Making systems visible – what’s the pattern that connects?

By April 30, 2020September 14th, 2020Article

The dominant logic in our organisations today is individual and interpersonal, not systemic. We are wired to see individual behaviour, not patterns. Seeing patterns of relatedness is a new way of making sense of and understanding behaviour in organisations. In a systemic paradigm, ‘behaviour is always of the ‘system’ as well as of the individual’. By system I don’t mean the technical systems and processes of our organisations, which is the most widely accepted meaning currently, but rather the complex web and patterns of interrelating between the members or parts of the organisation system and the roles that they play.

Once we hold this new set of assumptions and we learn to ‘see’ these systems, we can create very different outcomes and results both for people, as well as for our organisations’ culture and ability to perform and thrive as whole entities. As we move out of our linear, hierarchical organisational forms and create more matrixed, networked, agile ways of working, our need to learn this new way of thinking is becoming more critical.

So how might this work? I explore one example here…


Joe was a high performing CFO working for the Australian division of a successful global multinational company – he was technically very competent as well as being a great leader. He had come up through the ranks of the company over years of dedicated service, and he was extremely well respected by his team and peers. He was flagged as high potential talent. So much so that when his manager, the CEO of the Australian business and Director of the APAC Region, was stretched to the limit doing both roles, he decided to appoint a COO to help him run the Australian SBU and Joe was the obvious candidate.

The HR machine swung into gear and the new organisation structure was designed. The COO job was created and all of the Australian executives who used to report to the CEO, would now report to the COO. A few of the Australian executive team, in functional roles, would also continue to report to the CEO, but in his APAC Director role, to provide regional support; so they would have two managers, and work with each of them depending on which context they were serving – just like in any matrix organisation. It was anticipated that some of the decision making between the CEO and the COO may be tricky, so decision rights were documented to provide clarity on which decisions would be made by whom – largely the CEO would make the strategic decisions and the COO the operational ones.

This new structure would be a good solution to ‘fix’ the overstretched CEO ‘challenge’, and help better manage the Australian business, which was underperforming and under pressure. It was an exciting step up for Joe too, the next edge in his career and recognition well deserved. Joe was appointed, and the communications rolled out.

When our solutions to our problems become our problems

Quickly, ’noise’ started to surface in the organisation. The high-potential COO was struggling to lead the Executive Team. Murmurings were emerging everywhere. What was wrong with Joe? Was he the wrong appointment? Had they misjudged his capability? Was he not up to the ‘bigger’ job? He was even starting to doubt himself a little. Joe needed a coach! Someone to ‘support’ him, to help him be a better leader…

As Joe started working with his coach, they got up on the ‘balcony’ to observe and ‘map’ the system he was in, to understand what was going on. From this perspective, a ‘whole’ new picture started to emerge. The ‘problem’ didn’t reside with Joe alone, even though that was everyone’s meaning making. The problem was in the complex messy ambiguous system that had been created with the restructure. Of course, it had not been designed intentionally to set up the COO and system for failure, just the opposite. However, what was missed was the complexity and systemic reset required between all the roles in the executive team. Only one JOB had been added and formally changed, but all the roles of the executive and how they related to the COO and CEO, had to be reframed and repatterned to enable the new structure to work. A new systemic contract and ‘rules of engagement’ had to be agreed and lived by the whole team. This was not just a simple ‘technical’ fix.


So, what did Joe and his coach observe from the ‘balcony’?

  1. The COO was technically no longer a peer to the rest of the Australian executive team, he was now their manager, but he was struggling to step out of the peer role, as were his new direct reports, who in the main were choosing to remain his peer as well; their pattern of relating remained the same even though officially the reporting line had changed
  2. Some of the executive the COO was now managing, were actually still his ‘peers’ reporting to the Regional Director on regional issues, so they were both his peers (in the region) AND direct reports (in Australia) which made it trickier, as they didn’t always know from which role they were engaging with each other
  3. The CEO was co-creating this pattern as he wasn’t entirely ready or prepared to stop being the manager; he continued to engage with the whole executive from the old role when he chose to. Behind the scenes, when Australian executives didn’t get the decision they wanted, or got one they disagreed with from the COO, they would triangulate the decision with the CEO, and often get it overturned
  4. The CEO at times would attend the Australian executive meetings, but there were no ‘rules’ about when he would attend and in what role, so these became really messy, with both the CEO and COO leading the meeting and tripping over each other when the CEO was there, and of course you-know-who looked ‘bad’
  5. Whilst the demarcation of decision rights had been documented between the CEO and COO, as strategic versus operational, the CEO would at times in Australian executive meetings, ‘publicly’ challenge and sometimes change operational decisions the COO had made, because these were strategic decisions in his mind…or if he had a different opinion.

And so, the ‘system’ artfully said yes AND no at the same time.

Reporting lines had changed, the restructure had happened, but in the main, the ‘system’ remained the same, the executive still ‘reported’ to the CEO. Everyone was complicit in maintaining the old system of relating between the roles. The CEO and most of the executive team were as much part of the problem as the COO. Explicitly they had all ‘agreed’ to ‘one set of rules of engagement’, but implicitly they had all ‘contracted’ to another.

Unless they all stepped into a different role, in relation to the COO and ‘allowed’ him to manage, the system would be stuck here in this ‘Noise’, and the COO would probably become a ‘casualty’. They were caught between these two ‘contexts’ one explicit and one implicit. The problem seemed personal and individual, with Joe, but really the system was the problem and had to be repatterned. In this newly created context Joe couldn’t shine, or do his job, no matter how competent he was.


Once this became visible to Joe, and he was wearing this new ‘pair of systemic glasses’, he sat back in his chair and grinned from ear to ear! This was a mess! But he wasn’t deficient or ‘unable‘ to step up. Now the system was ‘object’ to him, he was no longer captive to it…He understood he was part of the problem, but he could see the role he was playing which was complicit in creating this situation. It wasn’t going to be easy, but he knew exactly what he needed to do…He needed to step into his leadership role, stop being a peer to his new team, and establish new ‘rules of engagement’ with the CEO for navigating the messy and ambiguous context they were both in. The role of his coach was now also clear to him too, she would help him change his role and how the system worked – not ‘fix’ him. She would now help him learn how to do this too. The trickiest part would be establishing the new ‘boundaries’ with the CEO and getting him to stop doing the role he was supposed to have given up.

Whilst this had been a very difficult time for him, it had also become his greatest ‘gift’. He had started to learn how to ‘see a system’, and to understand behaviour from a systemic rather than an individual or interpersonal lens. He was very excited about this, as it would allow him to manage these kinds of complex tricky problems going forward. He knew these weren’t going away, now he had this new ‘pair of glasses’, he saw that these were everywhere in the organisation where there was conflict and underperformance. He knew too that these ‘tricky’ systemic challenges were only increasing in the complex digital organisations emerging in the new economy. This new ‘pair of glasses’ was going to be most useful to him!

In this case, the individual coaching initiative for the COO led him and his executive team to apply this lens and methodology to the wider business performance challenge they faced, which resulted in the business moving into organic growth for the first time in almost two decades.

But that’s a story for another time…