Creating real change in organisations is difficult, even when an influential team has agreed to adopt a new approach or committed to a new vision. John Hill, faculty member on the Systemic Team Coaching Diploma and a consultant coach for the Academy of Executive Coaching, explores a powerful metaphor for bringing about sustainable change.
‘Give me a lever long enough and a firm place on which to stand and I will move the earth.’ Archimedes
Archimedes of Syracuse, who lived in the 3rd century BC, was a mathematician, inventor and astronomer. Not much is known about his life, but he is regarded as one of the leading scientists in classical antiquity. One of the things he is known for is proving the working of levers, which have the ability to move something seemingly immovable by having the advantage of distance, and a fulcrum upon which to pivot the lever.
Many of us find ourselves in that position with our organisations, groups and teams, as we try to create a shift in a set of behaviours that seem set in stone and impossible to move.
A good example is the well-intentioned off-site team, where we all get together with a desire to implement change, shake things up, motivate the team, commit to a new vision, or adopt a fresh approach. Commitments are made, there is earnest head nodding all round, maybe a few high fives, and we all leave determined that ‘things are going to be different around here from now on’.
Back from the heady atmosphere of the off-site team, we return to work, with its well-established patterns, where we experience interruptions from colleagues, clients and emails. Slowly but surely, the dominant system begins to reassert itself. We may have decided to change, but they – all the other connections, influences and stakeholders – don't know yet, and maybe the change we want to implement doesn't suit them.
Changing human behaviour is hard won.
We develop ways of thinking, behaving, reacting and responding, in day to day routines that evolve into a kind of homeostasis – that state of steady internal conditions maintained by living things at which we feel comfortable and which we revert back to so readily. That is one of the reasons why it requires such application, dedication and effort to change the way we do things, and why it remains such a challenge to figure out how to do so effectively. This also extends to our interpersonal interactions and relationships, in what Ralph D Stacey refers to as our ‘schema of being with’.
The effect of coming back off an experience that is supposed to create a shift but has not done so means that the investment of time and money is wasted, and the feeling of let-down and disappointment is palpable. It almost has a doubling down effect, so that things seem even worse than before, and often the person responsible gets blamed for not having achieved what he or she was tasked to achieve.
Many people will recognise this pattern and will cast their minds back to previous pieces of commissioned work, and ask the question, ‘What real difference did they make?’
So what needs to happen?
In the words of Archimedes quoted at the beginning of this piece: ‘Give me a lever long enough’. Let’s think about this metaphor. The long lever requires a perspective and action applied from a distance that many of us are not able to take. We mostly continue to view our situation from within, from our own personal perspective, and within our team or group.
What we need is insight into the whole system and, if possible, change. Or at least, a shift that has the whole system in mind. Getting out of our prevailing system and taking a view of it from the outside is a powerful experience. In the words of Peter Hawkins, the author of many books about systemic team coaching: ‘Systemic understanding happens “future back” and “outside in” – systemic change begins now forward and inside out.’
The firm place to stand is from outside our own perspective. The action has to take place with the system in mind. Everyone has to be involved: the external stakeholders to the team, whether they be the senior management who commission the work, the customer the work is supposed to benefit, and the families who support us at work. The sense of commission and connection we have with our external stakeholder is vital.
Archimedes recognised the need for a firm place to stand. So a compelling purpose that is in service of something outside the team and that unites the group provides a platform that everyone can stand on. As team coaches and OD practitioners, we need to understand where the centres of influence and power lie within organisations. Mee Yan Cheung Judge writes in her book Organisation Development (co-written with Linda Holbeche):
’In a pluralistic organisation, there is such a complex web of knowledge that no one person will be able to achieve all the key results they are responsible for through sheer talent and hard work alone. In that context, everyone is mutually dependent to achieve their key results – staff, partners, sideways colleagues. Therefore, social exchange of resources, support, knowledge and expertise are all part and parcel of the pluralistic organisation. Once you understand that, you will accept that not participating in power play is not an option if you are to be effective in the delivery of your work.’
Perhaps the fulcrum is being able to recognise the key power dynamics that need to be engaged in for meaningful and sustainable change to happen.
John Hill is a faculty member on the Systemic Team Coaching Diploma and a consultant coach for the Academy of Executive Coaching. He is fascinated by human behaviour, what makes us the way we are and what can make us different and better versions of ourselves, not only individually, but collectively and in our organisations. Enthused about getting people to think, reflect and engage with their behaviour patterns and culture, his aim is that of delivering real value for all their stakeholders. His belief is that coaching and team coaching is one of the best contexts in which this can happen to great effect.
Photo: Chris Hayashi on Unsplash