different, complementary roles.

Which perspective should team coaches adopt?

As the three cases illustrate, all four approaches can have positive effects. Even linear approaches can have a role to play as minor elements in a larger complex, adaptive systems approach. The key is to identify the level of complexity we are working with. However, the metaphorical “spectacles” we wear tend to influence what we find. If we are only looking for, say, simple systems, that is what we are most likely to find. I recommend approaching a team or a team leader with curiosity about how far I will have to go on this ladder of systems complexity. Start with your linear system lenses. When you think you have understood the issue(s) through those lenses, switch to your simple systems lenses and gradually keep changing lenses until you (and the client) are seeing the system of systems. A pragmatic rule of thumb is Whenever you think you have understood the systems in play, assume that you have understood nothing!


Cavanagh, M. and Lane, D., 2012. Coaching psychology coming of age: The challenges we face in the messy world of complexity. International Coaching Psychology Review7(1), pp.75-90.

Clutterbuck, D (2019) Towards a pragmatic model of team function and dysfunction. in the Practitioner’s Handbook of Team Coaching, Eds Clutterbuck, D, Gannon, J, Hayes, S, Iordanou I, Lowe K, and McKie, D pp150-160

Kauffman, C & Coutu D (2009) The Realities of Executive Coaching Harvard Business Review Research Report, Cambridge MA

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Ram Ramanathan


Ram is the Founder and a Principal at Coacharya. As the resident Master and mentor coach, Ram oversees and conducts all aspects of coaching and training services offered under the Coacharya banner.


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