Coaching and Effective Organisational Change

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On Google there are well over 6000 quotes about change. Mostly these are truisms which most of us would agree with or relate to. We’re all human, we’re alive and change is essential to life. The whole cycle of change - creation, life, growth and decline - is embedded in the natural world. It is inescapable. None of us can avoid it – neither the challenges that life brings nor the opportunities it offers – though many try to avoid the former and seem unaware of the latter! Effective and successful people embrace challenge and seek out opportunities, regardless of the circumstances. This has real relevance to effective organisational change today. Organisations are living organisms too, though as recently as just 30 or 40 years ago, organisations were regarded as machines, a mechanistic viewpoint that still persists. The mechanistic view is that of an organisation as a complicated machine with many moving parts, including its people, somehow isolated from the system in which it is embedded. If you fiddle sufficiently with the machine, replace worn-out parts and give it a paint-job, then it will work more efficiently.

Over recent years, systems thinking has changed all that. Everything is connected to everything else and it is connectivity which is the new currency of effective change. Successful organisations are those which connect effectively and continuously to the systems that flow through and around them. Organisations are complex adaptive systems and thrive through connections which feed information up, down and across the organisation. This might sound theoretical but most organisational change models are now based on VUCA* thinking. In organisations connectivity is achieved through conversations of all kinds. It is the quality of these conversations that shape an organisation’s connectivity and therefore its capacity to change effectively and adapt rapidly to new circumstances. The measure of this process is organisational performance.

What does this imply for effective organisational change? It means being far more alert to changes in the operational landscape, being more agile, more market and customer responsive, and more performance driven than ever before. It means organisations that ride change effectively are those that learn fast and reflect this learning in focussed conversations that are performance led. This engenders an organisational culture where people are working smarter rather than harder. The corporate strategist and academic Pete Senge says a learning organisation is one ‘where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together’.

Let’s assume then that effective organisational change is accomplished through awareness of the operational landscape, systemic connectivity, rapid transfer of information, and the application of learning to emerging circumstances. This reflects current thinking about organisational effectiveness. What changes would an organisation need to make in order to create a powerful performance culture where all this would happen? It would involve the organisation taking a radical shift to minimise old ‘mechanistic’ behaviours and to encourage ‘systemic’ behaviours, for example:

From: Towards

Risk averse - Experimental

Hierarchy - Relational

Rules - Flexibility

Silos and rigid structure - Matrix and loose structure

Opacity and control - Transparency and facilitation

Chains of command - Personal responsibility

Organisational authority - Individual authority

Status quo - Innovation

Higher level of decision making - Lowest possible level of decision making

Feedback as criticism - Feedback as learning and development

Anxiety/fear of failure - Inner freedom to act/enjoyment

The ‘From’ column implies many aspects of a management role which have a constraining and mechanistic influence on the organisational system. The ‘Towards’ column implies many aspects of a coaching role and which have a far more flexible and systemic influence on the system. So, it is logical to say an organisation that adopts a coaching and learning culture will have much more success in riding change than one which doesn’t, and this competitive advantage may be essential to survival. Remember the old joke about two campers surprised by a hungry grizzly bear? One camper starts putting on his running shoes, and the other yells “What are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear!” The first replies “I don’t have to outrun the bear—I just have to outrun you.” An organisational coaching culture with performance at its heart is the best pair of running shoes any organisation is likely to find.

Coaching is the art of facilitating the learning, performance and development of others (Myles Downey). Given why an organisational learning culture is vital to organisational survival in a VUCA world, and what is required to help establish one as described in the ‘from/towards’ list above, the intent of coaching describes how such a culture can be nurtured. Coaching is a systemic and strategic approach to moving organisational culture towards learning, responsibility and high performance. It is a conversational approach that engenders trust, mutual co-operation and appreciation, clarity of thought and higher levels of discretionary effort. It allows for high levels of connectivity. The authority to think and act upon one’s own insights towards specific goals allows higher levels of personal ownership and responsibility, and therefore better results. Ultimately this is far more satisfying for the individual and for the teams in which they work.

The non-directive nature of coaching not only gives individuals and teams permission to think for themselves, it forces them to do so. This can open extraordinary horizons of possibility for the individual who can find themselves far more capable and innovative than they ever thought possible. Compare this with the common directive style of day-to day conversations in most organisations, which usually result in a re-cycling of old knowledge (which gets older by the day), historic patterns, silo working, control and maintaining the status quo, whilst brilliant employees put their extraordinary talents on hold. It is certainly true that the upcoming generation of employees will not be content with such mind-numbing and motivationally restrictive management practices.

Creating a high performance, adaptable culture that engages the discretionary effort of all employees is the holy grail of organisational change. It takes time and effort and has been compared to driving a car whilst changing a wheel at the same time. It’s not necessarily easy but it is fairly simple - coaching is the key to success – and organisations which don’t grasp this challenge will soon find that the road ahead has many grizzly bears waiting for them in the slow lane.

*Volatility is about the speed and varied nature of change, Uncertainty is about unpredictability and surprise, Complexity refers to the wide range of inter-related and sometimes invisible forces that surround an organisation and Ambiguity is about mixed meaning, potential for misinterpretation and confusion in changing circumstances.