Delivering a self-management culture

Aug 01, 2018
Coaching entire organisations could bring the popular concept of self-directedness to life.

There’s a bit of a shift going on in how some organisations want to work. We’re hearing the term ‘self-directed teams’ being bandied about frequently now. We’ve even heard about the existence of self-directed organisations. ‘Self-directedness’ has become a bit of a buzzword in leadership seminars and at organisational development CPD events. Guru-type books such as Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations tend not to use the phrase, but they’re talking about it all the time.

According to IGI Global, “key characteristics of self-directedness include motivation, self-responsibility, ability to self-assess, ability to transfer knowledge/skills, and comfort with autonomy”. Meanwhile, over at Wikipedia, they’re calling it “a personality trait of self-determination, that is, the ability to regulate and adapt behaviour to the demands of a situation in order to achieve personally chosen goals and values”. You can see the potential for a dark side but, fundamentally, it feels like a positive thing. Organisations evolving in a people-affirming direction; people owning situations and taking responsibility for outcomes.

Its main proponents seem unified in their belief that the most effective way to bring about self-directedness is through coaching. Not just any old coaching, however, but organisational coaching – coaching the whole organisation.

Positive deviance

So at a recent coaching and mentoring research conference, we duly trotted along to the workshop on organisational coaching in an attempt to get with the programme, eyeball the cutting edge, ride the next wave, move out ahead of the curve and generally find out more about this growing idea – this organisational coaching-inspired voyage towards self-directedness.

And we have to report that the workshop was really good. Kaj Hellbom of Helsinki’s Centre for Positive Leadership certainly knows his stuff. The journey towards self-directedness in an organisation begins, says Kaj, with a root and branch search for positive deviance within the workforce. “There is always a positive deviance,” he tells us. “Always.”

Richard Pascale-Jerry and Monique Sternin, in their book The Power of Positive Deviance, are a bit more forthcoming. “In every community, there are certain individuals whose uncommon practices and behaviours enable them to find better solutions to problems than their neighbours who have access to the same resources and environment.” Thus, rather than focusing on fixing failures by instituting more control from the outside, positive deviance focuses on success achieved from inside. It leverages the good stuff – the unique; the unexpected brilliance that can be discovered going on in the organisation every day. There is always a positive deviance. 

Internal consultants

Kaj’s next point builds on this. It’s a fundamental milestone on the road towards creating self-directedness to realise that every organisation already has all the resources it needs to achieve – well, anything really. “All the consultants you need are already working for you,” he suggests, before adding slyly, “If you can find them.”

And that is the point at which organisational coaching can make a major impact. First, by working with individuals, duos, teams and large departmental or service groupings to help them unearth the positive deviance in specific individuals and groups. By creating a non-judgmental and encouraging space to facilitate the surfacing of the organisation’s stories; to gauge internal reaction to those stories and interrogate the uncommon practices and behaviours that “enable these individuals to find better solutions to problems than their neighbours who have access to the same resources and environment”; to help colleagues discover a pathway towards having confidence in the thinking of those who have hitherto perhaps been seen as living out their work-life somewhere on the ‘maverick-genius’ scale; and to help them join up the dots between these “better solutions” and hard-numbered organisational results. And then by working some more with those individuals, duos, teams, and larger groups to help them shift their own thinking. To follow the positive deviance for themselves and scale up the thinking in a way that moves an organisation from okay to exceptional.

So that was the gist of the workshop – now it’s about doing it ourselves at home. 

Begin in the boardroom

What might it look like to coach an entire organisation? Where should one start? How long would it take? What would it cost? Who should represent the stakeholders? How should the learnings be collated and curated in a meaningful and helpful manner? Who would own the project? How might they obtain enough organisational buy-in? These are big questions.

Finding the answers begins, it seems, in the boardroom. “The development of organisational coaching has been slowed down,” writes Michael Moral, “by the existence of several compliance-based methodologies like, for instance, business process re-engineering and performance management.” Moral argues that these consultant-heavy, top-down approaches give only token attention to “inclusive action-learning approaches, which position organisational players at all levels and locations with shared responsibilities for change”. And this, he tells us, is where organisational coaching is starting to have an impact.

Good organisational coaches, he argues, bring a deep understanding of systems theory and corporate structures married with an ability to coach individuals, duos, teams and large groups in four key areas:

  • Behaviours: which can have real impact on the organisational decision system;
  • Emotions: which deeply affect, and to some degree drive, organisational culture;
  • Situation: which is, of course, the area of applying systems thinking to organisational structures; and
  • Cognition: increasingly important as technology becomes a bigger and bigger part of organisational life and thinking.
It is, argues Moral, “necessary to traverse all four subsystems to facilitate sustainable change”.

And these are the areas on which systemic coaches have been focusing in a deep way for the last five to 10 years. Writers like Peter Hawkins, Simon Western and David Clutterbuck have pioneered thinking in these areas, but many others are taking up the baton. Research is proliferating and coaching practice is beginning to impact whole organisations.

Standing in the way at times like these is what is known as ‘immunity to change’, described by Robert Kagen and Lisa Lajey as being “a strongly held belief that not only keeps us in our groove, but also fights any change that threatens the status quo”. This is facilitated in organisations, according to Michael Moral, by the lack of a process or ending that permits organisational members to let go of the past.

And in the times of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) in which we now live and work, the past can be a very attractive place to inhabit. And here, says Moral, “executive (organisational) coaches who are savvy use resistance as information and energy to accelerate transformation. Coaches expect resistance and know how to use it”. Or as Kaj would put it, “You will meet people who will not move, but this is an everyday coaching issue”.

And perhaps it is by dealing with these “everyday coaching issues” on a wider systemic whole-organisation basis that coaching will eventually fulfil its full potential as a positive force for organisational change and development; development that, in this sense, is clearly connected to organisational results and the empowerment of organisational people to produce results in a manner that demonstrated the ability to regulate and adapt behaviour to the demands of a situation.

Ian Mitchell and Sîan Lumsden are co-founders of Eighty20 Focus, a real-time executive coaching organisation.