Home Concepts Best Practices Coaching in Organizations: A Status Report (Past, Present and Future)

Coaching in Organizations: A Status Report (Past, Present and Future)

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Margaret Wheatley has written widely about the implications of this finding for contemporary leaders. Certainly, there are also many implications to be drawn for a professional coach like Rachel in her work with a leader such as Sam. How does she help Sam to lead through strategies other than those that rely on hierarchy—suggesting once again that contemporary leadership is effective not as a vehicle for control but rather as a vehicle for influence. The central question thus becomes: how should someone coach in and lead in a system that will be successful to the extent that it is self-organizing rather than being hierarchical.

Coming out of not only the analysis of complex computer-generated systems but also the observation of natural biological system, we also find the capacity of systems to self-replicate. We admire the graphic beauty of fractals and can observe how an individual pine needle replicates the structure of the pine bough and even the entire pine tree. In the area of organizational theory we find growing appreciation for a concept first presented by the Tavistock Institute: subsystem mirroring. Widely dismissed or ignored for many years by most organizational theorists, this “wacky” proposition suggests that all parts of a system replicate some central, fundamental dynamic that was established at the moment this system was founded or that is critical to the ongoing essential operations of the system. Thus, some dynamic that was established when William Hewlett and David Packard began their work in a Palo Alto California garage is still operating in every unit of the Hewlett-Packard family of corporations.

Sub-system mirroring and fractals operate in many organizational setting. The nature of the exchange that occurs between a bank teller and a customer is replicated at all levels of the bank, and the treatment plan offered every day to schizophrenic teenagers is replicated at all levels and in every subsystem of the agency that offers these mental health services. Each of these organizations operates like a set of fractals and resembles a pine tree with regard to the replication of specific, fundamental structures at all levels of the organization. These organizations are amenable, in turn, to nonhierarchical structures and to leadership strategies that emphasize influence rather than control precisely because there is this replication and duplication in the system—the organization is simultaneously very complex and unpredictable, and elegantly simple and redundant. As Sam Miller and Scott Page suggest in Complex Adaptive Systems, we are assessing systems that are not just complicated (many parts in the system)—they are systems that are complex (all parts of the system are interrelated).

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