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Coaching Multi-team, Large-group Workshops

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The below is an exclusive extract from Systemic Coaching and Constellations by John Whittington. 

Multi-team, large-group workshops

This case study comes from the UK and is a fascinating study of a large workshop intervention facilitated by Maggie Rose, an experienced coach and team facilitator who trained in systemic coaching and constellations with us to Practitioner level.

Talk Talk

Workshop facilitator: Maggie Rose, coach and consultant, Southampton, UK

Client: TalkTalk Telecom Group plc, one of the UK’s leading broadband, landline, TV and mobile providers

Context

The Technology Division of the TalkTalk business has been seen as something of a fortress, based in the north of England. The commercial operation and leadership of the consumer business is in London. Personnel at the different offices speak of two different cultures when describing each other.

We agreed an initial joint team off-site in the autumn. This was not about forming one team; it was about creating a highly productive partnership focused on results.

The whole notion of systems was a gift in engaging the Technology Leadership team. Systems are their world. Positioning at the outset that we would be thinking of ourselves collectively as a ‘system’ in service of the customer seemed very logical to them. Also the notion of respecting the separate parts before bringing them closer together seemed very natural to that team.

At the very outset of the day beyond initial introductions by the two leaders, I split the attendees into their two respective teams, inviting them to stand in a circle of their own, self-organizing by ‘who came first’ in the organization and within each team. I had talked through this activity with both of the leaders prior to the event, so they understood that they might find themselves in different places in the system hierarchy from the organizational hierarchy.

Questions I offered included: How does it feel to be the elder/younger? What are you noticing about your place in the system? How does that feel? Is anyone missing? What else needs to be represented here, if anything? The Tech team expressed that they felt small, to which I responded: ‘OK, so adjust that as you need to.’ In response to which they then enlarged the physical space their circle was occupying. Spaces were also made for two new recruits that were yet to join.

There was also some feeling of absence from someone who had left the team. ‘So what do you need to say to honour them?’ With only a little guidance they willingly expressed this by saying: ‘Thank you for the part you played in creating this future. You and your contribution will always be remembered.’

The experience of standing in their two different systems provoked a lot of conversation about how people felt given their place. The wisdom and experience in the team was noticed and honoured. The Technology team also set up a spatial representation for the B2B business given their Group responsibility. I chose not to explicitly mark that space as I felt it would have been a distraction to the job in hand. The acknowledgement of the space seemed enough.

So next I took a piece of flip-chart paper representing the customers in the middle of the room between the two teams and asked everyone to organize themselves in relation to that. Everyone slowly organized themselves individually in relation to the customer calibrating distance and orientation in relation to where the customer was positioned and facing. The teams were very intermixed and some individuals positioned themselves very close to one another in acknowl­edgement of current ways of working. Equally some placed themselves at a distance from colleagues.

I then simply asked everybody in the room to share how it felt given where they found themselves in relation to the customer. A whole range of feelings were expressed, which fascinated all members of the group. After they shared what they wanted to, I asked them what would make it better, and to make those adjustments by finding a ‘better place’ for themselves in the space, in relationship to each other and the flip-chart paper floor-marker representing the customer. In doing so I facilitated a natural process of acknowledgement of others and exchange of requests that gradually resolved discomfort and created a new pattern, a new constellation. This felt resourceful and useful to them, collaboratively aligning with and in service of the customer.

An hour later it had taken a very different shape with the team placing a representative for ‘business results’ in the constellation. This was initially placed quite separately from ‘the customer’, as was a representation for ‘the competition’.

At the point of resolution, the place for business results and the customer had integrated and everyone’s individual place in the system had shifted adjusting either distance and/or orientation towards the customer and each other.

The two teams then started to focus collaboratively on what they really needed to do at a practical level to take action. A particular initiative was identified that would transform the customer experience, resolving fundamental underlying issues. This single initiative, which emerged towards the end of the constellation, has subsequently informed a key programme of work in the business.

There were also clear indications in talking with the team that there needed to be some further work done to share understanding of work-in-progress to avoid misunderstandings; also to commit to more specific ways of working and holding themselves to account. These two areas of focus became my agenda in working with them in the months that followed.

If you were observing the discussion after the constellation exercise, you might describe it as being a typical cognitive discussion of the kind you’d see in working relationships in an organization. What was dramatically different, however, was the ease with which those conversations were able to happen. There was a much deeper feeling of mutual respect in the room. It was very different from the defended, cautious relationship dynamics and style of communication beforehand. The openness and shared intent of the two leaders was also an important part of this.

Benefits

Three months after the event I checked in with the team to understand how they were feeling as a result of my work with them. Here’s what they had to say:

  • Cross-functional working continuing beyond the offsite.
  • Where there’s a big issue there has been good collaboration.
  • High level of collaboration and goal alignment.
  • It feels more like one team than it ever did before.
  • No blame, no retribution, going between the two teams.
  • It’s in the consciousness of the teams now.
  • Loads of day-to-day alignment.
  • It broke down a number of barriers and some nuggets came out.
  • Communication is a lot better.
  • Their agenda is our agenda.
  • Collaboration has really stepped up.
  • Much more customer-centric.
  • Alignment on strategic goal.
  • Lots of willing behaviours.
  • Our shared commitment to transform the customer experience remains at the heart of the business.

My learning:

  • Simply inviting the client to physically stand in an unspoken pattern provokes a fabulous capacity in the team to surface the unconscious and immediately start acknowledging, exchanging and adjusting with almost no intervention beyond the invitation.

  • The lightest of touches can be the most useful for the system.

  • The acceptance of working with dynamics within a system landed really easily with technical people. They already have a great appreciation of how systems work.

  • Acknowledging separateness as opposed to difference feels really respectful and ultimately embracing of those differences rather than them being a block or a point needing resolution.

  • Placing representation of the customer in the room focused them on what they are in service of together at the highest level. This catalysed them to negotiate and re-pattern themselves in relation to that common purpose in a way that naturally released tension from the system.

  • I find that the cut through and acceleration of results with systemic coaching is creative and exciting.

This case study elegantly captures just how easily senior professionals and technical managers understand this embodied approach without much explanation or demonstration. The idea of standing in your truth is, after all, very simple and we can all make sense of it.

Because all systemic exercises and constellations begin with this simple idea – standing in the ‘what is’ – they are experienced as deeply respectful. This creates, along with your facilitation, a very safe place in which to surface and express unconscious or unspoken patterns or inertia.

This in turn frees the system and the people within it, allowing each and all to occupy their role authority and for respectful generative communications to flow.

However you develop and express this approach and methodology in a workshop setting, it’s always going to be important to do so on a strong foundation of training and experience. Keeping the group safe and working within the limits of the core issue and your knowledge of systems are naturally key. As well as being prepared for surprises.