The Role of Systems Thinking in Coaching ‘Liquid Teams’

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I was struck by an article, Liquid Teams, written earlier this year by Allard de Jong, which offers different ways we can think about teams. This has become even more relevant since the full impact of the Covid-19 pandemic became apparent. In particular, he proposes the term ‘Liquid Teams’ to describe how the team might change its shape, form and composition rapidly and frequently to meet its needs and those of the organisation. This blog links the concept of Liquid Teams with Systems Thinking, and asks whether looking at systems in different ways can help inform the way coaches work with those sorts of team.

Liquid Teams

In his article, Allard proposes that the way we consider and define teams needs to shift profoundly to meet the rapidly changing needs of organisations and their constituent parts. Liquid Teams are characterised by a:

  • Fluid shape i.e. are members of the team co-located, working remotely, always virtual or a combination of all of these at different times?
  • Fluid membership i.e. having the best people for the job at any given time;
  • Fluid leadership i.e. who’s the best person to lead the team for a particular purpose, or perhaps leadership is distributed amongst the team?

Liquid Teams “have a definite volume, but an indefinite shape….They never stay in a fixed pattern. They constantly improve based on the situations they face.” These concepts seem to be a good way to challenge traditional ways of defining what constitutes a ‘team’ in a way that might resonate with organisations as they consider their post-Covid ways of working. I would also suggest that Liquid Teams have a further quality of being porous: in other words, allowing people, information and data to interact freely between the people in the Liquid Team and those outside it.

What does it mean for our work as team coaches? In particular, it seems to me that we face different challenges in contracting with a Liquid Team and creating psychological safety and trust: how best to co-create the relationship when working with such a team?

One way, perhaps, to start thinking about these challenges is by looking at how Systems Theory can also help re-frame the way we characterise teams and our relationship as coaches with them.

Systems Thinking

Paul Lawrence sets out five different orders of systems in an excellent series about Systems Thinking,

First Order Linear

The coach and leader see organisations as real systems and the relationship between the different component parts is easily discernible. The leader seeks to control events. Change is assumed to be the outcome of simple, linear, ’cause and effect’.

First Order, Non Linear

An organisation is still considered a real system, but the causal relationships within the system are understood to be non-linear and circular. The team leader recognises the need to spend more time analysing the system before making a decision. The focus of the work of the coach and the team is largely quantifiable: goals, KPIs, role clarity.

Second Order

The system is seen as ‘complex and mysterious’. The coach recognises the subjectivity of his or her own perceptions, and collaboration with others to come up with a joint hypothesis and decisions are the norm. The team is less definitive around role clarity, recognising ambiguity and uncertainty. All are aware of their own limitations and are less inclined to take a silo’d approach. The coaching is likely to include more work on team dynamics and relationships with stakeholders, as the team recognises the risk of its own collective view of being too dominant.

Complexity Thinking

At this level of systems thinking, change is understood to be unpredictable, emerging from interactions between people. It’s fundamental for the team to understand its own functioning, without which it cannot easily understand how the wider system operates. As it manages its own dynamics better, so will it develop its capacity to influence change.

Meta-Systemic Thinking

Any definition of a team assumes a boundary between the people in the team and those outside. The team is talked about as if it’s real, but it’s not: the people in the room are part of a broader social system and are impacted by conversations both with others in the room and those outside. As coaches, we’re only interested in the dynamics to the extent the people in the room feel they need to be reviewed; the dynamics are the focus point because it’s the functioning of the team dynamic from which will emerge meaning and decisions. The coach focuses on the way people are relating in the room, outside the room and the impact of power on the way those dynamics interplay.

For more details about these 5 levels of systems thinking, here’s the original paper: Team Coaching Revisited.

To be clear, it is not proposed that one level of thinking is better than the others, rather that they are different lenses through which we can approach our work and relate to the teams we work with. I do propose, however, when working with Liquid Teams, that looking at them through a lens which sees them less as fixed or rigid entities – ‘real’ systems – and more as part of a complex and much broader social system could help. Looking at Liquid Teams through this lens might be helpful in understanding that teams can be constantly changing, and what we need to focus on is the dynamics and conversations the people are having in the room, and with others outside the room. As coaches, we are helping those people make meaning and come to decisions through those interactions.

A final point is about what impact thinking this way will have on our presence as team coaches? How will it impact our use of self and relationships as we partner with Liquid Teams? I’d welcome your thoughts.

With thanks to Allard de Jong and Paul Lawrence for permission to reference their original material.