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Seeing Systems

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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.

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13 Chapters

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Scene 1. When We don’t See the Big Picture


Sometimes life in the organization feels like a game of pinball,
and we’re the little metal ball.
We start each day launched into a mysterious world of
and whistles.
Lights flash on
and off.
Buzzers sound.
Gates open
and close,
sometimes propelling us at high speed to some other center of the action,
and sometimes letting us drop quietly
into a hole.

All of this is a mystery to us.
Is this just a set of random events?
Or is there some grand scheme
known to others, but not to us?
One day we hit a bumper.
Lights flash.
Bells ring.
Big numbers go up on the scoreboard.
The next day we keep an eye out for that bumper.
We hit it.
Nothing. A dull thud.
And we continue, puzzled, along our way.

Some days there’s lots of action
and big scores.
Other days there’s lots of action
but not much of a score to show for it.
And other days there’s very little of either.
At the end of the day—
lots of action
or little,
high scores
or low—
we drop through the final gate, heading home.
Sometimes we’re impressed with our accomplishments,
sometimes depressed by our failures,
sometimes we’re dreading the next launch,
sometimes we’re champing at the bit for the next game.
And most times,
as we slide past the gate heading home,
we pause momentarily to reflect:


Scene 2. From Spatial Blindness to Spatial Sight


What if, instead of making up stories,

we could know the real story?

What if, instead of seeing only the local picture,

we were able to see the whole picture?

What if, instead of reacting to stuff,

we could see the context behind that stuff?

This is the possibility of spatial sight.

In organizations, much of the time
we think we are dealing person-to-person
when in fact we are dealing context-to-context.

Tops Surviving in a World of Complexity and Accountability

When interacting with Tops,
we are not just dealing person to person;
we are dealing with people living—sometimes struggling to survive—in a world of complexity and accountability— lots of issues to deal with,
difficult issues,
unpredictable issues,
issues they thought were taken care of that keep coming back,
as well as issues regarding the direction, culture, growth, and structure of the system.
And Tops are accountable for the successes and failures of the system.

If we are able to see into Top’s world, we may have a better sense of what happened to our memo to the top executive suggesting improvements in the operation—why we got no response. It may be that Top experienced our well-intentioned suggestion as just one more complication in an already overcomplicated life. It’s also possible that Top, feeling responsible for the overall operation, experienced our cavalierly offered suggestion as a criticism.


Scene 3. From Temporal Blindness to Temporal Sight


Spatial blindness
is about
seeing the part
without the whole.

Temporal blindness
is about
seeing the present
without the past.

Several years ago, Karen Oshry, Joe Meier, and I set about what we thought would be a simple task. We were going to assemble a photo history of one of our Power Labs: twenty or so snapshots of events along with brief commentaries. Three years later we completed the project! (In fairness to us, not all of our time was spent on this project, but we spent considerably more time on it than we had anticipated.) Our plan at the outset was simple: Identify certain key events, match up the pictures, provide a few illuminating descriptions, and that would be that. Unfortunately, there are no isolated events in systems. Everything connects with everything else. We would identify a particular interaction and then get curious about what had led to it and what had followed from it. Each discovery led us to other questions and other discoveries. In the end, there was a story, a three-hundred-page history, a clear and coherent picture of the life of this social system.3


Scene 1. Relational Blindness


She says she’s a scientist, a student of organization. She’s been interviewing me now for several hours. I’ve been telling her all about this organization—about my boss, my work, our special High Zest Initiative, the meetings I had today, our new products, the current challenges. As I’m talking, I’m struck by one thing: she’s not taking any notes. What kind of scientist is this? But I go on. I tell her the details: the battles I’m having with Charley, the various personality quirks of all the players—the bosses, the managers, the supervisors, the workers. Still no notes. I tell her about our new Instant Gratification Plan for customers. No notes. Then I review minute-by-minute all of the events of the day and the week. Then we go over the year. Still no notes. Then it’s over.

“Is that all?” she says.

“That’s about it,” I say.

She takes out her clipboard and checks off one box.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“My summary,” she answers.

“Your summary?” I exclaim. “One check mark!”

“That’s it,” she says.

“What have you checked?” I ask.


Scene 2. From Relational Blindness to Relational Sight


Over the years, we have studied three patterns of relationship that occur regularly in system life, whether in the family, the classroom, the organization, or the nation. These are Top/Bottom, End/Middle/End, and Provider/Customer.

The Top/Bottom relationship is one in which one party—Top—has designated responsibility for the system or piece of the system (the organization, division, department, classroom, meeting, project, and so forth) and the other party—Bottom—is a member within that system (worker, student, faculty member, subordinate, meeting attender, team member, and so forth).

The End/Middle/End relationship is one in which two or more parties— Ends—with their separate and sometimes conflicting agendas look to a common party—Middle—to move their agendas ahead. Supervisors, middle managers, department chairs, section heads, and negotiators regularly find themselves as Middles between two or more Ends.

The Provider/Customer relationship is one in which one party— Provider—is designated to provide another party—Customer—with quality products or services on time and at the right price.


Scene 1. Process Blindness


He: Are you sure you have it all?

She: I’m sure.

He: But I gave you so much information. It can’t all be covered by that one little check mark.

She: It’s all covered.

He: Well, what about that inside information about our Top Executives, about all the crazy mixed messages we were getting from the top? And how about that so-called “amicable breakup” at the top over so-called “philosophical differences.” That’s special, no?

She: (She looks bored.)

He: Well, what about the Top who took early retirement because of “a long-delayed passion for fly-fishing”?

She: (No response.)

He: And the “coffee episode”? That tied us up for weeks. Some units had coffee machines in their areas, others didn’t. The hearings we held on the coffee committees.

She: (She chews the eraser but does not write.)

He: And that led to all those other issues about unfairness: different salary and bonus treatment . . . the infighting that broke out among our Middle Managers . . .

She: (Nods her head but still doesn’t lift the pencil.)


Scene 2. From Process Blindness to Process Sight


Put us together in a Top Space—
a space of complexity
and accountability;
a space in which together
we have designated responsibility for the system
or subsystem—
the organization,
the family,
the classroom,
the plant,
the team;
a space in which there are
many complex,
and changing issues for us to deal with.

We differentiate
in order to cope
with that responsibility
and complexity:
“You handle this,
I’ll handle that,
she’ll handle those,
and he’ll handle the other.”

is imperative for us;
without it,
we would be overwhelmed,
unable to cope with all of the dangers,
unable to prospect among the opportunities.
However . . .
we soon become stuck on differentiation.

We become complex and specialized.
I elaborate my capacities to perform my functions
and shut off my capacities to perform yours.
You do the same.
We grow increasingly different from one another.

We fall into our mine consciousness—
This is my territory; keep out!
We fall into turf battles—
increasingly territorial,
increasingly responsible for and knowledgeable about our
own differentiations,
decreasingly responsible for and knowledgeable about the differentiations of others and the system as a whole.
We pile up redundant resources in our separate stovepipes;
we send conflicting and confusing messages throughout the system.
In addition to our functional differentiations,
we fall into directional differentiations—
which direction should the system as a whole take?
Expansive or conservative? Rapid growth or slow? Hierarchical or democratic? Stability or change?


Scene 3. The Politics of System Processes


All organic systems—from the split-leaf

philodendron to the common earthworm to

General Motors—engage in similar system

processes. They individuate, integrate,

differentiate, and homogenize. What distinguishes

human systems from all other organic systems is

that we think about these processes, we believe in

them, we attach value to them, we politicize them,

we favor one over the other.

Some Words of Caution for Those Who Worship Togetherness
we like huddling—
thinking together,
planning together,
deciding together.
And sometimes
we believe in huddling.
is the way we should
And so
we sit in our room
An issue comes up.

we think,
we plan,
we decide.
Another issue comes up
(there are three more at the door).
we think,
we plan,
we decide.
Four new issues at the door,
six outside the window,
three opportunities just flew past
(waving bye-bye).
The issues flow in
under the door,
through the keyholes,
over the airwaves.
Our thinking grows fuzzy,
but still they come;
our planning is . . .
(What happened to planning?),
and still they come.
More issues:
Didn’t we already handle that one?
Our decisions are random
(someone has to decide).


Scene 4. The Challenge of Robust Systems


The Robust System is a vibrant, challenging,
and enriching place for its members to be in;
it is a system with outstanding capacity to
survive and thrive in its environment,
to cope with dangers
and prospect among opportunities.

But there is no Robust System
so long as there are
the Dominants
and the Others.

The Dominants and the Others
In many systems—
organizational and societal—
there are two cultures:
the Dominants
and the Others.
The Others exist within the Dominant culture:
females in male-dominant cultures,
acquired companies within the acquiring company,
people of color in a white-dominant society,
human resources in a marketing-dominant company
homosexuals in a heterosexual-dominant society,
Shiites in a Sunni-dominant society,
Sunnis in a Shiite-dominant society,
Christians in a Muslim-dominant society,
Native Americans in America,
devout Muslims in a secular society,
Palestinians in Israel,
Blacks in South Africa,
French-Canadians in English-Canadian–dominant society,
Muslims in a Buddhist-dominant society,
Serbs in the Ottoman Empire,
Jews in anti-Semitic societies,
Catholic, Japanese, Chinese, and other early immigrants in
the United States.
The Other
within the Dominant.


64. The Emergence of Organizational Positions


The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and has no clear conclusion.

—John Patrick Shanley, Doubt: A Parable

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt.

—Bertrand Russell

Life is full of uncertainties—conditions we face for which there are no clear-cut, objective, right-or-wrong answers or directions. How does one raise children, punish murderers, handle unwanted pregnancies, respond to terrorism, express spirituality, deal with oppression, reduce crime, lead an organization or nation, reduce poverty? In short, how does one be in the world?

Our human brains have limited tolerance for uncertainty, and so, with great regularity, conflicting positions and factions arise whose adherents are fortified with certainty and righteousness: they are firmly pro-choice or pro-life, for capital punishment or against it, for preemptive war or opposed to it, for gay marriage or against it, moderate in their approach to change or radical, liberal in their social policy or conservative, committed in their spiritual beliefs as Catholics or Protestants or Jews or Muslims or atheists, and on the list goes.


Scene 1. Individuals in Uncertainty


Top world of complexity and accountability

When I enter the Top world—as a top executive, or parent, or plant manager, or business partner—I accept overall responsibility for the system—the organization, family, plant, or business. The entire system is in my hands, with fundamental questions facing me: What kind of system to fashion? What culture to foster? How fast to grow? What risks to take?

There are no obviously correct answers to these questions.

In the face of uncertainty there are only possibilities: I could be conservative or I could be expansive; I could be hard with system members or I could be soft; I could be egalitarian or I could be hierarchical. Nothing but possibility. No answers.

We humans have little tolerance for uncertainty, so (not all of us, not every time, but with great regularity) we escape into certainty. One possibility becomes the possibility. It becomes my position. Now I am a firmly committed expansive . . . or conservative . . . or egalitarian . . . or hierarchical.


Scene 2. Groups in Uncertainty


She: So now let’s see what happens (not always, not with everyone, but with great regularity) when collections of us come together in these Top, Middle, Bottom, and cultural meeting spaces.

He: I think by now I see the tragedy about to unfold.

She: So draw it out for us.

He: Perfectly nice collections of people gather; each collection—Tops, Middles, Bottoms, Dominants, and Others—enters its space of uncertainty; possibilities emerge; possibilities harden into positions.

She: And then the drama begins.

We started off together in that top world, facing the fundamental uncertainty about how to manage our collective responsibility for the system. No obviously correct “solution” to the complexity we faced. Nothing but possibilities. But now our possibilities have transformed into fixed and firm oppositional positions. The following gives a flavor of some of the recurring positional struggles that we are now facing:

Expansives versus Conservatives,

Egalitarians versus Hierarchicals,

Hards versus Softs.


Scene 3. Facing and Escaping the Uncertainties of Existence


As described in “The Mystery of the Swim” (3), Barth’s “swimmers” have not the foggiest notion of what their swim is about, yet this in no way limits their capacity to create multiple meanings for it and stories to explain it, all of which (if you haven’t already figured this out) happen to be wrong. These stories are all possible responses to the present uncertainty, but the point is, none of these possibilities has merit. Barth is sending us a message not so much about these “swimmers” as about we humans and our capacity, in the face of the uncertainties in our lives, to create “possibilities” that explain them.

She: You can go too far with this flexible possibilities business.

He: What are you saying?

She: Not all possibilities are possible. Not all arguments are worth considering.

He: A bit more detail, please.

She: We have these huge brains, and one thing these brains are capable of is making up stories. Many of these stories—like those of Barth’s “swimmers”—are simply not true, but we cling to them because in the condition of uncertainty they serve other purposes:
they make our lives more interesting,
they comfort us,
they justify greed and hating our enemies,
they provide meaning where no real meaning exists,
they ennoble us over others,
they make pain and loss endurable.



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