Michelle Lucas ✉
(Greenfields Consulting Limited, UK)
(Core Faculty, Global Team Coaching Institute (GTCI), Australia)
The application of coaching has moved beyond individuals towards teams and organisations, requiring practitioners to better understand themselves and their clients within systems and complex adaptive systems. The “Spiralling the field” model observes congruence between the complexity of the coaching work and the complexity of the reflective field. Based on systems theory, it is proposed that engaging with a broad range of reflective partners is critical to increasing reflective maturity and capacity. In so doing practitioners will both enhance the quality of systemic work and embrace the inevitability of uncertainty when working in a CAS.
reflective practice, complex adaptive systems (CAS), supervision, working systemically, organisational coaching
Accepted for publication: 10 January 2023
01 February 2023
© the Author(s)
Published by Oxford Brookes University
Over the last few decades, coaching and mentoring is being applied in more individual, team and organisational contexts. As the industry has matured, so has the client expectation and the quality of work being delivered. Our understanding of what it means to work systemically and within complex adaptive systems has also developed. As a result, one element of reflective practice that has received significant attention is the practice of coaching supervision. Our professional bodies offer competency frameworks, and authors have articulated models and frameworks. Yet, why this alchemical process works, has not been well researched. If we take one example, the seven-eyed model of supervision (Hawkins & Shohet, 2012, p. 87), the model assumes a one-to-one construct of supervisor and supervisee or supervisor within a group where the supervisor manages the group process.
We suggest supervision works because when we reflect with another, the transference between the two parties provides the systemic field in which the ‘lenses’ can be viewed. By contrast, if we’re reflecting independently, then there is no one to transfer onto, and so the practitioner is hampered by personal bias and capability. It follows therefore that deliberately exploring our reflections with multiple reflective partners, provokes multiple and nuanced instances of transference and counter-transference. As a result, wisdom is shared, leveraged and integrated into a more expanded view.
As team and group coaching has emerged more fully within the industry, we noticed the need for supervisors to extend coaches’ capabilities within an organisational context. Specifically, the supervisor needs to have a systemic understanding and direct experience of complex organisational work, such as team and group coaching, consulting, organisational design and/or cultural change backgrounds. This requirement stems from our experience that group and team coaching provokes visceral, heart-felt, in the moment responses, often requiring the team coach to use self as instrument (Bachkirova, 2016) to navigate the inherent complexity of the work. This position is endorsed by the research done by Manalani and Thurlow (2022), where team coaches selected professional supervisors based on their team coaching and supervision experience. This choice supported them to take a more expanded and systemic perspective and to explore how they might manage complexity with multiple stakeholders within a CAS.
Given this context, the ‘Spiralling the field model’ offers a systemic perspective on how we might develop our reflective maturity and capacity more fully and deliberately. The model encourages a more comprehensive approach to in-the-moment reflection as an on-going practice, which is also a transferable experience in complex coaching work. Importantly, while this dynamic approach develops increasingly rich reflection, paradoxically this may lead to a greater appreciation of nuanced uncertainty. Ultimately clarity and enhanced achieved capability is not the goal, being settled inside yourself, within uncertainty in a complex adaptive system, with increased capacity, is.
The word system comes from the Latin word “systema” and describes the interdependent relationships of elements that function together as a unified whole to achieve a specific outcome. Within organisations, these elements are defined by roles, governance, spoken and unspoken agreements which form groups, teams and departments.
Systems theory examines these interdependencies to see what emergent behaviours and synergies can be utilized to change the system. In the context of coaching, it is explored through constellation work (Whittington, 2012), in the context of supervision is explored through the 7-eyed model of supervision (Hawkins & Shohet, 2012); and through family system and constellation work (Hellinger, 1999).
Working Systemically acknowledges that as a practitioner works within multiple systems, they have the potential to both influence and be influenced by any system of which they are part. The concept of working systemically is ancient. It originally came from Aristotle’s observations in studying emergence in metaphysics and defined it as being “more than the sum of its parts” (Backlund, 2000). This underpinning been adopted by Gestalt, transactional analysis and more broadly in organisational development.
As studying systems is about observing the emergence within the whole, the concept of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) extends the concept into viewing the interdependencies of introduced elements into a system. The term Complex Adaptive System was popularised in sociology as a result of studying cultural evolution in biological species (Buckley, W.W., 1968), though the terminology and concepts that describe systems and CAS range from chemistry, engineering, biology, psychology and computer science.
CAS are nearly as complex to describe as they are to understand them in an organisational context. The notion of “a system” may give the appearance of being a singular entity, such as a team, when it contains numerous systems all of which are inter-twined. Consequently, if something changes or disrupts the system, it ripples out to other systems who then adjust within the CAS. For example, within an organisation, how individuals within a team interact with each other and their stakeholders and influencers, their decisions, and the processes they follow forms one system. When this team interacts with another to write a contract with a vendor, this is another system. If the contract falls through, this then impacts on the distribution channel and all the elements involved in getting the product to market.
Studying these interactions and their output is called emergence and underscores that a system as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Looking at the parts from a variety of viewpoints together creates the opportunity for illuminating opportunities for change within the CAS.
Previously we defined reflective practice as “the ability to step away from your work and identify patterns, habits, strengths and limitation in your work and/or within the system you work in and is the foundation of supervision” (Turner, Lucas & Whitaker, 2018, p.25). However, our thinking has evolved, and in the context of systemic work we now take a more holistic stance: Reflective practice includes a whole gamut of introspective and extrospective activities which serve to illuminate who and how we are, while simultaneously shifting who and how we are becoming. The catalyst for this practice is not limited to our client work, it is pervasive. Catalysts may arise from any element of our system(s) and our assumption is that the catalyst will have a ripple effect, of varying magnitude, on each element of those systems. Through illuminating some elements, we throw others into shadow. Only through perpetual motion, a process of inspection, introspection and re-inspection can we hope to refine our understanding of our systems, our place within and our contribution to them.
Reflection has the potential to be the multiplier in our professional development, a space where our in-the-moment reflection provides a transferable experience for our coaching work and a vehicle which can better illuminate systemic forces. The spiralling the field model explores the reflective field as a system which influences and is influenced by the nature of the coaching work, the maturity and capacity of the practitioner doing the work and the maturity and capacity of those engaged in the reflection.
The figure is a two-dimensional representation of our multi-layered thinking. We chose the figure of a spiral to illustrate a dynamic process. It is non-linear and we can spiral “up” or “down” around the arrow as the moment and the circumstances require. However, this is not an “up” or “down” process, it is dynamic, fluid and in the moment informed by who is participating in the reflection, what is in the reflective field and the broader system that needs attending to.
If we were to think linearly, the reflection process may begin with individual reflection, we might then take the output of that reflection to our colleagues for comparison purposes. We might then identify particularly thorny issues to take to professional supervision and if we are working in a complex context, we might seek out specific expertise to help us explore things more fully. While this sequential approach is entirely possible, it is more likely that practitioners will use the different approaches to reflection quite fluidly. It is also not a one-way journey – the output to any reflective activity is likely to prompt material for further work, either individually or, more likely, in an iterative manner with the same or different reflective partners. Here we explain its constituent parts.
The field: the central arrow represents the field of our coaching work. While each assignment will have its own unique degree of challenge, we can broadly identify different types of coaching work which inherently have increasing degrees of complexity.
Elements of the reflective field: The reflector will explore their understanding of themselves and the client in context, we refer to this as the reflective field. Table 1 simplifies the “real life” complexity of coaching work. Each of these components and complexities may be experienced individually or collectively. They inform how they work interdependently with the rest of the elements in the field. Each of these elements may complement and /or conflict and/or compete with each other.
As an example of one such CAS engagement, in teams of teams coaching, there is a project comprising teams receiving team coaching, typically within an organisational context. The purpose is to embed the organisational goals by using team coaching so all teams within the project are supporting both the organisational and team goals and the interdependencies between the teams and individual to create a networked or teaming culture. Often there is a project manager or lead coach who oversees the engagement in partnership with an organisational sponsor. The lead coach is often also coaching teams and/or individuals within the project. The sponsor may or may not be engaged within the team coaching and some of the team leaders or members may receive individual coaching.
Additionally, the individuals within a team can sometimes be members of a single or of multiple teams; and the team coaches could have a single or multiple teams within the organisation. Just like team coaching, power and interpersonal conflicts, and parallel processes can arise throughout the system. Typically, this is a long-term engagement with multiple coaches and stakeholder. To best serve the CAS, a supervisor would need organisational and systems understanding, capacity to work in the moment with parallel process and uncertainty and an eclectic systemic oriented maturity (Butler, 2022). The coach and/or reflectors would also need similar capabilities to maximise the field of reflection
The horizontal axis draws attention to the reflective maturity of all those in the field of reflection, which includes the practitioner as well as those attending to, or engaged in, the reflective space. While there is literature documenting the developmental stages of the coach (Megginson & Clutterbuck, 2009) and of the growing maturity of the supervisee (Hawkins & Smith, 2006), how we mature as a reflector is less well established. Butler’s (2022) research offers four different orientations to reflection:
Butler’s sample size was small and while these orientations offer an implicit hierarchy, her intention was not to create a developmentally staged model. Nonetheless, in principle it feels useful to consider the capability and readiness of the reflector as a continuum of increasing maturity. We draw upon this research and industry standards to suggest that the more eclectic systemic oriented the reflector(s) and their reflective partners are, the more likely that the reflector will ‘see more’ and be better equipped to engage with greater complexity of assignments and environments.
Reflective capacity draws attention to the capacity of those engaged in reflection i.e., both the reflector and the reflective partners who together create the capacity in the reflective field. Reflective capacity is similar to reflective maturity in that through practice it can be expanded. However, capacity is fragile and is sensitive to contextual and situational factors, which impact how much we can hold in our reflective awareness at a moment in time. A contextual example could be where we are sucked into an organisation's parallel process, which creates blind spots that are not "ours", rather they are a feature of the system of which we have become part. A situational example may be when a wider life event hi-jacks our energetic presence. In both cases our capacity for reflection is reduced. This is akin to an energetic depletion, and we will be unable to fully see what is in the reflective field until we are better resourced. Once we are fully resourced, we access our reflective capacity. Here we define capacity as “the emotional intelligence to nimbly move between the functional and the relational of what is required in the moment to co-create the outcomes desired with their clients” (Turner, Lucas & Whitaker, 2018).
The twists of the spiral: Each twist offers an approximation to focus our reflective attention which is likely to emerge from the three elements previously described:
The twists of the model represent the reflective field, and as more maturity and capacity become available, the field of reflection expands. As the work becomes more complex, so too does the complexity of the reflection. Through reflection, the elements within the client’s system are more clearly noticed and understood and alongside this the reflectors’ maturity and capacity also increases. This expansion carries through to the reflective field so that the reflector and/or the reflective partners become able to notice and explore the interactions between the systems which form the overarching organisational system.
As the reflective field is a CAS, reflectors are organically drawn to the twist which will best support the need of the case, coach, or client system. For example, the first twist, “seeing me”, perhaps being a function of the novice reflector in independent reflection could be a useful opportunity for on-going development and the twist, “seeing complex adaptive systems”, perhaps being the function of the mature reflector(s) in reflection with a CAS supervisor, may only be useful during a complex coaching engagement. Each twist is connected to the twists before and above it. Assuming both reflexive maturity and reflexive capacity are available, whatever the entry point of the reflective work it may be possible to spiral up to the next twist and view things more extrospectively or to spiral downwards and view things more introspectively.
This movement between spirals is not a foregone conclusion. It may be limited by the maturity and capacity of the reflector, the maturity and capacity of the reflective partner, or indeed represent a deliberate choice by those involved to boundary or contain what is appropriate in the moment. For example, the professional supervisor may judge that the reflector has already maximised their current reflective capacity, and to encourage more might result in overwhelm, fracturing their psychological safety. Ultimately the quality of the reflection is determined by the maturity and capacity of those reflecting within the field in the moment.
“Seeing me”: enhancing our self-perceptions, tracking patterns and growth
This twist of the spiral is characterised by independent reflection. There are many ways of structuring our reflection. For example, coaches often report that they take notes and/or journal after each session. Independent reflective practice is not limited to journaling, but even where more creative approaches are applied, reflections will be limited to the practitioner’s maturity, discipline and interests. If we consider models of coach maturity the kind of questions posed for reflection may range from introspective to contextual.
Some expansion may be possible in independent reflection – for example the reflector could apply a systemic model like Hawkins and Shohet’s 7-eyed model (2012) or the holistic Full Spectrum Model of Supervision of Murdoch and Arnold (2013), to structure and broaden awareness. However, because reflection is done in isolation, the power of “seeing me” is limited by the coach’s biases and blind spots and their capacity and maturity as a reflector.
“Seeing alternative perspectives”: extending our reflections and our perceptions of ourselves within the field by reflecting with others
To expand our reflective ability beyond our own view of the world, we need to be open to alternative perspectives.
For this model, we characterise this twist of the spiral as a collegiate space to reflect alongside others and to consider “What did I miss?”.
Reflecting with others brings several benefits. Firstly, it is an opportunity for normalisation – to explore the extent to which any one individual’s questions are also experienced by others, potentially expanding their capacity. This brings an opportunity for greater diversity of approach and thinking as each practitioner shares their own experience of similar situations or questions, potentially expanding their maturity.
Exploring differences of approach, when done well, prompts the practitioner to question or re-connect with the underpinning principles that have guided their work to date. Content often centres around application of techniques, sense-checking of delivery and use of tools. In this field of reflection, reflecting with others can accelerate learning, absorbing other people’s experience through osmosis. Similarly, it offers some “forward rehearsal” highlighting situations that a practitioner might anticipate facing in future and giving them the chance to consider how they would want to respond. In turn, it gives them the opportunity to expand their capability as a practitioner.
This twist may be used in a professional or peer supervision context to serve the individual or group development. However, where the reflectors are alumni from the same training school or are at a similar stage of their development, there is danger that their commonality will also bring developmental stagnation, even when capacity is high (Turner, Lucas & Whitaker, 2018). Where this is the case, then reflecting together may not generate any greater depth or breadth of reflection.
While the power of seeing alternative perspectives is its potential to offer multiple perspectives, both the focused nature of the content and the range of those alternative perspectives will be limited by the extent of the experience and collective maturity of reflectors.
“Seeing the system”: using others and our own perspectives to reflect upon the entire field where the coaching is taking place
As the content within the field of reflection broadens, and those reflecting expand their experience of reflecting systemically, so too does the ability to see more of the system. This next twist of the spiral “seeing the system” requires those with specific supervision training, coaching maturity, enhanced capacity and systemic expertise i.e., professional supervision, to amplify the field of reflection. We assume professional supervisors are specifically trained and provided the tools required to approach the field from a systemic perspective. In this space, it becomes possible to deliberately expand the reflective field beyond the realm of linear or more solution-oriented perspectives and better illuminate systemic influences. Here the practitioner and their reflective partner(s) will consider the question “How am I affecting the system and how is it affecting me?”. The role of the professional supervisor or more advanced reflective partner is to bring additional perspective, greater neutrality and to work with the intention of developing the practitioner’s capacity to see for themselves, how others may have seen them. The professional supervisor’s training will typically influence them to think systemically, and their broader normative role requires that they consider the impact of the coaching on all the stakeholders in the system and vice versa.
The professional supervisor will introduce the element of capacity building into the system by supporting the practitioner to recognise and explore how they too have now become part of the client’s system. Together they will work in service of the client (and the system of which they are part) examining how what’s happening within the supervision session may hold information which is pertinent to the coaches’ work. This is the first part of the spiral where there is a deliberate exploration of the ripple effect of multiple systems which surround the practitioner and their clients.
Of course, working with a single professional supervisor or being in a mature reflective partnership also carries certain limitations. No matter how experienced the supervisor or reflective partner is, they are limited by their own experience, maturity and capacity in any given moment.
“Seeing complex adaptive systems”: reflecting with others upon the dynamics and interdependencies of the elements within the field, to illuminate how the wider organisational context influences the parties involved, and vice versa.
In the twist “seeing complex adaptive systems”, reflection takes a more holistic and comprehensive stance. Awareness will come from all elements within the reflective field generated by the collective maturity and capacity of the reflective partners. This twist is likely to involve choosing a professional CAS supervisor with specialist systemic background and training in team coaching supervision and approaches and/or mature reflective partners who are also versed in systemic thinking. The transference between the CAS supervisor and the reflector(s) as well as psychological safety, creates the reflective field in which reflectors can represent and reflect as parts of the system, thus engaging more of it in the moment. This transferential experience then informs their future reflection and in-the-moment work. The practitioner might attend both individual and group supervision to deliberately understand what triggers are activated in them by the organisational system and how the client’s capacity for growth ripples into the coach’s capacity to facilitate change. The question for exploration is “how are the systems affecting and being affected by the rest of the systems?”
To support the reflector(s) in this question, it invites triangulation of information as well as engaging in thematic analysis to notice evolving systemic patterns and parallel process. The reflector(s) may then notice what emerges that is common (which may identify that which “belongs” to the practitioner) and what is unique across their entire portfolio of work (which may identify that which is evoked due to the presence of a particular systemic force).
As a result, all parties engaged in the “seeing complex adaptive systems” twist are more able to notice the multi-faceted nature of multiple client and organisational systems’ interactions and interdependencies. They become more able to respond instantaneously within a wider systemic coaching paradigm and within their reflective practice sessions too. The CAS supervisor is also likely to have an intuitive sense of where complex enmeshments are created by both the team or teams (being coached) and the consulting/team coaching team delivering the work might emerge, staving off parallel process and enmeshment that limits growth.
The intention is not to find answers or create a greater sense of certainty, quite the opposite in fact. Through engaging with multiple reflective partners, we begin to recognise the enormity of possible systemic influences which shape how we work in the moment, to question how we have come to “know” things and to treat data, hypotheses, and explanations as opportunities for exploration, rather than truths. Collectively exploring this field brings an internal wisdom and credibility which can only be felt through direct exposure to CAS forces. The intention is to support the practitioner to remain open to possibility, to embrace not knowing as an opportunity for curiosity and learning and to feel better equipped to use themselves as vehicles for change within the client’s wider system.
“Seeing beyond”: reflecting with others upon the entire eco-system to identify and challenge existing perspectives, biases, current world views, socialised realities and paradigms which no longer serve the current circumstances; going beyond the collective understanding for the purpose of expansion and depth of new perspectives not yet realised.
We include the “seeing beyond” twist of the spiral to illustrate our belief that as practitioners, as a community and as an industry, we are only beginning to discover what reflective practice truly entails. Based on systems theory, it is our position that as the reflective field expands and as practitioner, reflective partners, supervisor and clients’ maturity and capacity increases, so too does the possibility of systemic change. In the twist “seeing beyond”, there is an expansiveness which recognises complexity at a meta-level. Our sense is that when there is high psychological safety, emotional and reflective maturity, and the foundation of systemic understanding, the reflective field increases as does our capacity to reflect; and in turn, our reflections can now probe the reflective field with a future focus. This has the effect of helping the coach(es) imagine the potential impact of the entire organisation and the systems with which it interacts.
Questions emerge organically in the moment prompted by the reflective maturity and capacity of those in the field and what needs to be attended to. Questions may take on a flavour of both the CAS and what the world wants from the system and those within it. The questions here may help us explore how it is to hold ourselves and others in a state of amorphous not knowing. The point we seek to make is that there will always be limits to our collective reflective capacity, and “seeing beyond” enables us to honour the existence of the unknown.
The Spiralling the Field model implores the professional coaching, mentoring and supervision community to review how we need to be ‘fit for purpose’ in an expanded systemic environment. To start the conversation, we propose
Practitioners: The assumption is that engaging with multiple reflectors is most likely to bring variety, breadth, depth, and healthy uncertainty. There is also an invitation to observe our system of reflective practice. How are we in each reflective partnership? How do we leverage, test, integrate or expand what emerges with one partner with other partners? On paper we present our model as a spiral, but it is a fluid motion within a systemic field that is constantly in flux – how is this experienced as we work? The final invitation is to consider (and constantly re-consider) who we include in our reflective practice to ensure we can fully serve our clients and stakeholders.
Supervisors: Importantly, there is a need for acquiring knowledge and experience, such that each supervisor brings an informed and respectful understanding of the entire CAS. Those supervisors who come from more therapeutic backgrounds must consider how they will grow their understanding of organisational contexts. Similarly, those supervisors with organisational backgrounds must consider how they will grow their understanding of transference, countertransference, family systems and psychology.
If this seems unpalatable or insurmountable, perhaps it is time to consider new models of supervision? Perhaps we create alliances where multiple supervisors support a practitioner and there is an open exchange of learning among them? Perhaps we consider co-supervision to expand the supervision dialogue in the moment? This may need to look different for those delivering primarily executive coaching compared to those delivering team or organisational assignments. It might also need to be funded differently, with independent practitioners deliberately building the cost of their reflective practice into their coaching fees, and with team and organisational coaching assignments building in supervision of the practitioners as a systemic thread of wisdom within the overall programme.
Supervisors are of course practitioners and reflectors too, and so we hold an expectation that supervisors will form and evolve their own reflective practice as described above. This will enable them to role model good practice and inform their understanding of how their own supervision work is inevitably insufficient in systemic enquiry, fuelling both humility and a desire further development.
Training Schools: The curriculum for coach and for supervisor training would benefit from closer inspection. Reflective practice is now a feature of most professional coaching bodies competency frameworks, so how will this be included and taught? To be an effective reflective practitioner, we need to know more than how to engage in independent reflection. Coaches need to understand how to be an effective supervisee (in both peer and professional settings), how to prepare, how to distil, how to leverage what emerges in group supervision to benefit their own practice. They need help to recognise when they are at the boundary of effectiveness with each type of reflective practice, escalating or triangulating with more reflective partners to extend awareness.
When training supervisors, what is the underlying assumption of the nature of the work of the supervisee? Currently we see a bias towards supervising the practitioner delivering individual coaching. Notably the supervision of team coaches is often a separate endeavour…why? Perhaps it is too much to expect the novice supervisor to grasp the totality of working in a CAS in one hit. In which case, training schools may have an ethical duty of clarifying what the program does not equip their students to deliver.
Professional bodies: Moving from a competency-based approach to a comprehensive competency and capacity-based approach to quality is necessary. Throughout the life-cycle of a coach, reflective practice and systemic theory are foundational components for learning, and therefore should be an integral feature of assessment criteria. When the practitioner understands they are part of the system, rather than simply holding a process, a co-creative space is created for more partnering and quality output for all forms of coaching delivery.
The world in which we practice is becoming increasingly interconnected. As a result, understanding we are part of the system in which we work, being able to be within and reflect upon the CAS and our part within it, and taking a holistic view is essential. The model Spiralling the field helps coaches increase mastery by recognising the importance of intrinsic, interpersonal, and systemic forces. Through examining our work with honesty, openness and the opportunity to consider other views, widens our perspective, illuminating the system in which we all work and live. This new understanding mobilises each individual within the field to enhance their self-awareness, fostering both humility and agency within their client engagements so the whole CAS may thrive.
Michelle Lucas is an Accredited Master Executive Coach and Accredited Master Coach Supervisor with the Association for Coaching. Her consultancy specialises in providing reflective practice and supervision services for coaches, supervisors and leaders. She has co-authored two books and solo-edited two more with Routledge, each about supervision.
Tammy Turner is an EMCC and ICF Master Coach and Team Coach, and EMCC Accredited Supervisor. She has authored over 25 articles and textbooks on coaching, supervision and team coaching. Turner International creates organisation of the future through team and teams of teams coaching, supervision and team coaching training.