I took part in a fascinating workshop this week on systemic coaching and constellations led by Sarah Rozenthuler and Edward Rowland. Part-way through, I went for a quick comfort break and smiled when I saw this sign on the wall: ‘Please refrain from spitting chewing gum in the urinals. It blocks the system.’ What a great metaphor! A simple action in one part of a system can have inadvertent and far-reaching impacts on other parts of the system – or even on the system as a whole.
This reminded me of an incident 3 years ago when I snapped my left knee in a cycling accident. It was a serious injury that left me immobilised for 3 months. As I started learning to walk again, I felt sharp pains and heard crunching sounds in my right knee. Feeling surprised and alarmed by this, I spoke with a physiotherapist who explained that I was, in effect, overcompensating for the injury in my left knee by avoiding putting weight on it – and thereby placing extra strain on my other knee.
Here’s the point. The solution to the symptoms I was experiencing in the right knee lay not in the right knee per se but in how I dealt with the left knee. Imagine now that the issue is not a knee but is an issue at work. As leaders, OD or coaches, how often do we locate an issue or a problem in a person or team, thereby attempting to address or solve it there without paying attention to factors elsewhere in the system, often out of sight, that could be creating, exacerbating or sustaining it?
Edwin Nevis, a Gestalt organisational consultant, comments that we often see and feel aspects of the macro system reflected and revealed in the micro – and vice versa too. A simple inquiry can be illuminating here, e.g. ‘Who else?’ or ‘What else?’ It draws us to step back, to be curious, to shift our focus, to consider who or what may be influencing what and how. So: what do you look for, what are you (not) noticing, what are you experiencing and how do you make sense of it?
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.