Helping a new team become more effective using Structural Dynamics

[A]s part of my accreditation process I have been using Structural Dynamics with the executive team of a NSW government department. Like many government departments in Australia, the organisation has been through considerable restructuring in an effort to become both more cost effective and more responsive to community needs. My work with the team began more than 12 months ago when I was asked to coach the divisional Director, newly appointed from overseas and struggling to deliver business-as-usual whilst at the same time leading a significant piece of transformation work. After a few one-on-one sessions he asked me to help him do some work to bring together his new executive team. I worked with them for four sessions before introducing Structural Dynamics, a time during which progress was limited by the comings and goings of managers in and out of the team. As we embarked on a new round of team coaching I happened to attend my ‘Making Change Happen’ accreditation workshop and realised the potential of using Structural Dynamics as the framework around which to build a medium term intervention.

The first workshop was just a few days after the accreditation week, and so I didn’t have time to invite team members to complete their profiles. Instead I led a two hour experiential session on dialogue and the three dimensions of the Kantor Behavioural Baseline Profile, focussing primarily on the Four Player model. Using a ‘pose’ exercise to help the team understand the four roles I noticed many of the team were hesitant, feeling self-conscious, which gave me some clues as to levels of trust within the team that helped me navigate the rest of the workshop and indeed subsequent workshops. The ‘perturbance’ may also have triggered members of the team to voice the extent to which they had initially understood the four roles in negative terms … e.g. a bystander is disengaged, an opposer is a hard-ass … enabling us to have a deeper conversation around the model. The team began to make sense of the model together. They pretty much identified for themselves many of the issues around ‘stuck’ teams and ‘effective’ teams and recognised the risks attached to labelling individuals in terms of a particular action mode.

Toward the end of the session I coded the interaction between team members as they discussed a real-life issue. I noticed a clear pattern with lots of move and bystand, in which someone would make a suggestion which was responded to with a bystand and then an entirely different move. At the end of the conversation I asked them what they had they all collectively agreed to do, and they replied – nothing. At which point some people looked disappointed and dissatisfied. I shared with them my detailed experience of their conversation, including the expression of 12 different ‘moves’, none of which were opposed – or recorded as by the team as an agreed action. I also found it useful to distinguish between a bystand on context and a bystand on process. All of the bystanding was on context; events happening elsewhere in the organisation. No-one was bystanding on the process; the team dynamic. This experience has become something of an icon for them to refer back to in their subsequent progress.

In between the first and second sessions every team member did their individual profile, and were debriefed on their profile by a coach, with whom they will work for a further four sessions over the next 4-6 months. In the second session everyone in the team guessed what each other’s profiles were before sharing. In addition I asked each person to talk about where they think their profile may have come from in terms of stories from the past. I wanted to make sure no one in the team felt they had to reveal more than they were comfortable revealing and spent a lot of effort checking in with people accordingly. In the event several people shared quite personal stories which contributed to trust growing. Again I did a coded exercise in which the pattern was quite different. One of the two team members who was unable to attend the first session played a leading role in the conversation. She not only provided a lot of follow, in terms of ensuring the team stayed on track, but demonstrated some beautifully expressed oppose, using humour brilliantly. I used her as a role model to help others notice what she was doing.

At the beginning of the third session this same team member began the check-in by complimenting me on my skills, but also telling me that she had felt pigeon-holed by me in providing feedback on the team process, and that the model was simplistic. Not only did this again bring out into the open some thoughts that others were feeling, and enable a dialogue around those issues, but it again gave me an opportunity to draw to the team’s attention how beautifully she expressed her challenge! The team spent the second half of the workshop deciding on what their vision was for the organization. In their conversation I heard all four components of the Four Player model and the team came up with a fully worded purpose in about 90 minutes – a record in my experience! They got to the vision quickly by beginning the session sharing with each other why they came to work.

It’s been interesting thus far to watch how the team have used Structural Dynamics as a framework and as a language for learning to work with each other more effectively. I’m also alert to how the model and the focus on dialogue add a lot of value to the Lencioni model that I had used with the team before. The team is progressing well and appear to be newly enthused and optimistic that they will be able to come together powerfully and provide their organisation with the leadership it is going to need.

Paul Lawrence

Author of ‘Leading Change:How Successful Leaders Approach Change Management’