Observer, System, Action, and Results. If you’ve studied ontological coaching, you'll know what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t, then let me fill you in: this is the OSAR model. It’s a simple but powerful technique that allows us to look at any process of change or transformation (I’ll explain the difference in a bit) from personal and organizational points of view.
If I’ve learned anything in my past twelve years of coaching teams and leaders, it’s that not all conversations that begin with “I’ll commit to getting better results” actually end with “we did it.” In fact, even when the goal is met, those “better results” don’t always last. It’s kind of like dieting. People may achieve a desired result, only to then relax and gain back all that lost weight — and possibly more on top of that. But this isn’t always the case: sometimes “better results” stick around and people never go back to how things used to be.
So, what makes the difference? I’ll use OSAR to explain it, while linking it to organizational change management along the way.
Let’s work our way backwards and start with R for Results. That is, let’s begin with the thing, trait, or situation we want to change, because we’re no longer satisfied or because the company sees room for improvement in a leader. We’ll look at an individual case (I Case) of executive coaching and an organizational case (O Case) of change management.
I Case. A person is promoted to team leader, but they find it difficult to adjust to their leadership role. They’re scared of being rejected by their colleagues.
O Case. A company is undergoing a digital transformation. This means new systems, technologies, and so on. And this will impact how everyone in the company works.
When opening a coaching process, the first thing the coach will do is ask the following questions: What does the company expect from the leader? What do the leader’s superiors expect? And what does the leader expect from him or herself? These questions are posed in the context of a so-called framing meeting and they’re essential to the process. Later on, during coaching sessions, we dive deeper with the coached individual: out of all the things they’re doing today, what would they like to reinforce or eliminate as ineffective? We shine a light on both current and desired results.
Now, what happens in processes of organizational change? Well, it’s not much different from the above coaching scenario. We ask: What does an organization want to achieve by the end of the process? Why? And what is it dealing with today that it doesn’t want to deal with in the future? Again: we look at both current and desired results.
We can summarize this step with a well-known phrase: if you don’t know where the target is, where are you going to aim the bow?
In ontological coaching, this is where “first-order learning” begins. We assume the following: every result derives from the actions that gave it shape. So, if we want different results, we need to change our actions. Sounds obvious, right? Let’s see:
I Case. The coach encourages the coached individual to review their behaviors and actions. In this process, we discover issues such as, “I’m not scheduling follow-up meetings.” Or perhaps, “I’m sending important information only via email.” Or maybe, “I’m trying not to contradict people in my team because some of them have been at the company for longer.” (All of these are actual phrases I’ve heard.) From these insights, we can figure out what actions should be reverted or implemented. Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and more than a little digging from the coach.
O Case. In this part of the process, we look at what the company’s doing in the area they want to change. What behaviors and processes can we find there right now? Who’s in charge of doing what? Once these queries are answered, we can start giving shape to new behaviors or processes, learning new skills, and reorganizing areas or workflows, all in the service of the desired result. Alas, at the organizational level, accomplishing all of this is no easy task. It requires a slew of criss-crossing actions from many people to both diagnose the problem and build towards a result. Because change management isn’t actually about processes, it’s about the people in them.
In short, we develop a series of actions with the goal of achieving a set of results. And even if we achieve these desired results, we also know they can continue to be improved upon. We can further hone our actions, learn new techniques, improve our use of those techniques, become more skilled with new technology, and so on.
Alright, what else do we need to do? Are we done? Well, that depends. If we stop at this second step, the changes we enact may still be reverted. A leader can schedule more meetings with their team, but they may still be seen as under-qualified. And an organization can upskill its workforce, but preserve old leadership models that don’t support change.
We’re all surrounded by a larger context. And everything we do is partly influenced by the systems we’re a part of. A system generates beliefs, rituals, behaviors. Just compare your family to your neighbor’s. You may live right next to each other, but there’ll be differences between you. Each family is its own system, affecting its members in unique ways.
For this step, I won’t differentiate between individual and organizational cases. Just like an individual is shaped by systems — family, religion, politics, education — so are organizations shaped by markets. A food company isn’t an oil company. Their industries dictate strategy, organizational structure, and technology, and present their own regulatory, national, and political contexts. All of this obviously impacts how both companies conduct business.
One of the principles of the ontology of language teaches us, “Individuals act according to the social systems they belong to. But through their actions, even when conditioned by these social systems, they can also change them.” Understanding this is crucial to any process of personal or organizational change.
We arrive at the step I enjoy the most. Because here we enter into the arena of “second-order learning.” And this means asking the following questions: Who are we when we do what we do? Why do we act this way? What emotions are behind our decisions? What interests motivate our conversations with others?
I Case. The coached individual realizes that they’re afraid of being rejected. In every follow-up meeting with their coach, they speak in a weak and nervous voice, never displaying the qualities that got them promoted to leader in the first place. In one session, they mention, “Leaders lead by example.” This is why they focus on doing their job well — but without ever reaching out to their team to listen to their concerns or think strategically. With this key insight firmly in view, now the coached individual can make deeper decisions. Having confronted their beliefs, they can manage and redesign them.
O Case. Any process of change forces companies to face resistance at different levels. As change is rolled out, companies have to see: how their collaborators react, who adopts change quickly and what beliefs guide their early adoption, who resists these early adopters, what leaders believe in, and what conversations are taking place or should have (but haven’t) taken place.
If all these matters have been accounted for, then we’re probably at the doorstep of the greatest of all insights — or “transformational learning.” This goes beyond implementing new actions, changing our mood, shifting our view of things, developing new skills, or rethinking how we relate to others. This goes deeper than all of that, into the inner workings of the coached individual or company. In the former case, we’re talking about private identity. In the latter, about culture.
I Case. As the coached individual faces up to their beliefs and fears, and confronts their own doubts about their leadership skills, they start diving into the core of the issue, into the suspicion that, perhaps, they “don’t deserve this role yet.” Every one of their actions emerges from this suspicion. What’s more, as the coached individual continues delving into themselves, and into other areas of their life, they discover many other situations in which they felt like impostors, like they didn’t deserve what they had. This deep, personal conversation then leads to outward change, which, in turn, alters how they are seen by others. Private identity, or the story we tell ourselves, affects public identity.
O Case. The organization starts to ask itself: What culture do we need to develop for technological change to become part of our DNA? What stories do we need to write about who we are and what we want? It’s no longer a question of acquiring new skills, but a process of cultural transformation that reinforces key values.
At the beginning of this article, I made a distinction between change and transformation. Now it’s time to explain myself. Change is about movement from one place to another. It retains most of the old and adds in new things. Transformation is more than that. For the individual, it’s about giving life new meaning. It’s more than an instrumental or technical change in the relationship between the individual or the organization and the world at large. Rather, it redefines other areas: deeply-held beliefs, values, and relationships.
The ancient Greeks had a term for this kind of learning, metanoia: a deep rupture, a qualitative jump in the individual’s personality. This kind of learning meant a true change of mind. (In organizations, we talk of a “mindset”). In other words, the sort of change that shifts the direction of a life.
That is why transformation is deeper than change. The person who transforms is unlikely to revert to who they used to be.
By Sandra Mateus, Consultancy Project Manager at OLIVIA Colombia