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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Victor Nuṅez on Systemic Team Coaching to Enable Team Effectiveness

Victor Nuṅez on Systemic Team Coaching to Enable Team Effectiveness

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Victor Nuṅez about how systemic team coaching helps teams perform more effectively and the importance of trusting teams as generative, creative and inteligent systems.

Key Takeaways

  • A system for is an interrelated, interdependent group of people or components that perform certain functions to achieve a certain goal
  • Teams are an example of a human system, however in many organisations people do not form true teams with the interdependence and relatedness needed for high performance
  •  Relationship system intelligence is shown in the behavior of the entire system, which is the collection of the intelligences of the people in the system
  • A common mistake is the try and apply the same solution to different teams, each relationship system is unique with different needs and the teams need to be able to identify the best way of working for themselves 
  • Rather than telling teams what to do, educate them on the purpose and principles and let them work out for themselves the approach that is most effective in achieving the outcomes needed


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Shane Hastie: Good day folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. I'm sitting down across the miles today with Victor Nuṅez. Victor, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today, it's really great to catch up with you again.

Victor Nunez: And great to see you again.

Introductions [01:18]

Shane Hastie: The reason I asked you onto the podcast is, I recently attended some training there you delivered in Organization Relationships Systems Coaching. Before we get into that, maybe a step back, tell us a little bit about who's Victor.

Victor Nunez: My name is Victor Nunez, I'm Australian. I was born in the Philippines and now I'm living here in Bangkok. I started my career as a developer back in the late 90s. I used to do mainframe development programming and also client-server stuff. And then over the past couple of years, I've been traveling for work, and that led me to take on a more leadership or managerial position. In the past 10 years, I've discovered the art of coaching, and now I'm certified coach in both personal and team coaching. I'm also a practitioner of agile. I started practicing agile using Scrum as a framework back in 2006. And since then, I've been sort of educating people on the use of the framework, either using Scrum or Kanban in the agile environment. However, whilst I was doing that, I still didn't really consider myself as an agile coach.

Victor Nunez: I only started calling myself as an agile coach when I had my first certification as a coach. That was quite an interesting change in career, coming from a development background to coaching. And now I'm a Systemic Team Coach and like you said, I also am a faculty of CRR Global, which is the proponent of the Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching, and this is one of the Systemic Team Coaching models that are available out there that we probably will be talking about today. In my spare time I also do astrology, I can read birth charts and do mundane astrology, stuff like that.

Introducing Systemic Team Coaching [03:02]

Shane Hastie: Systemic Team Coaching, what is it? Is it just a buzzword?

Victor Nunez: Well, it was I guess or probably still is a buzzword and agile coaching community. What I'm really happy about now in the agile coaching community is that there's more uptake of people getting into that Systemic Team Coaching because they are seeing the benefit of looking at teams as system. Now, first we need to define what a system is. A system for me is a group of interrelated, interdependent group of people or components that perform certain functions to achieve a certain goal. So those are the three components, interrelated, or interdependent functions and goals, and we all have that in teams that we work with, and especially in agile coaching. We work with teams a lot, these teams work on a certain goal and each team will perform a certain function or role. So that's how I started looking into systemic team coaching as an add on to how I do my agile consultancy back then.

Shane Hastie: Let's explore that, the interrelatedness, the goals, the functions. But if I look at a lot of teams, they're not particularly team like.

The difference between a team and a collection of people [04:19]

Victor Nunez: I understand where the perception is coming from because you probably are looking at them, or they're probably behaving more like a collection of people. There's a difference between a collection of people and a system. One example that we often give is, the people inside a cinema are in fact collection of people, they're not interrelated, they're not interdependent. The people sitting beside you can do whatever he or she likes, he or she can keep her phone off or on, eat popcorn as noisy or as quiet as he or she like, and they don't have any goal apart from watching the movie. Watching the movie is that goal, but they don't perform a function that is dependent.

Victor Nunez: However, when you put them in a situation, let's say, if there's a fire in the cinema, and then they have to act as a system to become interdependent and interrelated to each other, so that they can move out of the cinema safely, then they become a system. That's where the system becomes real because of that connection and dependence that they have in that particular interim. So now they're performing a function, which is maybe queuing up into the far exit to perform a goal, to leave the cinema, and they're interdependent because they need to line up and queue up and be dependent on each other for support, guidance, and really helping each other out in times of emergency.

Shane Hastie: How do we help groups of people without putting them in a fire situation? But if we think of in most business environments, we put people in teams. In agile, we talk a lot about the cross-functional, self-organizing, collaborative teams. How do we help create this team culture, this teamwork approach?

The importance of interdependence and interrelatedness for team effectiveness [06:11]

Victor Nunez: Help teams get into that culture that you're talking about, you have to really look at their relationships. How are they relating to each other and their interdependence? Because the teams that we work with in the agile environment, they already have a function and they already have a goal. However, what is really missing in terms of coaching them is really highlighting to them their interdependence, and interrelatedness. As a coach for me now knowing Systemic Team Coaching and other systems coaching practices, I make sure that I look also into those relationships that the team members have within the system, simply because it's something that really helps them out in making them that self-organizing team that you're talking about. I heard one agile coach tells me, he's an experienced agile coach and he said, "Self-organizing teams is a myth, they don't exist." And my perspective on that is, they don't exist because they're not given the opportunity to exist.

Victor Nunez: The teams that you're working are probably just working off the processes and the practices, but underneath that, there's a relationship between the people that are in the system. So given that opportunity that you also harness that relationship and interdependence, then they become self-organizing, then they can adhere to the principles, perform the process, and then do the practices, what we were doing agile. This is where I think the Systemic Team Coach and using it in agile is different, because you're layering in something underneath, in your coaching you're putting something underneath all of the principles, processes, and practices, and what is underneath is ever moving. And that's the part that's self-organizing, not the principles, not the processes, and not the practices. That they have to follow what the teams really feel like following.

Victor Nunez: It's a lot of teams and you tell them the agile manifesto. Yep, they understood that. And you tell them, "Oh we using Scrum, and yep you'll understand the Scrum process." We do the ceremonies, and then they do the stand-up and still, they don't understand why they're doing what they're doing. And they don't see a benefit in that, looking at their teammates simply because they don't see the dependence on that. They don't see the interrelatedness of them to the other, that one person's practice is also impacting the other person's practice. So that sort of interrelatedness has to be in there during the agile coaching. I'm not saying that Systemic Team Coaching or Systems Thinking is the key to really successful agile coaching practice, but what I'm saying is that, there's an opportunity there to help build that elusive self-organizing teams.

Shane Hastie: What are some of the techniques, the practices, what does Systemic Team Coaching look like and feel like?

Approaches to team coaching [09:00]

Victor Nunez: In my practice I have at least three bodies of knowledge, which I use. One of them is Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows. She published this book, which is really good. I think the book really bridges the gap between how we look at systems, and how we work with teams. It's a really good book to read. The other one I do is Systemic Team Coaching by professor Peter Hawkins.

Victor Nunez: That's another System Coaching model, which is more geared to how you navigate the coaching around the teams, how you move the teams from one space to the other, and making sure that at the end, you get that self-organizing aspect of that team. And the other one is, of course, as you mentioned, it's the Organization Relationships Systems Coaching that I am also teaching as part of my work. And in that we focus more on the relationship systems and the intelligence of the systems. So those three practices I incorporate in my agile coaching, and they're not really dependent on each other, you can use one on top of the other, the principles on top of the other. And there's so many other team or Systemic Team Coaching practices out there that perhaps agile coaches would want to look at.

Shane Hastie: The intelligence of the system. We're certainly aware of things like complex adaptive systems theory and the interpersonal stuff, looking at teams as complex adaptive systems. How do we explore this concept of the intelligence in the system itself? Isn't the intelligence in the people?

Introducing the principles of relationship system intelligence [10:33]

Victor Nunez: When you talk about intelligence, there are so many intelligence types. In my practice, I use three things. You have the emotional intelligence of the individual, the person, how it reacts or responds to the world around him. And then you have that social intelligence, which is more of having that empathetic understanding of the other person or the other entity. And then you come to the relationship system intelligence, where it is the behavior of the entire system. And the behavior of the entire system is the collection of the intelligences of the people. So it's a combination of those other two intelligences, the social and emotional, that builds on the relationship systems intelligence. And then what does the relationship systems intelligence tell us? It's actually more of guiding principles on how we coach our teams, on how we help our teams.

Victor Nunez: In the RSI model, which is part of the model, we have five principles. Those five principles tell each coach what they need to know about the team. So let's take for example, the first principle, there's something emerging all the time with teams. What does this mean? The team is always giving you signals there's something that's happening with them. The team is always showing you indications that there are events that are moving with them. The team is always giving you signals that they're probably not ready or ready for change. And that change comes from moving them from what is familiar to them, to what is emerging. That's the one thing that the principle is telling the agile coach. The other principle that applies very well in agile coaching is that, the teams are saying that we have roles to play in this particular system. So the system needs roles to play. And in agile coaching, we know this very well, because we have roles in the agile framework.

Victor Nunez: That is one thing. And those roles as also showing us whether they're well occupied or poorly occupied, are there hidden roles that are persisting in the team? Hidden roles normally happen when you move them from a waterfall approach to a transformation in agile, and you still have the role of the PM, the project manager, you still have the role of the portfolio manager. Those are hidden roles that exist still, that you need to explore and work with. And then the other thing that teams would be telling you using the principle of relationship systems is that, every single person in the team is a voice or a signal of the system.

Victor Nunez: Whatever one team member feels or experiences is the experience of the system. And how you coach them, is that you try to elicit whatever the voice of the system is, make sure that you're hearing from all of them, and that's how you get the voice of the system to come out. And that is helpful in really showing you where the system is at. The other thing that teams are telling you is that they have their own identity, teams always have their own identity. How many times in agile coaching and agile transformation, you'll work with consultants and they will tell you that, "Yeah, I've seen this before," or, "I know what to do with you because it's very familiar." What the relationship systems principle tells us, and the team is telling us, "No we're unique." The team has a unique identity, a unique language, a unique behavior. And that is something that agile coaches need to adopt as well when we're working with them. And the last one is that, this is the stance that is very difficult for coaches is that, we are saying that the teams are naturally creative, generative and intelligent.

Victor Nunez: I'm finding that this particular principle or what the teams are saying is very difficult for coaches, because we have that tendency to say, "No, this is best for you," "No, I think this process is best for you," "No, this will work for you," "That is not good, that is bad." And those are typical comments that you get from agile coaches. But what the principle is saying, it's your perspective, the teams will work on what is really needed in the team and in the system. So that sort of encapsulates the principles of relationship systems intelligence, where you really are relying more on the system, rather than your own. So you're really outside the team, you're looking at the team from the outside.

Shane Hastie: There's some pretty challenging things there from a leadership perspective, from a coaching perspective, particularly when we think of a lot of coaching, and you touched on it earlier, that consultant telling people what to do versus what we've started to understand coaching being, actually we trust people to make decisions for themselves. So taking that stance or stepping away from the consultant stance to that coach stance, if I am very competent in that consultant advisor stance, how do I step away?

Moving away from telling teams what to do to enabling their effectiveness [16:01]

Victor Nunez: Well, you're not going to eliminate that consultant stance, it's useful in, like I said, delivering the principles, the processes, and the practices that are needed for them to work in the agile way of working. What is challenging or how I challenge coach in this is that, you put on the hat of a coach where you also rely on the intelligence that they have, given that you've seen how they work, you've already told them what they need to do, you've already educated them on what needs to be done. One thing, I think that the agile coaches in advantage of, when it comes to other coaches in the team environment, is that we're really good at educating people, educating teams on what is needed in the practice of agile. What we're saying as part of the systems coaching practice is that, we also educate the teams. And that's when your consultant hat comes in, you need to educate them, give them context on what you're doing with them. Even if you're using a coaching tool on them, you also need to educate them and give them context, it doesn't stop.

Victor Nunez: The educating really doesn't stop because that is part of giving them that opportunity to be a system. They hear something from you as a consultant, as a coach, they take that in, trust that the system will digest what was taught within, what was given to them as context, and now you as a coach just need to step back a bit and look what's happening with them based on what you've delivered to them. That is the only challenge, and I must admit it was for me moving out of that, no, you have to do this, no, this is good for you, mentality, it was really difficult. And that's why I ended with that part that you have to rely... that the teams are intelligent because that tends to be more the...

Victor Nunez: The challenging aspect of this is, how come like "No, they're not doing it, they're not really working in an agile way of working that I told them to do so." Again, you go back to the principle, they have their own way of doing things, they have their own identity. It might not be similar to what you've seen before, but it's still there, and you have to trust that it's still there. I must admit that depending on your engagement as an agile coach, it might take really long for this process to evolve. So there's an element of time in this, that not only on the agile coaches part, the time to get adopted to the systemic team approach, but also with the team, because most teams I've worked with are not really used to being relied on, to be a system, being relied on to be interdependent and being in relationship with each other. So that is also a challenge to the system, not just the coach.

Shane Hastie: The people in the system used to being, and historically we tell people what to do, and even in a lot of agile adoptions and in new ways of working today, we're still telling people what to do. This challenges the standardization approach for instance. In many organizations, they want all teams to work in the same way, but you're saying, "No, let the team figure it out."

Victor Nunez: Rather than telling teams what to do, educate them on the purpose and principles and let them work out for themselves their approach

Well, they're all working in the same way, they're all working on the same way by looking at the practices that they're doing. They're working on the same way by following the process, and they're working in the same way by adhering to the principles. However, they're not working the same way in terms of them as a system. The system is really the part that is hidden for us. And through coaching and through systems coaching that gets seen by the coach and by the team themselves, and that fits into those three things that are visible, the principles, the process, and the practices. We're not going to say that you're exempt from doing a daily stand-up, because you're different. That is not the case. There's a purpose for the daily stand-up, and you need to understand what that purpose is and how does it relate to you as a system.

Victor Nunez: And that is really the challenge when it comes to making sure that they follow those practices. It's making sure that they understand, how is it relating to them? How is this daily stand-up as a practice impacting us as a team or as a system? Because each of the teams that you'll be working with, you'll discover that the impact of all those practices would be very, very different. And the language they use will be different, the behavior that they exhibit will be different, the way they relate to each other during the daily stand-up will be different. That is where the difference lies, not in the actual practice. I don't really subscribe to saying that you skip the ceremonies because you're special, and that's not really how we adopt or transform teams into agile because we have certain processes and practices that we adhere to. And that's what makes agile agile, it's because of those framework and practices. What helps in incorporating those practices is really the coaching of the system, to make sure that they understand. It's like it has to land on the system first, before you can expect that doing it.

Shane Hastie: What is the benefit that the team will get, the people in the system? What are the benefits that they will get from exposing the system, from systemic coaching?

Benefits for the team from seeing the system they are a part of [21:43]

Victor Nunez: One of the characteristics of the system described in the book I mentioned, Thinking in Systems is that, the systems rely on feedback loops. So you as a coach, giving them that feedback in the way of revealing what the system looks like, what the team looks like, will allow the system to adjust, to reconfigure and to redesign the system in order for them to work better. And that's where taking a step back is really important, it's what you need to do if you are coaching them as a system, it's really revealing to them what they're all about? What is this team? How do you function? How do you talk to each other? How do you work? And through that, they will have to adapt and redesign to achieve the goal that they set to achieve, and also to perform the functions that they need to function.

Victor Nunez: I was asked the question about how do you work with dysfunctional teams? And my response to that is, dysfunction is just a signal. And for you as a coach it's a perspective that you see that there is dysfunction, but what you need to know, and you need to ask the team or let the team know is there's dysfunction working for them. The dysfunction that is your perception, working for them. If so, then perhaps that's not a dysfunction, and it's your own perspective as a coach as to how they should work. Because if they say "No, we're like this all the time. We bicker, we blame each other, we do this a lot, but we laugh about it." It looks dysfunctional from the outside, but inside the system actually works for them, it actually helps them achieve their goal and they can perform the function very well.

Victor Nunez: This is one example I give here is that, I was born in the Philippines, the culture in the country, our language sometimes it can be very contemptuous. When you make fun of people, they have demeaning language coming from, in terms of... just at the workplace. But it's all meant to elicit fun, humor and Camaraderie. And that works, and really that's something that other coaches I've heard. One of my colleagues mentioned to me that, "Are they always like that? They look so toxic, they sound so toxic." Because they always have that contemptuous attitude. And I tell them, "That's how they work, that is something that feeds the system, that helps the system performs the function." And the benefit of that, like I said, is that brings you more to the team, that brings lightness and camaraderie to them.

Victor Nunez: It's more like saying that we coaches have a perception about our teams. Again, it is a perception, it might not be looking good for us, but it might be the best thing for them. What I would like to say to agile coaches, if you're starting practicing Systems Coaching is to really make sure that you're not putting in your perspective in the teams and let the team show you who they really are. So that's something that I find that I practice a lot is I let them show who they really are, and then I work with that, meet the team where they are in terms of coaching them.

Shane Hastie: Meet the team, where they are, pretty important starting point. How do you guide them to where maybe you want them to go, or do you?

Guiding not directing  [25:15]

Victor Nunez: You do, that's the job of the agile coach. I'd say you do need to guide them, and how you guide them is again, based on how they work. In my practice, what I do on top of my agile coaching is, apart from training them, and the agile principles, and processes, and practices, I also put up a plan for them to work on their system. So there's a coaching plan that I set up for them to work on different aspects of the system. That might be communication. That might be collaboration, whatever topic that the system needs to be worked at, in support of what I need to guide them to. Let's take for example, daily stand-up, if you're working for a team that's not particularly collaborative, the daily stand-up might not really look good or might not really work for them because they don't talk that much.

Victor Nunez: Now you have to coach them on the collaboration aspect first. Make sure that they know the value of that collaboration piece that you're telling them, or you're instructing them to do, and work slowly in building those skills. So really there are certain skills or soft skills you might want to call that we need to tell them or show them how to do as a system, in order for us to effectively point them where they need to be. "It's not okay, this is how a daily stand-up works and you have to follow this particular format." If they're not accustomed to how that communication style works, it doesn't matter how often you correct them, they're not going to get it.

Victor Nunez: This has been my experience working with a lot of teams over these years that, if you tell them, "Stick to the format." It's probably 99% of the time they won't, only a few teams would stick to it, because only a few teams would actually resonate with it. So what you want is that, you teach them where they need to go and establish that resonance to that practice. It's not about agreeing to the practice, it's more resonating to the practice and that's what systems coaching does. Is there's a practice that we need to resonate with, how do we do that as a system? And you as a coach, that's your job.

Shane Hastie: Victor, some really interesting concepts in there. If people want to continue the conversation and explore this further, where do they find you.

Victor Nunez: You can find me on LinkedIn. I'm also a faculty of CRR Global. You can visit their website at and look at the courses available there. So I'm part of the CRR APAC Group, there's also a website called and you can have a look at that.

Shane Hastie: Thank you very much.

Victor Nunez: Thank you Shane.


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