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What is Systemic Consulting?

Originally published by Computerwoche magazine (German only)

Complex problems require complex solutions, right? Learn, how to face challenges with Systemic Consulting.

The way to solve a problem is often not visible. Systemic counselling helps you to make systematic progress.
The way to solve a problem is often not visible. Systemic consulting helps you to make systematic progress.

It is neither the market, nor the competition, nor the employees that slow most companies down, but instead it’s always having the same perspective on things. Albert Einstein already recognized the importance of changing a strategy to achieve success: "If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got. If you want different results, do not do the same things.” Systemic Consulting helps to approach challenges differently.

Systemic Consulting - Definition

Systemic Consulting refers to the consult of individuals, groups, or even organizations by considering the individual context. The individual elements of a system (e.g. team, department, company) are thought to be connected and must therefore also be considered in context. Accordingly, a single person's behavior cannot be considered in isolation, but by taking into account the relationships and interactions with others and the system environment.

The roots of systemic consulting go back to the family therapy of the 1950s. The foundation was laid by the, at that time, innovative idea of treating an entire family instead of just one person. Numerous representatives continuously developed the approach over time. Among them are Niklas Luhmann, Salvador Minuchin, Steve de Shazer, Friedemann Schulz von Thun, and Paul Watzlawick. It is mainly influenced by the fields of system theory, communication theory, cybernetics and also constructivism. Thus, there is no single systemic theory, but rather interdependent systemic approaches from different disciplines, complementing each other.

Systemic Consulting - Methods and Objectives

Viable systems are evolving systems. Static structures and restrictive perspectives or rules can prevent them from doing so. Systemic consulting helps to make connections visible, identify obstructive factors and eliminating them. It supports people, teams as well as organizations to initiate and implement change.

However, systemic consulting also has its limits. Unclear objectives force this approach to its knees. Its strength is dealing with complex issues. But without a clear definition of the objective, you risk getting lost in a maze of correlations, interactions, and hypotheses. Thus, this approach is not made for looking for optimization opportunities.

Especially in a business context, additional expertise from the consultant can be helpful. Although systemic consulting falls into the category of process consulting, in practice, the boundaries to professional consulting become blurry. Depending on the topic, managers can benefit from a technically competent sparring partner.

Systemic Consulting - In the Business Environment

Solving a problem by looking at the whole system instead of a single element, is an approach also appreciated by the business environment. The systemic approach is of great interest especially in the following areas:

  • Organizational Development

  • Change Management

  • Team Development

  • Conversation management

  • Process optimization

The goal of systemic team consulting is to optimize communication and work processes. It can, for example, help to make processes more efficient, improve the flow of communication in cross-team projects, increase productivity, and improve team self-organization.

Systemic organizational consulting is also widely spread. The reason is simple: Change is an ongoing issue for organizations. But only those who understand a system can change it. Systemic organizational consulting helps to understand a system, initiate changes, and support along the way.

The methods of systemic conversation are also becoming more popular. They enable a solution-oriented exchange with business partners, customers, and employees. Systemic questions are one of the most important tools here. At first glance, these questions may seem irritating or provocative, such as: How could you make the project fail completely? But that’s exactly the intended reaction, to bring in new perspectives and solution ideas.

Systemic Consulting is the umbrella term for various systemic consulting formats. Systemic Coaching is one of these formats dedicated to business. In practice, you cannot separate those terms. A Systemic Coach uses methods of systemic consulting. Many systemic consultants are also coaches. The inflationary use of the terms "systemic" and "coaching" makes it even more confusing. Key to success is, therefore, not so much the question of whether it should be coaching or consulting, but rather the choice of expert.

A practical example

Let's assume that a customer project is about to fail, even though there are plenty of highly competent employees on the team. The team finds it difficult to make decisions and move forward, although all members get along very well on a personal level. In addition, customers are becoming more and more dissatisfied. Frustration spreads among the team and the project manager is clueless. He turns to a systemic coach. The coach's approach is based on the systemic loop, a frequently used process model in systemic work. It divides the consulting process into four steps:

1. Collect information: In this phase, the systemic coach gains a general impression of the situation. He observes and collects information through interviews, for example.

2. Form hypotheses: Based on the information gathered, the Systemic Coach forms hypotheses about cause and effect:

  • Where do the parties involved add to the problem?

  • What factors perpetuate the problem?

  • What patterns are recognizable?

Hypotheses are assumptions. These may or may not be accurate. The team decides which hypotheses are helpful and are taken on to Phase 3.

3. Plan interventions: In this phase, concrete interventions are planned. The central question here is: "How can old and destructive patterns of thinking and behavior be disrupted, and new beneficial patterns initiated to save the project?" With many different methods, the systemic coach supports the team in finding an answer.

4. Implement interventions: In phase 4, the measures are implemented. Completing this phase closes the circle and turns it into a loop, by monitoring its effects (phase 1). The process can be run as often as necessary until you achieve the desired result.

The systemic loop is similar to the iterative approach in software and product development. Continuous feedback and new information drive continuous improvement, as well. Comparing your current smartphone to the one five years ago demonstrates the possible success. Systemic approaches can transfer this technical success story to social systems, like the team from our example.

Systemic loop (based on Königswieser & Exner 2019)

How to become a systemic consultant - education and training

Systemic consultant is not a protected job title, similar to a coach. Of course, there are different opportunities to further educate yourself in this direction. There are various institutions that set the training standards, such as the DGSF (German Society for Systemic Therapy, Counseling and Family Therapy) and the SG (Systemic Society). This classic path to becoming a consultant involves at least two years of training. This can also be used as foundation for specializing in systemic coaching or systemic organizational consulting. A psychological background is an advantage, but not a prerequisite. The success of a systemic consultant depends not only on the methodology but also on the respective profile. Systemic consulting, therefore, is not always the same.

You can master complex challenges in a focused and solution-oriented way by using systemic consulting. Some of the methods can seem quite unconventional. But as Albert Einstein already recognized, this is often exactly what really helps us evolve.


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