Seeing Systems 2nd Edition

Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life

Barry Oshry (Author)

Publication date: 08/01/2007

Bestseller over 40,000+ copies sold

Seeing Systems
System blindness leads to personal stress, broken relationships, and diminished organization effectiveness.

When breakdowns occur in organizational life, the tendency is to blame them on the personalities, motivations, and abilities of the individuals involved or on the specific characteristics of one’s organization. Barry Oshry demonstrates how everyday breakdowns stem from our failure to see how human systems shape our feelings about ourselves and our relationships with other individuals and groups. He shows how we can transform “system blindness” into system sight, enabling us to live and work together in productive partnership.

Based on Oshry’s 30+ years of studying human interaction in social system life, Seeing Systems is profound in its implications while being easily accessible. In addition to illustrative cases and solid systems theory, the book is populated with pinballs; talking body parts; mysterious “swimmers”; amebocytes, slugs, and earthworms; dances of blind reflex; and tunnels of limited options. The result is a unique foundation for revolutionizing our understanding of system life.

This new edition is revised throughout and features an extensive new section on having the wisdom and courage to face and work with the reality of uncertainty, a hopeful antidote to today’s righteous battles of certainty versus certainty. The new epilogue describes how Oshry is currently using theater, blogs, and podcasts to extend his multipronged revolution aimed at transforming system blindness into system sight.

Seeing Systems helps us grasp what really happens beneath the surface in organizations…regardless of whether you are an executive, executive coach, middle manager or individual contributor, Seeing Systems provides powerful insights and applications for enhancing your effectiveness.”

—Julian D. Kaufmann, Vice President, Leadership & Organization Development, Tyco International

 New edition of a classic, revised and updated throughout, with a new section and a new epilogue

 Explains why so many efforts at creating satisfying and productive systems end in disappointment

 Offers an approach to improving organizational life that removes the personal biases that stymie so many change efforts 

Read more and meet author below

Read An Excerpt


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Overview

System blindness leads to personal stress, broken relationships, and diminished organization effectiveness.

When breakdowns occur in organizational life, the tendency is to blame them on the personalities, motivations, and abilities of the individuals involved or on the specific characteristics of one’s organization. Barry Oshry demonstrates how everyday breakdowns stem from our failure to see how human systems shape our feelings about ourselves and our relationships with other individuals and groups. He shows how we can transform “system blindness” into system sight, enabling us to live and work together in productive partnership.

Based on Oshry’s 30+ years of studying human interaction in social system life, Seeing Systems is profound in its implications while being easily accessible. In addition to illustrative cases and solid systems theory, the book is populated with pinballs; talking body parts; mysterious “swimmers”; amebocytes, slugs, and earthworms; dances of blind reflex; and tunnels of limited options. The result is a unique foundation for revolutionizing our understanding of system life.

This new edition is revised throughout and features an extensive new section on having the wisdom and courage to face and work with the reality of uncertainty, a hopeful antidote to today’s righteous battles of certainty versus certainty. The new epilogue describes how Oshry is currently using theater, blogs, and podcasts to extend his multipronged revolution aimed at transforming system blindness into system sight.

Seeing Systems helps us grasp what really happens beneath the surface in organizations…regardless of whether you are an executive, executive coach, middle manager or individual contributor, Seeing Systems provides powerful insights and applications for enhancing your effectiveness.”

—Julian D. Kaufmann, Vice President, Leadership & Organization Development, Tyco International

 New edition of a classic, revised and updated throughout, with a new section and a new epilogue

 Explains why so many efforts at creating satisfying and productive systems end in disappointment

 Offers an approach to improving organizational life that removes the personal biases that stymie so many change efforts 

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Meet the Author


Visit Author Page - Barry Oshry

Barry Oshry, a pioneer in systems thinking, is the creator of Power Lab, the When Cultures Meet Workshop, and the Organization Workshop on Creating Partnership, which he and his associates have conducted in hundreds of organizations in the U.S. and around the world. He and his wife and partner, Karen Ellis Oshry, are cofounders of Power + Systems, Inc. an educational institute dedicated to providing programs and publications that deepen people's understanding of social system phenomena. A former Chairman of the Department of Human Relations at Boston University, Oshry has presented keynote addresses and workshops for the Association of Quality and Participation, the American Management Association, the Organizational Development Network, and GOAL/QPC. He is the author of Leading Systems: Lessons from the Power Lab and Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizaitonal Life.

To visit Barry's website, please click HERE

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Table of Contents



Preface to the Second Edition

Prologue: Overcoming System Blindness

Act I. Seeing the Big Picture

Scene 1. When We Don’t See the Big Picture
1 Pinball
2 The Manager of the Heart
3 The Mystery of the Swim
4 Seeing the Local Picture
5 “Stuff” Happens

Scene 2. From Spatial Blindness to Spatial Sight
6 Seeing Context
7 The “Truth” About Jack
8 Charlotte Is a Problem
9 Center Ring or Side Show?
10 Times Out of Time: Seeing the Whole
11 The TOOT Dilemma

Scene 3. From Temporal Blindness to Temporal Sight

12 The Invisible Histories of the Swims We Are In
13 History’s Burst of Illumination
14 Bart and Barb: A System Evolves . . . Perfectly
15 “Anthropology” or Mick Gets Wiped Out
16 Applied Anthropology: Unraveling System History

Act II. Seeing Patterns of Relationship

Scene 1. Relational Blindness
17 What About All the Drama?
18 The Dance of Blind Reflex

Scene 2. From Relational Blindness to Relational Sight
19 Three Patterns of Relationship
20 One Wakes, the Other Sleeps
21 The Top/Bottom Dance of Blind Reflex
22 It Takes Two to Tango . . . or Does It?
23 Let’s Declare Bankruptcy: Transforming the Top/Bottom Dance
24 The Universal Civics Course
25 The End/Middle/End Dance of Blind Reflex
26 Daniel: Mutant in the Middle Space
27 Organizations in the Middle
28 The Provider/Customer Dance of Blind Reflex
29 Overcontrol or Transformation: The Mutant Customer
30 The Unfairly Judged Professor (and the Righteously Done-to-Students)
31 Abused and Misused in the Space of Service
32 The Web of Relationships
33 How to Clean Sidewalks: It’s a Matter of Being
34 Resistance or The Sound of the Old Dance Shaking
35 How We Can See the Dance

Act III. Seeing Patterns of Process

Scene 1. Process Blindness
36 Are You Sure You Have It All?
37 Turf Warfare, Alienation, and GroupThink: The Dance of Blind Reflex Continued
38 Relationship Breakdowns in a Nutshell

Scene 2. From Process Blindness to Process Sight
39 Territorial Tops: Stuck on Differentiation
40 The Success of a Business, the Failure of Its Partners
41 Learning from Experience: A Good Second Marriage
42 Help! No Recovering Top Groups Sighted
43 Advice for the Top Team
44 Alienated Middles: Stuck on Individuation
45 Alienation Among the Middles
46 Can Alienated Middles Become a Powerful System?
47 Mutant Middle Groups
48 How to Create Powerful Middle Teams
49 Bottom GroupThink: Stuck on Integration
50 Immigrant Martha Has a Breakdown
51 Where Is Everyone? A Mutant Bottom Group
52 Power Is Managing Differentiation
53 Creating Powerful Bottom Groups

Scene 3. The Politics of System Processes
54 Huddlers and Humanists . . . Enough With Consensus!
55 Amebocytes and Slugs: The Politics of Individuation and Integration
56 The Politics of Gender
57 Or Would You Rather Be an Earthworm? Societal Implications of Differentiation and Homogenization
58 Differentiation: Inquiry or Warfare?
59 An Ode to Homogenization

Scene 4. The Challenge of Robust Systems

60 The Dominants and the Others
61 Robust System Processes
62 The Dance of the Robust System: Ballet Notes
63 A Remarkable, If Somewhat Premature Epiphany

Act IV. Seeing Uncertainty


64 The Emergence of Organizational Positions

Scene 1. Individuals in Uncertainty
65 Individuals Facing and Escaping from Organizational Uncertainty
66 A Mutant Moment in the Middle
67 Dancing in and out of the Tunnel of Limited Options
68 His Magic Consultant Card #2

Scene 2. Groups in Uncertainty
69 Groups Facing and Escaping from Uncertainty
70 How to Transform Oppositional Struggles into Multifaceted Flexible Teams

Scene 3. Facing and Escaping the Uncertainties of Existence
71 Not All Possibilities Are Possible
72 Coping with Uncertainty Through Mythos and Logos

The Next Act—Seeing More
Epilogue: A Continuing Revolution
Notes
About the Author

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Excerpt

Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life

Prologue: Overcoming System Blindness


Top, Middle, Bottom, and Customer:
Positions and Conditions

9781576755358_0017_001

Throughout this book, we will be talking about Tops, Middles, Bottoms, and Customers. Given the complexity of organizations, this may appear to be a gross simplification of organizational life as the reader has experienced it. At times, as in “A Familiar Story” (which follows), we will treat these as positions: you are either a Top or a Middle or a Bottom or a Customer. At other times we will treat these as conditions all of us face in whatever position we occupy. In certain interactions we are Top, having overall responsibility for some piece of the action; in other interactions we are Bottom, on the receiving end of initiatives over which we have no control. In other interactions we are Middle, caught between conflicting demands and priorities. And in still other interactions, we are Customer, looking to some other person or group for a product or service we need. So, even in the most complex, multilevel, multifunctional organizations, we are all constantly moving in and out of Top/Middle/Bottom/Customer conditions.

A Familiar Story of Tops, Middles, Bottoms, and Customers

There is a pattern that develops with great regularity in the widest variety of organizations and institutions. The pattern goes something like this:


Tops are burdened by what feels like unmanageable complexity;
Bottoms are oppressed by what they see as distant and uncaring Tops;
Middles are torn and confused between the conflicting demands and priorities coming at them from Tops and Bottoms;
Customers feel done-to by nonresponsive delivery systems.


Top “teams” are caught up in destructive turf warfare;
Middle peers are alienated from one another, noncooperative and competitive;
Bottom group members are trapped in stifling pressures to conform.


Tops are fighting fires when they should be shaping the system’s future;
Middles are isolated from one another when they should be working together to coordinate system processes;
Bottoms’ negative feelings toward Tops and Middles distracts them from putting their creative energies into the delivery of products and services;
Customers’ disgruntlement with the system keeps them from being active partners in helping the system produce the products and services they need.


Throughout the system there is personal stress, relationship breakdowns,
and severe limitations in the system’s capacity to do what it intends to do.

When this pattern develops, our tendency is to explain it in terms of the character, motivation, and abilities of the individuals involved— that’s just the way they are—or in terms of the specific nature of one’s organization—that’s just the way we are. If our explanations are personal, then our solutions are also personal: fix the players, fire them, rotate them, divorce them. If our explanations are specific to our organization, then we fix the organization: reorganize, reengineer, restructure.

What I intend to demonstrate in this book is that this pattern is neither personal nor specific to any given organization. It is systemic. And because systemic is such a pervasive, multiple-meaning term, let me clarify its use here.

We humans are systems creatures. Our consciousness—how we experience ourselves, others, our systems, and other systems—is shaped by the structure and processes of the systems we are in. As a single example, when Tops are involved in turf warfare, this is less likely to be a personal issue—much as it may seem like that to the participants— than a systemic one, a vulnerability that develops with remarkable regularity in the Top world; therefore, to deal with turf issues as a personal issue is to miss the point entirely. This is true of many of the other “personal” issues in organizational life as well.

There is a tendency to resist this notion; we prefer seeing ourselves as captains of our own ships; we prefer the notion that we believe what we believe and think what we think because of who we are, not where we are. I will demonstrate how such thinking is the costly illusion of system blindness—an illusion that results in needless stress, destructive conflicts, broken relationships, missed opportunities, and diminished system effectiveness. And this blindness has its costs in all the systems of our lives—in our families, organizations, nations, and ethnic groups.

My purpose in this book is to transform system blindness into system sight. The paradox is this: With system sight we can become captains of our own ships as we understand the nature of the waters in which we sail.

We Are Social Systems Creatures

9781576755358_0020_001


We humans spend our lives in systems:
in the family,
the classroom,
the friendship group,
the team,
the organization,
the task force,
the faith group,
the community,
the bowling league,
the nation,
the ethnic group.
We find joy
and sadness,
exhilaration
and despair,
good relationships
and bad ones,
opportunities
and frustrations.
So much happens to us in system life,
yet system life remains a mystery.


When We Don’t See Systems
When we don’t see systems,
we fall out of the possibility of partnership with one another;
we misunderstand one another;
we make up stories about one another;
we have our myths and prejudices about one another;
we hurt and destroy one another;
we become antagonists when we could be collaborators;
we separate when we could remain together happily;
we become strangers when we could be friends;
we oppress one another when we could live in peace;
and our systems—organizations, families, task forces, faith
groups—squander much of their potential.
All of this happens without awareness or choice—
dances of blind reflex.


Five Types of System Blindness:
Spatial, Temporal, Relational, Process, and Uncertainty

We suffer from Spatial Blindness.
We see our part of the system
but not the whole;
we see what is happening with us
but not what is happening elsewhere;
we don’t see what others’ worlds are like,
the issues they are dealing with,
the stresses they are experiencing;
we don’t see how our world impacts theirs
and how theirs impacts ours;
we don’t see how all the parts influence one another.
In our spatial blindness,
we fail to understand one another,
we develop stereotypes of one another,
we take personally much that is not personal,
and, as a consequence, many potentially productive
contributions are lost to the system.


We suffer from Temporal Blindness.
We see the present
but not the past;
we know what we are experiencing now
but not what has led to these experiences;
we know our satisfactions and frustrations,
our feelings of closeness and distance,
the issues and choices and challenges we are currently facing.
All of this we experience in the present
but we don’t see the history of the present,
the story of our system that has brought us to this point in time.
In our temporal blindness,
we misdiagnose the current situation,
and in our efforts to solve system problems
we fix what doesn’t need to be fixed
and fail to fix what does.


We suffer from Relational Blindness.
In systems, we exist only in systemic relationship to one another:
We are in Top/Bottom relationships,
sometimes as Top and sometimes as Bottom;

9781576755358_0023_001


we are in End/Middle/End relationships;
sometimes as Middle torn between two or more Ends,
and sometimes as one of several Ends tearing at a common Middle;

9781576755358_0023_002


we are in Provider/Customer relationships,
sometimes as Provider and sometimes as Customer;

9781576755358_0023_003


we are sometimes a member of the Dominant culture in which there are the Others,
and sometimes we are the Other within the Dominant culture.

9781576755358_0024_001


We tend not to see ourselves in these systemic relationships,
nor do we see the dances we fall into in these relationships:
Becoming Burdened Tops
and Oppressed Bottoms,
Disappointed Ends
and Torn Middles,
Judged Providers
and Done-to Customers,
the Righteous Dominants
and the Righteous Others.
In our relational blindness,
we experience much personal stress and pain,
potential partnerships fail to develop,
and system contributions are lost.


We suffer from Process Blindness.
We don’t see our systems as wholes,
as entities in their environment.
We don’t see the processes of the whole
as the whole struggles to survive.


We don’t see how “It” differentiates
in an environment of shared responsibility and complexity
and how we fall into Turf Warfare with one another.
We don’t see how “It” individuates
in a diffusing environment
and how we become alienated from one another.
We don’t see how “It” coalesces
in an environment of shared vulnerability
and how we become enmeshed in GroupThink with one
another.
In our process blindness,
our relationships with our peers deteriorate,
productive partnerships fail to develop,
and our contributions to the system suffer.


When we suffer from Uncertainty Blindness,
we see fixed positions battling fixed positions,
but we don’t see the uncertainty underlying these positions,
the conditions for which there are no obviously correct
answers;
in our positional blindness,
we escape from uncertainty into certainty,
from mystery into fixed unassailable positions about
how to manage our responsibility in the Top world,
our vulnerability in our Bottom world,
our tearing in our Middle world,
our coming together in a world of Dominants and Others.
In our uncertainty blindness,
our righteous battles with one another keep us from
realizing our full potential as Tops, Middles, Bottoms, and
Dominants and Others.

Seeing Systems

This book is about seeing systems.

It is about overcoming system blindness.

It is about seeing our part in the context of the whole in ways that enable us to avoid misunderstandings and to interact more productively across organizational lines (Act One).

It is about seeing the present in the context of the past, such that we can get a more accurate picture of our current condition (Act One).

It is about seeing ourselves in relationship with others and creating satisfying and productive partnerships in these relationships (Act Two).

It is about seeing our systems’ processes in ways that enable us to create systems with extraordinary capacities for surviving and developing (Act Three).

It is about seeing the uncertainties in our system conditions in ways that enable us to move past the destructive battles of righteous position versus righteous position (Act IV).


My Windows into Systems My Windows into Systems:
The Power Lab and The Organization Workshop



THE POWER LAB
The Elite (Tops)
Managers (Middles)
and Immigrants (Bottoms)


Living Together in the Community of New Hope

My understanding of systems is a fortuitous outcome of work that had another goal. Over thirty-five years ago, I set out to create a learning environment in which people could deepen their understanding of power and powerlessness in social systems. The result was the Power Lab.1

The basic idea was to create a societal setting in which people could experience issues of power and powerlessness directly and dramatically. And so we created a world with clear-cut differences in power and resource control—a world somewhat ironically called the Community of New Hope.

There are three social classes in New Hope—the Elite (or Tops), who control the society’s wealth and institutions; the Managers (or Middles), who manage the society’s institutions for the Elite; and the Immigrants (or Bottoms), who enter the society with no funds, few resources, and no control over the society’s institutions. This new world is compelling in that it encompasses all aspects of participants’ lives—the quality of their housing and meals, the job opportunities available to them, the amount of money they have, their access to resources, and more.

A good play needs an appropriate theater, and we were fortunate early on to discover the Craigville Conference Center on Cape Cod.2 Craigville offered an isolated setting with a variety of housing possibilities for the various social classes and a huge tabernacle that could house the society’s institutions—its court, newspaper, company store, employment center, pub, and theater. And most important, the Craigville staff have over the years functioned as patient, understanding, cooperative, and sometimes bemused partners in this venture.

The staff members create the “world” into which participants are “born”—as either Elite, Managers, or Immigrants—and then step back and allow the community to unfold. There are no scenarios to follow, no further directions from staff. What becomes of the society depends on whatever the collection of players makes of it.

The Power Lab was created to support participants in their learning about systems and power, but I have undoubtedly been its major beneficiary. Over the past thirty-five years, I have played a variety of roles in these Communities of New Hope, sometimes as an active player—Elite, Manager, or Immigrant—but more often as an Anthropologist standing outside the system, collecting its history as it unfolds, observing and interviewing societal members. It was not until several years had passed that I realized what a remarkable situation I had fallen into. How often does one have the opportunity to stand outside a social system and observe its total life—to be privy to the separate deliberations of each class as well as to their interactions with one another?

Several of the scenes to follow come directly from the Power Labs (14, Bart and Barb; 15, “‘Anthropology’ or Mick Gets Wiped Out”; 26, “Daniel: Mutant in the Middle Space”; 45, “Alienation Among the Middles”; 50, “Immigrant Martha Has a Breakdown”; and 66, “A Mutant Moment in the Middle”), and these scenes are but the tip of the iceberg. Everything in this book is infused with learning drawn from the Power Labs.

The reader may be taken aback by two stories of personal breakdown at the Power Lab. The Power Lab is a challenging experience, and participants are cautioned to that effect prior to enrolling. On the other hand, the Power Lab is probably a more supportive environment than most of our other organizational and institutional environments: All participants have their own personal coach who works with them before, during, and after the program; additionally, there are periodic Times Out of Time (TOOT) sessions in which participants can pull back from the experience and gain perspective on it. Still, there were these two breakdowns. Both were “cured” before the lab ended, in ways that enlightened all of us, and in both cases the “breakdown” and its “cure” were clearly systemic, although on the surface the breakdowns appeared to be personal. These two stories offer important lessons about the systemic nature of apparently personal breakdowns in the wider world.


THE ORGANIZATION WORKSHOP


Tops (Executives)
Middles (Managers)
Bottoms (Workers)
Customers


Working Together in Creative Consultants, Inc. (CCI)

The Organization Workshop is an offshoot of the Power Lab. People who participated in the Power Labs began to request that we bring our work into their organizations. Apart from a few truly adventurous souls, most organizations were reluctant to do a full-scale Power Lab in-house. However, there was considerable interest in helping executives, managers, and workers deepen their understanding of systems and their ability to work cooperatively with one another. This interest set the stage for the development of the Organization Workshop.

Again, the educational strategy is to create a learning environment or stage on which participants can directly experience key processes and dilemmas of organizational life. In this workshop, participants are “born” into an organization that exists for between a few hours and a day. The organization—CCI—is composed of Executives (Tops), who have overall responsibility for the system, and a group of Managers (Middles) responsible for Worker groups (Bottoms) whose members work on various projects assigned by Tops or Middles; outside the organization are potential Customers who have projects they need help on and money to pay for services. Staff simply set the stage; we put people into position, present the traditions of the organization, then step back and turn the organization loose.

In each workshop, there are Times Out of Time (TOOTs; see 10 and 11), in which we stop the organization, bring everyone together, and have them describe their experiences as Tops, Middles, Bottoms, and Customers. What are their worlds like? What pressures are they experiencing? How does each part of the system experience the other parts? These TOOTs tend to be incredibly illuminating experiences for participants. But consider for a moment what a remarkable learning opportunity the TOOTs have been for me—listening to many hundreds of people over the years as they describe their experiences as Tops, Middles, Bottoms, and Customers. For me, what a light this has shed on the nature of systems! And my intention in this book is to share that light with you.


Swimmers, Slugs, and Ballet Notes: A Word About Style

As you may have already noticed, this book is written in a nontraditional form. There are acts and scenes, pinballs and talking body parts and mysterious “swimmers”; there are poems and dialogues along with conceptual material and cases; there are amebocytes and slugs and earthworms, a variety of dances, and even one set of ballet notes. The imagery of dance is used regularly because so many system processes seem balletic in nature: One party pulls up responsibility to himself or herself while the other passes it up; Bottom groups neatly and regularly split into the “reasonables” versus the “hardliners”; Middles fly apart from one another while Bottoms coalesce. There is form and coherence and predictability to all of these movements. None of which is to imply a lightness to these dances because the dances I describe alienate us from one another, knock us out of the possibility of partnership, and sometimes lead to wholesale death and destruction.3

Theater, too, in its various forms, has played an important part in my work. Theater enables us to bring into play a variety of senses: We can see the action, hear it, feel it, dance to it, and join in with it. The Power Lab and the Organization Workshop are forms of organizational improvisation theater: beginning conditions are created, participant-actors enter the stage, and, without further instruction, they improvise. The Terrible Dance of Power has had several staged performances, as has The Dance of Disempowerment.4 The Dance of the Robust System (62) still awaits it first performance. More recently, staged performance and interactive theater have been added to our Seeing Systems repertoire.

It is my fondest wish that you are enriched by the diversity of formats provided in this book and that the various pieces come together to help you see more clearly the many systems of which you are a part. My wish is that through your seeing systems in more depth, system life will become richer and more meaningful for you; you will have a deeper understanding of your experiences in systems; you will see new strategies for making happen what you want to have happen and what your systems need to have happen; and you will discover ways to create systems that contribute to the world and are deeply satisfying to you and other system members.


Acknowledgments

I offer my thanks to some very special people who, over the years, through their encouragement, confrontation, support, and challenge, have contributed to this volume. To Steven Piersanti, for his continuing support and encouragement while gently yet unrelentingly urging me toward deeper levels of exploration. I am grateful to the Brookline Group—Lee Bolman, Dave Brown, Tim Hall, Todd Jick, Adam Kahane, Bill Kahn, and Phil Mirvis—some of whom (I for one) have been meeting monthly for over twenty-five years to nourish, comfort, and prod one another toward greater self-awareness and personal and professional growth. The Power + Systems E-Team and Power Lab staffs, past and present, have been a inspiration, demonstrating the possibilities of high-commitment learning and performance teams. I am buoyed by the hundreds of Organization Workshop trainers who are carrying this work to organizations and institutions around the globe. Warner Burke and Vlad Dupre offered unwavering support for my early, formative, and not always elegant work during their tenures at the National Training Laboratories. Mike McNair, Perviz Randeria, Leigh Wilkinson, and Barry Johansen provided critical readings of early drafts of this book. I thank Edwin Mayhew for a delightful collaborative relationship as we developed workshop designs that led to the Organization Workshop, Fritz Steele and Joe Meier for our partnership during the early days of the Power Lab, and Bob DuBrul for his pioneering work in putting Middle Integration theory into practice. The entire staff of the Craigville Conference Center—housekeeping, kitchen, grounds, directors, and front office—has worked diligently with us since 1972 to create the environment in which Power Labs have flourished. I have been blessed by unstinting love from my daughters, Leslie Perreault and Karen Kennedy, whose estimates of my abilities have far exceeded my own and have therefore given me high standards to aim for. A deep bow of admiration, gratitude, and love to Karen Ellis Oshry, my partner in all aspects of life, who has labored mightily by my side, tolerating my moods and reading and critiquing more variations of this work than any human being should ever be made to endure. And finally, I am indebted to the many thousands of people who have participated in our Power Labs and Organization Workshops and who have allowed me to be with them, observe them, and interview them as they wrestled with the challenges of system life. They came to me as students, but so much of the contents of this book I have learned from them.

As the Talmud says: From all my teachers I have learned. I thank you all for your contributions yet hold none of you responsible for the contents of this work.

Barry Oshry
     Boston, Massachusetts
     February 2007

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Endorsements



Seeing Systems offers not just a framework for understanding leadership issues, but practical solutions one can actually implement in an organization.”

—Scott Powers, Chief Executive Officer, Old Mutual U.S.


“It is all about relationships. Oshry recognizes this and the importance of organizational dynamics in his works. His insights offer great advice regardless of where you ‘sit’ in the organization. In fact, you may find that you ‘sit’ in a different place than you thought.”

—Al Grasso, President and Chief Executive Officer, Mitre Corporation


“I have read with enormous interest Seeing Systems and must say that through many years of being involved in entities dedicated to systemic understanding, this has been the most exciting reading.”

—Dr. Enrique G. Herrscher, Honorary Professor, Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA), former President, International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS)


“Precious few business books reveal know-how that fundamentally changes the way we operate and experience our world of work. Seeing Systems helps us grasp what really happens beneath the surface in organizations. Regardless of whether you are an executive, executive coach, middle manager or individual contributor, Seeing Systems provides powerful insights and applications for enhancing your effectiveness.”

—Julian D. Kaufmann, Vice President, Leadership & Organization Development, Tyco International

Seeing Systems is a much needed antidote to the personal bias that dominates much of our thinking about organizations.”

—Timothy J. Giarrusso, Professor, E. Philip Saunders College of Business, Rochester Institute of Technology

“I have been a fan of Oshry’s Seeing Systems for a number of years and use it extensively to engage staff in recognizing the bigger picture in their everyday activities.”

—David Morhart, Deputy Minister of Public Safety and Deputy Solicitor General, Province of British Columbia

“Oshry’s work has the power to transform our lives by removing the blinders we usually wear. I regularly used his books and workshops as powerful tools for our senior leaders’ development. With great regularity, people reported that they felt liberated and energized once they could see the dances he describes in their personal or professional lives.”

—Sabina Nawaz, former Senior Director of Leadership Development, Microsoft, and Principal, Nawaz Consulting LLC


“You never know how students will react to a book, so I wasn’t prepared for the electric impact Seeing Systems had on the class. They loved it and were clearly affected by its insights and style.”

—Barton Kunstler, PhD, Director, Graduate Program in Organizational and Corporate Communications, Emerson College

“We, like fish, are unaware of the medium in which we swim. Oshry takes us to a higher level, allowing us to see the systemic ocean that engulfs us. From this viewpoint, we can change the very nature of how we swim. The perspective about systems, power, and relationships hits the reader clearly and with impact. This book can make a difference in our organizations, and in our lives.”

—Thomas Crum, author of The Magic of Conflict, Journey to the Center, and Three Deep Breaths

Seeing Systems is exactly what happened for me the first time I read Oshry’s work. This was the first organizational model that made sense of what I was experiencing as a manager. Not a simple laundry list of ideas or ‘paradigms’ but practical theories based on how people behave in the workplace. I applied Oshry’s principles daily as a manager of a county jail in Washington, and I continue to apply them, in my retirement, managing large volunteer organizations.”

—Lucia Meijer, former Administrator, King County North Rehabilitation Facility

“Oshry’s framing of systems and the interaction between functions and levels is dead on. Seeing Systems is a close friend for everyone on our team.”

—Rob Kramer, Director, Training and Development, University of North Carolina


“Oshry weaves a remarkable explanation for the subtle, and largely unseen, ways in which our structures influence our behavior. Part poetry, part philosophy, part practical advice, this book offers a creative lens for examining our own behavior.”

—Marvin Weisbord, Co-Director, Future Search Network; coauthor of Future Search; and author of Productive Workplaces Revisited

“Anyone who is in the business of leading others or managing change will profit from the lenses Seeing Systems offers. They help us understand and avoid the all too common traps of disempowerment and failed partnerships. Instead of blaming others, ourselves, or the system, we learn how these organizational dynamics predictably shape our perceptions in ways that are self-defeating, and we see how we can rise above them and create relationships and organizations where collaboration can flourish.”

—Dr. Gervase R. Bushe, Segal Graduate School of Business, Simon Fraser University, author of Clear Leadership and coauthor of Parallel Learning Structures

“Oshry is a genius in designing simulations of complex social systems and in constructing frameworks that generate rare insights into the simplicity that lies beyond the complexity of such systems. For systems that have a large group of employees that consider themselves to be disempowered—whether factory line workers, government bureaucrats, or orchestra musicians—Seeing Systems offers the most powerful tools I know.”

—Grady McGonagil, EdD, Director of Learning, Generon Consulting

“Oshry explains in clear, convincing, and poetic language why people behave as they do in organizational life. His insights shine a bright light into the dark cave of organizational systems…and show us a way out.”

—Jeffrey and Merianne Liteman, coauthors of Retreats that Work

Seeing Systems helped me better understand my many roles; it also yielded valuable insights into the worlds of those in other positions, enabling me to adjust my behavior in ways that make me a more effective leader and follower. The book has made a lasting impression.”

—Jeffrey B. Cooper, PhD, Director, Biomedical Engineering, Partners HealthCare System, Inc.

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