Research Paper: Complex Dynamic Systems Coaching Theory

Bianca Prodescu_Research_Paper_Research Paper By Bianca Prodescu
(Systems Coach, NETHERLANDS)

Systems coaching is becoming a popular trend, due to the need of pursuing long-lasting changes in the behavior that do not negatively impact other parts of the client’s life. The aim is to look beyond quick solutions that only target symptoms and scarce attempts to change aimed to the edge of the comfort zone which is immediately absorbed.

In systems coaching, the approach is moving from seeing the coaching relationship as a one-to-one cause-effect solution exploration, towards understanding the client’s relationships system: the team, the department, the family, etc. with the intent of creating awareness and visibility of the impact the environment has on the client.

There is still the risk of a simplistic view approach: that the individual is seen as an independent agent within a system that can be fully defined and contained. Thus giving the client the impression that they can engineer any desired change.

This paper aims to present the reader with an understanding of the systems theory and how complex is the nature of human behavior, followed by a specific example to illustrate how it can be applied to coaching individuals.

Complex adaptive systems

A complex system consists of multiple active different parts known as elements, distributed out without centralized control, connected. At some critical level of connectivity, the system stops being just a set of elements and becomes a network of connections. As the information flows through the network, the parts influence each other and they start to function together as an entity. A global pattern of organization emerges.

The interactions between the elements are non-trivial or non-linear. For example, if all the parts in a car are arranged in a specific way, then we will have the global functionality of a vehicle. A system’s behavior is caused by its structure, not its individual parts.

For example, a colony of ants – each ant on its own has a very simple, observable behavior, while the colony can work together to accomplish very complex tasks without any central control. They can organize themselves to produce outputs that are significantly greater than any individual can produce alone.

As a system at a new level is being developed, it starts to interact with other systems in its environment. People form part of social groups that form part of broader society which in turn forms part of humanity. A business is part of a local economy, which is part of a national economy, which in turn is part of the global economy.

These elements are nested inside of subsystems which in turn can form larger systems, where each subsystem is interconnected and interdependent with the others. This is a primary source of complexity.

Complex systems emerge to serve specific purposes, and the journey towards achieving that drives their behavior. The systems adapt based on whether they are reaching their goals, which makes them dynamic.

In complex dynamic systems, causality goes both ways: the environment can affect their behavior and the system’s behavior change can affect the environment. Due to these feedback loops, the system may decay or grow at an exponential rate.

There is no formal definition of what a complex system is, but it can be described by properties:

  1. Made out of elements that are considered simple relative to the whole;
  2. Interdependence and non-linearity;
  3. Connectivity: the nature and structure of these connections define the system as opposed to the individual properties of its elements. “What is connected to what?” and “How are things connected?” become the main questions. As the number of connections between elements can grow exponentially, complexity grows.
  4. Autonomy and self-organization: no top-down, central control, the system can organize itself in a decentralized way. As the system accepts information from the environment, it uses the information to make decisions about what actions to take. The components don’t gain the information or make the decisions individually; the whole system is responsible for this type of information processing. Self-organizing systems rely on the short feedback loops to generate enough states that can be tested to find out the appropriate response to a perturbation. A downside of this is that these feedback loops reduce diversity, and all elements of the system can become susceptible to the same perturbation results in a large shock that can lead to the destruction of the system. Therefore variation and diversity are requisite to the health of the system. [Kaisler and Madey, 2009].
  5. Adaptiveness: how the system changes in its patterns in space and time to either maintain or improve its function depending on the goal.
  6. Emergent behavior: coordination in such systems is formed out of the local interactions that give rise to the overall organization. This general process is called emergence.

Behavior cannot be derived from the individual components but the collective outcome of the system. Emergent behaviors have to be observed and understood at the system level rather than at the individual level.  Within a complex system, we do not search for global rules that govern the whole system, but instead how local rules give rise to the emergent organization.[Johnson et al., 2011]

You cannot understand a complex system by examining each part and adding it all up. To understand a system you need to understand the goal and the structure underlying it and the interactions with other systems and agents.

Application to coaching

When to apply systems thinking in coaching

  • A significant change is either happening or needs to take place.
  • It’s not a one-off event.
  • Multiple perspectives become apparent when observing the situation.
  • The client has tried addressing it before, without finding a way to keep it from recurring.
  • There is no obvious solution.
  • A previous attempt to address it has created problems elsewhere.
  • The growth experienced by focusing on one area leads to a decline in another area.
  • There is more than one impediment to growth in the desired area.
  • Growth slows down over time.
  • Over time there is a tendency to settle for less than the initial starting position.
  • The same solution is used repeatedly with decreased effectiveness over time.

But human beings are not ants, all acting according to standard rules. They are emotional, erratic, spontaneous, and conscious, capable of observing the pattern of interactions that they are contributing towards.

Therefore, when coaching an individual you cannot classify them as a collection of independent behaviors and actions and approach them as an isolated system in which you can control and predict the behavior.

Stacey and Mowles (2016) suggest that it is better to focus on the process of human interaction and how to develop the approach towards change.

As a coach, it is important to look beyond their behavior to understand the events and how the nature of interpersonal dynamics impacts the client. Help the client recognize and accept that change occurs in situations of ambiguity and high uncertainty.

As seen above, emergence plays an important role in a complex system. Due to this property, knowing the starting state does not allow you to predict the mature form of the system, and knowing the mature form does not allow you to identify the initial state. The only way to figure it out is to go through the whole development process step by step, understand the goal and the structure underlying it, and the interactions with other systems and agents.

In coaching, this translates to supporting the client during the self-awareness process that a goal is not a plan but a hypothesis in progress that can change anytime under the influence of their own actions or the environment they are part of.

An emergent property of organic complex adaptive systems is resilience, the ability to react to perturbations and environmental events by absorbing, adapting to, and recovering from disruptions.

According to Holling’s seminal study, “resilience determines the persistence of relationships within a system and is a measure of the ability of these systems to absorb changes of state variables, driving variables, and parameters, and persist”.

In a coaching context, we define resilience as the ability to emotionally cope with adversity, recover, adapt, or persevere.

If the disturbance is minor, the system can absorb it and recover. To drive substantial change, the system has to receive an impact big enough to disturb the capacity of the system to return to an equilibrium state. That’s why major life events that disturb our daily routines and our values system can give the best opportunity for making long term changes.

The coach should also be aware of the observer effect and understand they are now part of the client’s system and their own behavior, choice of wording, inflection and intonation will have an impact. As well as that the coach themselves is not a free independent agent and may suffer changes in their own behavior as a response to the interaction with the client.

Small changes can produce big results—but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious (Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 2006). Also in the quest of supporting the client to embrace change, the small steps approach has proven to give sustainable results. In the following section, we will explore the impact a small-step approach to change has on the human brain.

Why small steps?

Our behavior is shaped by experiences and the environment around us.

Any small experience can reinforce or challenge our beliefs. Our beliefs determine how we act to get the most motivating result. The outcome of our actions is used as feedback for our brain to categorize the initial experience as a positive or negative one.

Our brains learn early on what works and what doesn’t. While in infancy the brain is malleable, as we become adults our brain creates routines and frameworks aimed at survival. As our habits become embedded in neural pathways, introducing new behaviors becomes challenging.

When change occurs it introduces a deviation from the plan created by learning from the past, and the uncertainty created by it sends our brain into stress.

The default response is to be on guard for potential risks and the main question our brain is now trying to answer is “How do I minimize the threat?”

The bigger the goal – the bigger the change – the bigger the risk – the more our brain opposes the change.

Thus the key to making the brain get used to change and maintain self-awareness is to recognize upfront when a task is too big. Then focus on a smaller initial step and map out the knowledge you want to gather by executing that step.

This works two-fold: it minimizes the impact of the failure and helps identify the value failure can bring.

It doesn’t mean that the changes should happen slowly, but to recognize that continuous and incremental improvement adds up to bigger changes in the future that have a positive impact.

Small steps that reward the effort with learning become perceived as a success. A couple of small successes slowly challenge our beliefs, our values, and slowly our behavior.

Therefore when a big life-changing event happens, having a small steps approach helps with minimizing the perceived risk.

Case study

From senior to the leader

The client had been in his current position for several years, struggling to get recognition for his seniority and advance in a leadership position. The lack of visible recognition not only inhibited him from showing the expected behavior but also triggered other behavior that detracted from his growth.

This case is an example of negative reinforcing loops between the behavior and the environment.

The approach was to first encourage the coachee to seek out different perspectives to further understand the situation, by engaging first in a self-reflective session and then with others in other reflective practices (personal review, 360-degree feedback sessions, and shadowing the coachee to provide an objective view).

Taking a collaborative approach helps the coachee steer away from a single source of truth and have a better understanding of the social tensions in the relationships with others.

The trigger for change was in the end the result of this collaborative exploration, where the input from all respondents converged around the same points. The outcome of the first coaching session was acknowledging the feedback received, understanding their own limits, and how much more they were willing to persist in the current situation. This led to making a time-bound resolution: operate from within a leadership position within 6 months.

From a complex systems point of view it meant that if either one of the reinforcing loops could be tampered with, the change in behavior or the change in environment, the client would benefit. The client considered two extreme solutions that could be fully within their control, but with big side implications: giving up the leadership role or take on the role in a different company. As we have seen in the theoretical analysis, big changes can impair a person from persevering in their set resolution, so they were marked as last resort actions at the end of the 6 months journey.

The intermediate approach was to address both loops at the same time to identify the weakest link. Therefore a high-level mapping aimed at the behavior the client wanted to address, the current social interactions, and their respective outcomes in terms of thoughts, feelings, and reactions would help identify the smallest step to take. The main role of the coach here was to create awareness that human nature is too complex and unpredictable to be able to fully model it and to spend just enough time at this step to provide a first self-awareness moment.

The insights gained at this point were that the main detractors were: hierarchy and lack of clarity in expectations, as seen in the map below.

The coachee drew the insight that the hierarchical nature of a relationship created a barrier that impeded him from proactively approaching those specific people, even when the frustration levels were high. Thinking about what those people should provide for him because of position, how they should behave towards him, how they viewed him, how much their time he was worth etc. made the client feel that if his situation was important, the responsibility to address it was on the other person.

When this insight was put in balance with the goal stated at the beginning, the client decided to switch the responsibility of triggering the process towards him and to share the solution with the key stakeholders in his systems’ network.

To understand how this would be a feasible consistent approach, the main motivators were identified: tangible, observable results in respect to the efforts made, which would then enable external recognition.

The main supporting structures were identified as: people in leadership positions with which a good rapport was already built, taking small actions directed towards clarifying the expectations, and external and recurring accountability for the actions.

The exploration of the supporting structures also gave way to identifying the first opportunity in weakening the detracting loops: clarifying the expectations with leaders that the coachee already had a trusting rapport built, where the perceived hierarchy load was low.

This action had multiple effects:

  • Since the barrier to approach someone was lower, the coachee had the opportunity to address it quickly, which gave fast results;
  • As some of the expectations were clarified, the results had a positive value/effort ratio and increased the coachee’s confidence both in showing the expected behavior and in the approach;
  • The coachee identified the prerequisites of the smallest step they were most likely to complete, and that the most important of them was the kind of rapport they had with the other person.

As they kept exploring the social relationships with other key stakeholders, the need of addressing the change in the environment to support consistent growth became apparent.

In line with the learnings from the previous actions, the coachee took a small step together with a manager that both had a trusting rapport with the client and the authority to trigger a change in the environment.

By formalizing the clarified expectations and having them shared with the other stakeholders in the client’s network a change in the dynamics of the environment took place.

The most impactful one being that now other agents within the system would trigger the process. This lowered the threshold of starting the conversation about clarifying expectations with some people and created more opportunities where he could showcase the desired behavior, offering an increase in self-confidence and the external recognition became noticeable.

By the end of the 6 months journey, the client had managed to successfully challenge both loops and significantly loosen the cause-effect relationship between them. The client identified that similar situations were now visible within the personal environment, which is proof that you cannot treat a case in isolation. Recognizing the impact triggered an exploration of their social identity and helped the client make explicit the attributes of the environment in which they can be at their best.

He summarized the following learnings about his approach to change:

  • How to recognize that change is either happening or needs to happen: when the build-up of frustration is visible to the outside and taking a moment every two weeks to reflect if a frustration showed up several times;
  • How to approach the change: “If I am not doing it, then it means it’s too big” translated to small, bite-sized actions that loosen the pressure from having the right solutions from the beginning;
  • What is the so-called safe environment for exploration and learning: a network of people with a low hierarchical load that can provide valuable, judgment-free feedback and opportunities for exploring solutions;
  • The type of actions that would qualify as low risk but valuable: What’s the worst that could happen? What’s the learning I am aiming to get from this step?

As a coach, at the request of the client, I played, in the beginning, the role of keeping external accountability for the actions. I noticed that my presence during the shadow-coaching sessions reinforced the specific actions discussed during the individual coaching sessions. Here I could observe firsthand the impact I had on the client’s system and brought me the realization that I was creating a dependency relationship.

Overall this experience was in line with the small steps theory for change, where we saw that a small change in an input value to the system can, through feedback loops, trigger a large systemic effect.

When applying complex dynamic systems theory as a coach, you can support your client to acknowledge that they are part of a network system of a multitude of dynamic and continuously evolving relationships. To identify their own patterns for thinking, to identify assumptions and perceptions. To clarify their role as an individual and as part of a bigger context. To support them in getting comfortable with uncertainty by understanding that their role is not to try and direct events, but to participate with intent and purpose in relationships in service of learning how to navigate the power dynamics so they can be at their best.


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