How systems thinking can improve your team

Take a 'helicopter view' of everyone you interact with, to identify where the real problems are.

by Rebecca Alexander
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2016

We all know there's no 'I' in team. Except, there is. And that 'I' is frequently exasperated, put-upon, stressed out and annoyed by their team members, however wonderful they may be.

In coaching, I often hear about difficult colleagues, annoying bosses, and foot-dragging direct reports. I can't do anything about the people who aren't in the room. But I can and do work with my clients on how to approach their team dynamics differently. And you can too. All you need is yourself.

Before I go through the steps, here is the premise. While we experience our work hassles and triumphs on a very individual basis, we're inevitably part of a much larger system, comprising your immediate colleagues, manager, their managers, your department, other departments, the board, clients, shareholders, rival companies and former colleagues. Before we become attached to our own version of events, we need to consider this wider system in order to effect lasting changes.

Try visualising it. Using coloured pens and a whiteboard or large piece of paper, start by creating a map of yourself and those around you, as if looking down on it from above. Use coloured dots to represent yourself and those in your map, varying the size according to how much importance or influence you feel they have. The map can include anyone that impacts on how you are at work, including friends and family.

When you're finished, stop and think about why you've chosen certain colours and sizes to represent particular people. Have you drawn them facing each other, away from each other, near to or far from you? (One client with a particularly intimidating colleague placed a red spot on top of her own dot to emphasise how overwhelming this person was in her life.) Consider what it tells you about the dynamics within the group at large, and your place within it.

Now take a fresh piece of paper and rearrange your 'map' to create a teamscape that's more to your liking. Move and resize your dots until you've found your ideal fit.

One client had ranked his many customers facing him in a row, taking up all of the paper, while he laboured alone on the other side. Not surprisingly, he introduced a new dot, representing a new member of staff, to redress the imbalance.

The point of this exercise is to give you a fresh perspective on how your team functions, and to offer an insight into your own impact on those dynamics. The helicopter view enables you to see past ground-level issues to the wider forces at play, offering solutions that might not otherwise have been apparent.

You're nearly done. Make a list of concrete action points to enable you to move from the original to the improved version of your maps. Make your action points specific, measurable, and with a clear deadline.

Finally, take photos of your before and after 'maps'.

These will serve as a useful visual reminder of your insights in the months to come.

For an in-depth look at systems thinking, see the work by John Whittington and his colleagues at coachingconstellations.com.

Rebecca Alexander is an executive coach at The Coaching Studio. Please email comments or questions to rebecca@coaching-studio.co.uk or tweet @_coachingstudio


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