Systemic Consulting

Breaking up routines and reorganizing to try new things.

 

Intention

Intervene's consulting practice initiates and accompanies long-term, sustainable learning and renewal processes in order to make organizations viable, more successful and efficient. Often this means taking a long look at routines and behaviours in order to assess whether they continue to contribute to the organization's success. A process of 'disorganizing' releases potential for new action. A process of 'reorganizing' introduces new efficiencies that are aligned with the new reality.

Intervene's consultants serve as second-order observers and identify the structures and logic of the system in order to systematically intervene.  The relationship is not of patient and doctor. Diagnosis is not the core aim of the relationship. Implementation is the objective from the outset.

Approach

Organizations do not work like machines. Organizations act more or less in an autonomous way and are therefore not easily influenced by direct action (nor are they completely transparent). Organizations are constantly changing and creating new structures to address complexity and create order in the form of a shared history, collective successes, and coordinated perceptions and expectations. Interventions act as provocations to these evolving routines. Only the client organization can decide how to respond and whether the stimulation/irritation informs its processes or not.

The work doesn’t target specific organizational factors or dimensions. Hard and soft factors are not separate or divisible. Vision, strategy, structure, and culture interact. The focus of the work is where the greatest potential energy is evidenced. Activities that 'disorganize' existing routines reveal potential energy in often unexpected areas and in contradiction to existing assumptions.

In systemic consulting, consultants apply a particular approach to helping the client. The approach relies on a “systemic attitude” to and a “systemic view” of the situation and thereby allows a “systemic understanding” of individuals, groups, teams, organizations, and their processes. These terms are described in brief here:

Systemic Attitude: A Systemic Attitude allows for multiple perspectives on an issue and is comfortable with contradiction, paradox, and complexity.

Systemic View: A Systemic View creates awareness for the adaptations made by systems to reduce complexity and the real complexity and dynamics that may create incongruence between the system and its environment. Organizations exist in the tension between durability and transience.

Systemic Understanding: Systemic Understanding is a worldview that understands organizations as multi-dimensional social systems that have their own inner life, but can only exist by being a subsystem of larger systems or communicating with other systems and building relationships.

Process

The basic model consists of several steps, which are continuously repeated. First, we collect information, then we form hypotheses which inform the planning and implementation of interventions. The results of the interventions are examined to kick off the next loop of understanding, analysis and action.

We organize the work on three levels: architecture, designs and tools. All three levels are present in any consulting relationship. The architecture forms the overall frame for the consultation process and can be compared to the overall structure of a house. Design can be understood as the layout of the individual rooms. The tools, or the operational intervention level, correspond to the fixtures, furniture and equipment that then occupy the individual rooms.

Architecture

Sample Documentation

Architecture

The architecture of a consulting process describes the social, contextual and temporal spaces - which are created over a period of time - in which interactions take place, and which serve the purpose of the organizational development process.

If consulting is a response to uncertainty about what to do next, then the architecture is a response to that uncertainty. Similarly, a house is a response to a need for shelter, but the range of architectures available are enormous and the needs of the inhabitants are similarly diverse. The architecture must therefore be both contextually and culturally appropriate for the client organization.

In rough terms, the architecture describes who must talk with whom and when.

An architecture is necessary because otherwise communication would take place in the regular channels. Regular channels are unlikely to generate the interventions necessary for the organization to renew itself. The main evidence for this is that they haven’t done so to this point.  Routines and previous, well-established communication architecture perpetuate the communication and communicative connectivity that lead to yesterday's problem solving (and problems).

Design

In the systemic consulting process, the design object is the social interaction.

Design includes the composition, configuration, iteration and organizing of a processual step in the consultation, representing a single architectural element (for example a workshop, process, session, or agenda). A professional design process is characterized by a detailed, elaborated process, based on nuanced reflection, feedback procedures and previous hypotheses creation. The prepared design stimulates organizational interaction. However, before collectives can change their patterns of meaning and perceive previously unknown relationships, the group needs to establish trust and create alignment in the group member’s relationships.

Design focuses attention on the experience of the participants in the process and the dynamic behaviour of the system being constructed. Positive interactions with other participants and learning objects (such as generated hypotheses) encourage better outcomes. Design is not about manipulation but rather about designing spaces and experiences that are more likely to inspire the application of perspectives and heuristics required to address the adaptive challenges of the system (organization).

Analytical Document

Contains hypotheses to inform feedback and action

Tools

The toolkit for systemic intervention is necessarily complex. Systemic consulting is centered on social learning and action. Breaking up routines and implementing new actions and approaches is a collective process. For people to be able to deconstruct and construct social meanings in interactive processes, multiple elements must be included that address not only the subject matter at hand, but also the group process, the individual learning process, and the collective learning process.

Tools include various modes of communication and interaction, questioning strategies, forms of Methodological Approach, Action Research Approaches, observation, hypothesis formation, containment, data collection, feedback workshops, Analytical Documents, system mapping and specialist knowledge.

Regardless of the tool, systemic organizational consulting points to a fundamental attitude of curiosity, appreciation, esteem and multi-partiality as necessary prerequisites for good consulting work.

Role of the Consultant

The consultant does not simply take a snapshot of the organization and a problem-situation, but rather creates, together with the organizational members (interviewees, but also other data collection methods) the ongoing process of the organization, which becomes the object of further consideration in the design and structuring of the project.

The reflexive, discursive clarification of the system should then lead to assumptions as to how to solve the problem of the client system.

Hypotheses are guiding principles that create either a connection between past and present (memory, experience, mission statement) or between now and later (expectations, hopes, intentions and plans). Systemic hypotheses describe relationship dynamics, interactions, and processes, refer to contexts, are resource- and solution-oriented, and are often unconventional. These hypotheses try to capture the hidden meaning of problems. They have an explanatory power.

In our approach, we are trying to initiate feedback processes at those pressure points at which new patterns can be woven and the loop can begin again

In December of 2013 eight members of the Woodruff Sweitzer leadership team – a mix of ad agency creatives, account people and owners - attended a facilitated session at the Banff Centre. We arrived with a goal to gain clarity around issues related to growing our agency. We left laser-focused, empowered and inspired. Our facilitator helped us identify - and agree on! - exactly what we wanted to achieve and why. Then, through a systematic process, we uncovered the challenges we would face; learned new and creative ways to meet them; and crafted a detailed road map for smart, strategic and achievable growth. A follow up session at our agency for our entire team was very helpful as well.

The results? The experience was transformative for our company – helping to set us on a path that has seen us make major strategic strides that are already paying off in terms of a reinvigorated agency culture, better work and new clients.
— Susan Groeneveld, Director of Strategic Planning – Woodruff Sweitzer