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The Art of Organizational Coaching: In Search of Patterns and Variations

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Third, we look for rogue events. These are big things that occur in the organization and often serve as the base for the powerful narratives that are to be found in all organizations. These are the narratives about heroic actions, foolish events, a moment of courage or honesty, the critical and unanticipated decision made at the crossroads in the life of the organization, the success of an underdog (person or department) in the organization.  An event is rogue if it totally unexpected and often if it is preceded by a set of very predictable events. Taleb uses the term Black Swan when describing those remarkable and powerful events that have caught our world by surprise. We all know that swans are white—but what happens when a black swan is discovered. Similarly, how could we have predicted the Arab Spring, the election of an African-American as president, or the rapid expansion in the global use and influence of the Internet. As Taleb has noted, rouge events are not only unanticipated, they are also often governed by power laws (exponential increases) that move quickly from small to large. Within organizations, small variations in the major pattern of the organization can lead to major changes in certain, unanticipated ways. These are the rogue events and the emergence of a whole flock of Black Swans.

These small- and large-impact variations will generate a host of important questions and often elusive answers. The fundamental question is: why the variation? What causes it and what do we do about it? Do we ignore the variation or seek to eliminate it in the future? Do we instead appreciate and even praise the variation as a sign that our organization is creative and ripe for innovation? As Taleb has noted, the rogue event is often preceded by periods of great stability (strongly entrenched patterns). This is what makes the rogue event so surprising and is often the reason why this event has such a powerful impact. Does this mean that we look for variations and rogue events at the very point when the pattern in most firmly established and reinforced? As a coach how do we help our client best appreciate the variations—as they might appreciate a sonata-form symphony—and how do we help our client prepare for the variations if they have grown accustom to (and content with) the pattern?

Investigation of Patterns and Variations: Source

The questions I have posed regarding both patterns and variations lead us directly into the second phase in the investigation of personal and organizational patterns and variations. As coaches we help our client identify the sources and motivations producing, sustaining, and driving the pattern. Talcott Parsons wrote many years ago about the latent patterns maintenance in any system. What maintains the patterns that are latent (deeply embedded and often implicit) in the life of our client or in her organization? Why was this particular pattern established initially and why does it continue to operate? What gives it energy as it is sustained in the life of the client or organization? These are the source, maintenance and energy questions associated with pattern investigation. Several hypotheses can be identified that often prove to be valid when a coach and client are exploring the source of a pattern.

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