The DNA of Organisations

Edgar Schein, author of the ground-breaking text Organisational Culture and Leadership is fondly known as the grandfather of organisational development. Over the years Schein has begun to think and speak in terms of the DNA of an organisation, or its cultural genome.

Schein argues that we can’t simply transplant notions of how to improve culture from one setting to another. Instead we need to engage deeply with the inherent nature of the organisation. Not only do we need to know the organization’s structure, but also how it works psychologically and relationally. Coaches and consultants need to understand the process of an organisation.

Schein’s view makes absolute sense to process-oriented coaches. Our art is to engage with leaders in the midst of their transformational journey. We know it is fundamental to coaching effectiveness that we find out a leader’s mental models and uncover what is taken for granted within the organization.

Schein asks, “What are the things that, when we try to change cultures, turn out to be huge barriers?”

The Organization’s Growing Edge

As process-oriented coaches and organisational development practitioners we think of this as a great point of potential and growth. We call it the edge. This is a place where many leaders and teams may falter, but process-oriented coaches are like rock climbers highly adept at scaling the edge.

The edge is where our coaches come alive. They are skilled at exploringe edges from every angle; from within the moment when a leader is gripped by fear or from the mindful distance that offers a new perspective and insight. We climb with our clients, helping them gain new insights, as they prepare their organisation to cross into new and uncharted territory.

It is through the exploration of edges and other dynamic phenomena that the unique DNA of an organisation is revealed.

Yet edges are easily missed. Avoiding what is over the edge is so much part of an organization’s culture, people are usually unaware the edge is even there. In their efforts to maintain the status quo, leaders and teams tend to avoid edges, in favour of better known behavior.

A coach’s skill lies in their capacity to recognize and work with edges. We must catch the typical signs, such as sudden changes of topic, deflecting humor, nervous laughter, or just plain drawing a blank.

Despite their well-practiced avoidance strategies, we must hold our clients at this point of growth and enquiry. At the edge there will be resistance, in one of its many forms.

In our forthcoming Coaching with the E1ME2RGE3 Model and GCI Coaching Roadmap programs we will explore these ideas in greater depth. but for now let me ask you …

  • What are the common edges you encounter in working with clients on cultural change initiatives?
  • What have you discovered as unique to different organisations?
  • How do you hold these moments of discovery and potential?

Process-Oriented Coaching

As coaches we are consistently called to debunk the trap of being an expert.  Of course being an expert is seductive; it strokes our egos.

But we are called to put our egos and expertise aside.  We are here to honor our clients’ inherent wisdom, as it’s revealed through their emerging process; a dynamic, changing and shifting event.

We notice what is already trying to happen; the momentum that is present but momentarily thwarted within an organisation.

When we’re caught by our expertise, we lose our capacity to pay attention.  We focus on past successes rather than what is happening under our very noses.

A process-oriented approach to coaching means learning to be at ease when we don’t know what will happen next.  As well as following our client, we pay attention to what is happening within ourselves and within the larger systems we are part of.  We begin to notice things that are new, that may be mysterious and unexpected.

In organisational dynamics terms, we are curious about the unfreezing of systems.  As we observe the fluid processes within organisations, we support stuck or rigid practices to re-enter a state of flow.

Focus on the Emerging Flow

Much has been written about resistance to change within organisations and systems, but we are fascinated by the organic flow already at work.  Sometimes if that flow is suppressed, potential and initiative can break out in forms that look problematic.  Obstructed initiative is reflected in high staff attrition. Poor use of power results in conflict and protest.

Our ability to study these phenomena and understand what is happening in the background is fundamental to realizing organisational and social potential.

Process oriented coaches help leaders and teams to understand these dynamics.  This equips our clients to support those processes already emerging or trying to emerge within their organization.  When leaders are alert to their dynamic environment, transformation becomes possible.

Some questions to ask yourself:

    • What is dynamic and alive at the moment in your organisation?
    • What is dynamic in your own life?
    • How does this affect you?
    • Where is the flow frozen or stuck?
    • What do you notice about the quality of the stuckness?
    • Look closer … What is happening even within apparent stuckness?

Ready to learn more?  Join us in Melbourne, April 6-7.

Taking Coaching to the Streets

Since the Women’s Marches in cities across the USA and around the world I have been heartened and inspired by all the women and men taking to the streets to advocate for their vision of a just and inclusive world.  The images on social media brought me to tears.  The spirit and resilience of those who came out despite rain and freezing conditions gives me hope.  Above all I was reminded of how important it is to reach out in times of adversity.

The latest estimate is that 1 in 100 people in the US joined the marches (http://www.popsugar.com/news/How-Many-People-Attended-Women-March-43032901#photo-43032901).  I feel solidarity with them all.

The incredible organizing, fundraising and networking behind these protests began with one woman inviting her friends to protest.  It has grown to become a stunning global movement.

While I wasn’t able to join the marches here in Australia the photos of friends and strangers boarding planes and taking to the streets, reminded me of times I’ve gone out with other coaches to speak with complete strangers about their hopes for the world.

Coaches as Social Change Agents

The first time I did that was in a Fran Peavey workshop in 1990, when she sent 20 of us coaching students out into the local mall.  Fran instructed us to go up to people we’d never met, who were just going about their business, and ask them coaching questions.  We got their permission, and just started  asking their views on world events.  The first Gulf War had just begun.  There was a lot happening on the world stage to talk about.

Firstly I was blown away by how willing people – total strangers – are to speak about these things.  I suspect people want to talk more than they do, and all they need is for someone to be interested in them.  Two young men I remember in particular began their answers saying, “I don’t know.”  For many, that would be an end to the conversation, but I asked them more questions.

·         What matters to you right now?  

·         What have you noticed about world events?  

·         What is it you don’t know about?  

·         What would you like to know more about?”  

… then back to those critical questions ….

·         ”What do you really care about?”  

·         “How can you help make that a reality, even in a small way?

When I hit on the right way to ask about their world, those young men suddenly lit up, saying “Hey, we do know something!”

Those simple coaching questions had momentarily changed their image of themselves.  Suddenly they had understanding and input to give.  This is a key aspect to a functioning democracy.  If the people on the street feel they don’t understand and no one cares what they think, they are easier to manipulate.  When people realize they are capable and important as citizens, they begin to be empowered.

How about it coaches?  Let’s start developing the role we play in social change.