Philippe Vandenbroeck

Jun 19, 2019

5 min read

Barry Oshry: Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life (2007)

A Systems Library, Vol. 5

Picture: my own

This book provides a lucid, systemic and compassionate perspective on the pitfalls and potentialities of organizational life. As a ‘systems’ thinker, Barry Oshry sees organizations as patterns of relationships rather than as collection of individuals. But, and this is an important twist, these are relationships between ‘contexts’ as much as between individuals.

Oshry proposes a simple typology of organisational contexts:

Top, Middle, Bottom and Customers.

These contexts sound like they belong to old fashioned hierarchical structures, but the truth is they can be found anywhere, also in very loosely organized collectives. Further, as an individual member of an organization, I never exclusively belong to one context or the other but I ceaselessly move in and out of them. Oshry positions the four context as follows:

Top is a context characterized by being overwhelmed by complexity and accountability.
Bottom is a context characterized by feeling invisible and vulnerable.
Middle is a context characterized by feeling torn between conflicting demands coming from Tops and Bottoms.
Customer is a context characterized by feeling shortchanged by unresponsive delivery systems.

As a rule, unhelpful systemic patterns of interaction develop between these contexts. Oshry’s key point is that we can only pull ourselves free from these destructive dynamic patterns when we learn to see and decode these patterns.

The leading quote hints at the rather idiosyncratic style of writing of which Barry Oshry avails himself. Indeed, throughout the book the author switches between drama, poetry, storytelling and conceptual analysis. I experienced it as a rather engaging way of making a point, but only because Oshry has a very good point to make and his analysis is, despite the stylistic twists and turns, very cogent.

Oshry identifies three typical patterns of relationship:

Top/Bottom, End/Middle/End, and Provider/Customer.

In each of these relationships, there is the potential for a partnership in which both parties are committed to the success of their shared process, provided participants are able to short-circuit the associated Dances of Blind Reflex. These Dances are group dynamical patterns that undermine the sense of partnership that is needed for groups to excel. For instance, the Top/Bottom Dance of Blind Reflex results in Tops becoming increasingly overwhelmed and Bottoms increasingly disempowered. It’s a typical example of an escalation dynamic that functions as long as the parties involved deliver and are willing to take the attendant stresses in their stride. But there is no sense of partnership and there may be a point at which the relationship succumbs to revolt or breakdown. In the End/Middle/End Dance of Blind Reflex, Ends become decreasingly responsible for resolving their own issues, while Middles become increasingly stretched in trying to meet these demands. The Provider/Customer Dance pushes both parties sulkingly in their corner (‘we don’t get what we want’ vs ‘we are unfairly judged’).

In addition to unhelpful ‘between-peer group’ relationships, there are also ‘within-peer group’ relationships:

Turf Warfare among the Tops (driven by the survival process of Differentiation), Alienation among the Middles (driven by the process of Individuation); GroupThink among the Bottoms (driven by Integration).

So now we are able to name and identify these patterns. And then what? Oshry formulates recommendations to maintain an appropriate balance of forces in organizations. Much of this boils down to developing a powerful mission for the whole, maintaining a heartbeat of regular meetings with the explicit aim to offset the natural tendencies in the system, and taking time to ‘bake bread together’. From these encounters complex strategies will emerge that include multiple possibilities along with their strengths and limitations.

“The Robust System zestfully elaborates differences; it develops variety in everything from types of cuisine to technology. Just as system members become all that they can be, so does the Robust System becomes all that it can be.

The Robust System zestfully pursues homogenization — processes by which members keep in touch with their commonality. There is a high degree of mutual understanding throughout the system.”

The Robust System values tradition: members are enriched by connecting with the system’s history, its rituals, its accumulated wisdom.

The Robust System grows and changes; it values learning; it takes in information from its environment; it changes form and function in response to changing environmental conditions.”

Oshry also opens a space towards a practice of ‘systems being’. Ultimately there is no technical fix that allows us to step out of the Dances of Blind Reflex but only common sense and our humanity. We can become more skillful in monitoring our feelings to offer us a clue that a dance is on. And we can, upfront, take a stand for partnership in the awareness that these gravitational fields of Blind Reflex, Turf Warfare, Alienation and GroupThink at all times are likely to exert their pull on us. Dealing with uncertainty is unescapable. We need to become adept at living and working at the higher level of uncertainty that comes with escape from the Tunnel of Limited Options. This is a territory that is rich with possibilities for spiritual growth.