Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life

Front Cover
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1995 - Business & Economics - 208 pages
Seeing Systems is the most accessible, penetrating book available on the dynamics of systems. In it, Barry Oshry explains why so many efforts at creating more satisfying and productive systems end in disappointment, and proposes an entirely new framework for dealing with human behavior.
Oshry shows us how teams of top executives regularly fall into turf battles with one another; why organizational improvement efforts inevitably create tensions between the "good" cooperative workers and the "bad" resistant ones; how marriages seemingly "made in heaven" disintegrate. Oshry demonstrates how these breakdowns in organizations result from our blindness to the human systems of which we are a part. Finally, he shows how powerful, productive, and satisfying partnerships are created when we are able to recognize and stop these destructive "dances," and create new ones in which we understand and are respectful of one another and can work in productive partnership. Seeing Systems takes us to a whole new level of understanding ourselves as human beings.

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Selected pages


Overcoming System Blindness
Seeing 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
6 Seeing Context
33 Seeing the Dance
Seeing Patterns of Process
34 Are You Sure You Have It All?
The DBR Continued
36 Relationship Breakdowns in a Nutshell
Stuck on Differentiation
38 The Success of a Business the Failure of Its Partners
A Good Second Marriage

7 The Truth About Jack
8 Times Out of Time
9 The TOOT Dilemma
10 The Invisible Histories of the Swims We Are In
A Society Tells Its Story
12 Anthropology or Mick Gets Wiped Out
Unraveling System History
Seeing Patterns of Relationship
14 What About All the Drama?
15 The Dance of Blind Reflex
16 Three Patterns of Relationship
17 One Wakes the Other Sleeps
18 The TopBottom Dance of Blind Reflex
19 It Takes Two to Tango or Docs It?
Transforming the TopBottom Dance
21 The Universal Civics Course
22 The EndsMiddle Dance of Blind Reflex
Mutant in the Middle Space4
24 Organizations in the Middle
25 The ProviderCustomer Dance of Blind Reflex
The Mutant Customer
27 Abused and Misused in the Space of Service
28 The Web of Relationships
29 How to Clean Sidewalks
30 DominantDominated
31 The Terrible Dance of Power
32 The Sound of the Old Dance Shaking
40 Help No Recovering Top Groups Sighted
41 Advice for the Top Team
Stuck on Individuation
43 Alienation Among the Middles
44 Can Alienated Middles Become a Powerful System?
45 Mutant Middle Groups
46 How to Create Powerful Middle Teams
Stuck on Integration
48 Immigrant Martha Has a Breakdown
49 Where Is Everyone? A Mutant Bottom Group
50 Power Is Managing Differentiation
51 Creating Powerful Bottom Groups
51 Huddlers and Humanists
The Politics of Individuation and Integration
54 The Politics of Gender
55 Or Would You Rather Be an Earthworm?
56 Differentiation Inquiry Warfare
57 An Ode to Dedifferentiation
Passive Political or Robust
59 Robust System Processes
Ballet Notes
61 A Remarkable If Somewhat Premature Epiphany
The Next ActSeeing More
The Author

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Common terms and phrases

About the author (1995)

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


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,
and despair,
good relationships
and bad ones,
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;


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;


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


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.


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
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,

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