Posts Tagged ‘Constellations’

With so much written about systems thinking in management and leadership over the last twenty years or so, people may feel that this principle is bordering on the cliché. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is now almost a truism, and certainly the language of systemic thinking has been increasingly and uncontroversially used in discussions of Organisational Development, in certain views on Leadership, and in one guise or another in operations and production management for at least two decades, if not more.

I would argue, though, that this apparent application has been more one of vocabulary than of fundamental principles. What’s more, the appetite for the topic of complexity has frequently been faddish, second-hand and poorly thought-through; a handy bandwagon for those with a book to sell, a seminar to fill or a paper to publish. This is not a rant; it has always been so and probably (sadly) always will be. So let me explain how I think that a systemic view is essential to the nature of Reflection, Personal Development and for management practice, and in doing so argue that this is still a fairly radical, exciting idea.  

Thus, the fourth PD principle, and one which (I trust) follows logically from the first three, is “Practice Awareness of the whole, not the parts.”

Since the 1980s, the predominant interpretation of reflective learning in management has been via an analytic approach, of what many would call ‘the scientific method’ of measuring cause and effect, just redressed in the clothes of humanism. This is not new, nor is it always the useless thing to do. It is, in fact, the defining pattern of thought from Renaissance times to the present day, a process characterised by Russell Ackoff as a three step process of analysis;

1) take it apart,

2) try to understand what the parts do, and

3) assemble understanding of the parts into an understanding of the whole.

In modern business education it is the same – management is broken down into its parts because the assumption is that knowledge of the parts taken separately allows integration into an understanding of the whole.  Analysis permeates corporations, which are divided into parts, which are then aggregated into the running of the whole – an analytical process.  Business Schools also have curricula separated into parts, which vie with one another in silos of analysis, which occasionally leads to academics vigorously defending the grounds for their view, their models and their theories entirely in relation to the views, models and theories of other competing domains. People, too, are units for and of analysis. Their personalities, traits and characteristics can be measured, their roles assessed and their actions studied in isolation to see how they work.

By contrast, in systems thinking every system is contained in and defined by its function in a larger system. Explanations always lie outside the system, never inside it.  Where analysis takes you inside the system, synthetic thinking contrasts the three analytical steps by:

1) asking “what is this a part of?”,

2) then explaining  the behaviour of the containing whole, and finally

3) disaggregating understanding of the containing whole by explaining the role or function of what I’m trying to explain.

We tend to think of ourselves as individuals, more or less free agents operating more or less effectively, making conscious choices alongside others who are (more or less) in a similar situation of individual free-will and choice. In Personal Development, a systemic approach means setting aside, at least temporarily, certain parts of our training, thinking, or education. Where problems just seem to be repeating themselves, or a more piecemeal approach to change doesn’t resolve things, or the issue just isn’t clear, seeing PD from a systemic point of view can very liberating, with surprisingly rapid insights and results.

Elsewhere in this blog I have posted about systemic coaching, and I have come to the conclusion the basic principles underlying this approach work equally well when applied to Personal and Professional systems. This is easy to say and difficult to talk about since the dynamics that work within a system are best understood when experienced (phenomenologically) yourself.  The invisible ordering forces of a system or whole which are listed below (and the descriptors) are taken from John Whittington’s excellent new book on Systemic Coaching & Constellations:

Acknowledgement (this is the first principle of PD in my list, and here refers to “standing in the truth of the current situation”)

Time (“what comes first has a natural precedence over what follows”)

Place (“everyone, and everything, has a right to a different but unique ad respected place in the system”)

Exchange (“a dynamic balance of giving and receiving is required in systems”)

Seeing the order from the outside…?


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Yesterday I attended my second session as part of John Whittington’s Learning Circle, which is an exploration of systemic coaching, using Constellations techniques originally developed by Bert Hellinger . It’s very absorbing, intense and also very interesting to see the unfolding of people’s systemic glitches and “stuckness”. Constellation work is focused around a small number of organising principles, which reveal truths about the way open systems work. Sounds kooky, and probably looks that way from the outside, but let me tell you (as some past postings here have attested) it’s very real and very therapeutic.

What’s even better, it is very practical and I have already started to allow the principles to filter into my workshops. There’s even no need to frame it for participants. We just get on with it, and you can tell from the stillness and concentration in the room that something is working. I find it complements reflective practice, too.

Now we all have a two month space before our next meeting in September, and I shall be looking for further chances to expand my repertoire and gain more experience. I already have an idea on how to change things around for my forthcoming “Building Career” PD workshop. Next stop, having a go with “sentences” (constellators will know what that means).

One reflection from the discussions at the Monday session was trying to articulate differences between “regular” coaching and systemic coaching.  John shared his “list-in-progress”. One which caught my eye was the idea that coaching very often begins and ends with the client’s goals. Somehow goals “fix” things. But do they? Is it that simple? Maybe, yes, sometimes it is, but then if that were so simple why wouldn’t people just work this out for themselves?  The systemic approach creates permission first to “acknowledge” properly things as they actually are. Standing there can reveal a lot, about us, about our goals… and so on. This is a good take-away for me back onto the MBA and another subtle differentiator for the Henley PD module. A tough one for many to feel comfy with at the beginning of their course, but then this is why PD runs all the way through.



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