Fixing the Fixes that Fail

When things go wrong in bit organisations, the knock-on effects can be hard to calculate. But a constellations approach, originally used for family therapy, might provide the answer.

ConstellationConstellations show the complex relationships between different elements of a business issue. Photograph: Ho/AFP/Getty Images

A leader within a global corporation recently laughed when I talked about “sustainable solutions” in change management. Her experience was that she often needed consultants to fix things that went wrong after previous solutions had either not lasted or failed to deliver fully on their promise. She joked that we were all ” … on a gravy train of fixing the fixes that fail”.

Her comment prompted me to reflect on two related dilemmas. First, how extremely difficult it is for leaders of fast-moving organisations to cope with the degree of complexity that represents business-as-usual, never mind thinking about new and untested transformative models.

And, second, that most standard consultancy tools are based on a linear, rationale, mechanistic world-view of business that is often quite limiting because the presumptions of such approaches are out of touch with the reality of clients’ operating environments.

To mirror the idea of organisations as responsive, living systems, I often use an approach called constellations, which can help businesses to engage with emergent and often-competing issues that are interconnected in ways that can be difficult to see.

A constellation is a process for seeing how the interconnections between different parts of a system, like an organisation or community, can be engaged with constructively and creatively. Its main advantage is in helping leaders to see a more rounded picture of the issues in play and to get insights into the hidden dynamics of a situation.

The constellations approach was originally developed back in the late 70s and early 80s by a German systems thinker called Bert Hellinger. The approach was originally used in family therapy but, in the last 10 years, has been applied successfully to some of the most intractable issues in organisations and communities.

It works best on the sorts of issues that are difficult to pin down, understand or act upon: problems that occur when businesses are moving into the unknown and have no benchmarks; problems that keep recurring, no matter what resource is focused upon them; problems that involve very different groups of stakeholders with competing interests; or problems that are cultural in that they have become embedded over time in the deeper dynamics of how the organisation operates.

In practical terms, a constellation usually takes place in a group, although it can also be done as one-to-one coaching. It involves a short interview with a facilitator who helps to identify the important elements involved in the business issue being explored. These elements could be individuals or groups such as customers, suppliers, the media – or even abstract things like “culture” or “the future”. This interview is followed by the issue-holder “setting up” the constellation – creating a kind of “living map” of the issue by using people in the group to represent the various elements at play.

This process is an immensely helpful way of taking a company’s internal, intuitive sense of the situation and translating it into a three-dimensional pattern that can be looked at and walked around. Doing this shows us the more complex relational patterns between the elements of the situation, and can often be quite startling and revealing in itself. Because it is such a highly relational process, a constellation helps to create a shared awareness of what’s going on – which is often the basis for resolving the situation in ways that benefit the greatest number of people, rather than just a “local” group. This holistic approach is what makes for a sustainable solution.

I sometimes liken it to a kind of living, Excel spreadsheet. It is possible to use this process to test solutions to see what works best for everyone involved, because in a constellation you can change one parameter and see the ripple effect across the whole group. By listening and responding to the experience of the representatives, the constellation will show very clearly what isn’t working, what is, and what might support a more harmonious and beneficial resolution for all concerned. It is one of the few practical ways of working with complexity and in my experience, leaders like it – not least because it’s brief.

Ty Francis is a Director of meus a company specialising in personal, organisational and social transformation. He has been applying and teaching organisational constellations for more than 12 years.