Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life

Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life

by Barry Oshry

See All Formats & Editions

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


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.

Product Details

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Sales rank:
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Seeing Systems

Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life
By Barry Oshry

Bharrett-Kothele Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Barry Oshry
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57675-535-8

Chapter One

Seeing the Part Without the Whole

Generally, if we are paying attention, we know what life is like for us in our part of the system. Other parts of the system are, for the most part, invisible to us. We do not know what others are experiencing, what their worlds are like, what issues they are dealing with, what dilemmas they are facing, what stresses they are undergoing. To makes matters worse, sometimes we think we know when in fact we do not. We have our beliefs, myths, and prejudices, which we accept as the truth and which become the bases of our actions. This blindness to other parts of the system—which we call spatial blindness—is a source of considerable misunderstanding, conflict, and diminished system contribution.

Seeing the Present Without Seeing the Past

Temporal blindness refers to the fact that all current events in system life have a history; there is a coherent tale that has led to this particular point in time. Generally that history is invisible to us. We experience the present but are blind to the complex set of events that have brought us to the present. And again, it is this blindness to the history of the moment that is a source of considerable misunderstanding and conflict.

Scene 1 describes the consequences of spatial and temporal blindness. Scene 2 and 3 deal with the transformation of spatial blindness into spatial sight and temporal blindness into temporal sight.

Scene 1 When We Don't See the Big Picture

1 Pinball

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 bumpers lights bells 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:


2 The Manager of the Heart

Suggestion: You might enjoy reading this piece to a group of supervisors or middle managers; see if they know what it is like to be "The Manager of the Heart."

Life in the organization may feel like a game of pinball, but the organization itself works more like the human body, everything neatly connected to everything else. However, when we don't see the whole, it can all feel like one chaotic mess. Take the Manager of the Heart.

At times it's a peaceful job. A nice even supply of fresh blood comes in from the lungs. All engines pump smoothly: Lub ... dub ... lub ... dub.

Oh-oh! EMERGENCY! EMERGENCY! Bells ring. Buzzers sound. Messengers come bursting into your office: chemical messengers from the bloodstream, electrical messengers from nerve endings. Who are these guys? Where do they get their information? Who gives them the authority to tell you what to do? "What emergency?" you ask. "Where?" "THERE'S NO TIME TO EXPLAIN!" say the Big Shot Messengers. "JUST START SOME HEAVY PUMPING!" So you tell your people: "FULL AHEAD ON THE PUMPS!"

You've got a good crew; in no time they've got those pumps working away at full capacity: LUB ... DUB ... LUB ... DUB. You're proud of your crew. You turn to those Messengers and say: "OK. Bring on that emergency. We can handle anything!" But the Messengers aren't looking at you; they're checking their pagers. "Forget it," says the electrical messenger. "Cut back," says the chemical messenger. "Emergency's canceled," they say. Emergency's canceled? We're just getting up a head of steam. "CUT BACK! CUT BACK!" They're desperate now. "YOU'LL BURST SOME PIPES!" "What'll I tell my crew?" "CUT BACK!!!!"

So you tell your crew. "It's for the good of the system," you tell them. "What do you want from me?" you ask them. "I don't make the rules around here."

And then it's calm again. A nice even flow of blood. Pumps humming along: Lub ... dub ... lub ... dub. And you start thinking.

You start worrying about your crew. How many changes of direction can these folks take? Will I be able to count on them in a real emergency?

You start thinking about those Messengers, those Specialists, acting like big shots, giving out orders, all that technical mumbo jumbo. When was the last time any of them bloodied their hands opening and closing a stuck valve?

You start thinking about the Bigwigs. Whoever they are, wherever they are, are they just playing games with us or what? Maybe they know what they're doing, maybe they don't. What do they do up there all day anyhow? Maybe they've got the big picture, but what if they don't? What if they're just ... crazy?

And then you start thinking about yourself: All this stress, the way you blew up at those Messengers. They're just doing their jobs after all. Maybe you're losing your cool. Maybe you can't cut it anymore. Maybe you're not half the heart you used to be.

Oh-oh! What's that sound? Who's that racing along the bloodstream? I know, I know.


3 The Mystery of the Swim

We may not see the big picture, but that doesn't stop us from creating our own version of it.

In John Barth's "Night-Sea Journey," a "swimmer" tells us of his journey. He is the sole survivor of what began as a horde of eager, strong, and dedicated swimmers—thousands of them, millions, maybe billions! (He's not sure how many there were.) Only he remains—exhausted and confused. The others are gone, drowned in what now seems like an endless and pointless misadventure. Some, disillusioned and hopeless, have taken their own lives.

Along the way, there were many debates among the swimmers. What was this journey about? When did it begin? Where would it end? What purpose, if any, did it serve?

Different camps with competing philosophies developed regarding the meaning of the night-sea journey. Some argued that there was no meaning to it, that it was a pointless venture, that the struggles and deaths of the swimmers were all in vain. Many from this school took their own lives out of despair.

Others believed that the meaning of the venture lay in the swim itself, that the point of the swim was to swim as best as one could for as long as one could.

Still others believed that the swim was part of some grand design that they, the swimmers, could only speculate about but never fully comprehend.

Within the grand design school, there were varying viewpoints: Some believed that the grand design was inherently good, others believed it was evil, and others believed it was neither good nor evil but that it merely existed.

But now all the others are gone; the debates, the discussions, the schools of philosophy have all drowned in the night sea. Only the narrator remains. We listen to him tell of his journey; he shares his thoughts and feelings. He is tired and confused. Should he continue the struggle or, like the others, allow himself to drown?

And as we read on, we too are confused and discomfited. The swimmer's story is an unsatisfactory one for us. The questions that plague him plague us too. What is this night-sea journey? Where did it begin? Where will it end? What purpose, if any, does it serve? The swimmer tells us in great detail about his journey, yet that is not enough for us. We need to comprehend the journey itself, the whole of which he is but a component part.

Barth never gives us the answer we seek, and without that answer, the journey remains for us an unsettling mystery.

However, if, during our reading—the first, second, or third time through—it comes to us what this night-sea journey is, we are struck with great illumination. Now, having grasped the whole, we read the story through again. What once was confusing is now crystal clear; what once seemed complex and mysterious is now simple and straightforward. The squabbles, debates, and philosophical discussions all make sense to us. And they all seem like so much silly superstition.

* * *

Barth's tale is both a sly joke and a challenging message. He is less concerned with those night-sea swimmers than with us and—given our remarkable brains—our apparently unlimited capacity to create stories that explain what we really don't know. We are story-making machines; we have stories explaining everything from the mystery of life to why the boss never responded to our memo. If we realized that we were making up stories, there'd be some fun to the process and little damage. The problem comes when we believe that our stories are the truth, and we then act on the basis of that "truth."

The challenge is to be able to move past our local picture and the imperfect "truths" it generates to seeing the larger picture and the truths it reveals. First, let's look at how it usually goes—not always, not with everyone, but with great regularity—when, in our spatial blindness, we see the part but not the whole.

4 Seeing the Local Picture

Some systems are perfectly healthy when viewed from the perspective of the whole; but when viewed from the perspective of any one part, they appear to be disorganized, chaotic, a collection of random events.

Our Heart Manager didn't have the big picture. All she knew about was what was happening in her small piece of the system.

All she knew directly was that decisions affecting her were being made in some remote power center.

She didn't know how those decisions were being made and she didn't know whether to trust them.

She felt beleaguered by interference from a variety of staff specialists.

She was concerned with potential labor unrest among her troops, who also did not have the big picture.

She was beset by rumors.

There was talk of a shutdown in the stomach during the emergency.

Was it true? What did it mean? Would the heart be next? For our Heart Manager, system life was a game of pinball. When we have a local perspective:

* Things seem a lot messier than they really are or they seem a lot neater than they really are.

* We tend to blame ourselves for things that may not be our fault or we blame others for things that may not be their fault.

* We react to rumors rather than facts.

* We tend to misinterpret events happening elsewhere in the system.

* We tend to misunderstand and misjudge others in the system: We may see them as malicious, incompetent, and insensitive when in fact they are not. We may see them as well-meaning and all-wise when in fact they are not.

* We are unsure about ourselves, about what to do, about how our actions fit in with the actions of others and with the whole.

When we have a local perspective, organizational life feels like a game of pinball ... or worse.

5 "Stuff" Happens

We may be blind to others' worlds, but this does not stop them from sending "stuff" our way.

Here you are going about your business and then ... stuff happens.

Some of the stuff that comes our way is positive, surprisingly good news:

* We get the bonus we've been waiting for.

* The project is accepted.

Some of the stuff that comes our way is noxious:

* We don't like it.

Some of the stuff that comes our way is a mystery:

* "Why on earth are they doing that?"

And some of the stuff that comes our way is both—noxious and a mystery.

For example, you make what seems like a simple request of your supervisor, and instead of saying, "Sure thing, you can count on it, it's coming your way," your supervisor looks at his feet, shuffles around, and mumbles, "Uh ... well ... let's see ... er ... well, I'll see what I can do." The supervisor's reaction is stuff coming your way. Noxious and a mystery. And you react: It was just a simple request! Where do they get these weak wishy-washy supervisors?

You go to your workers with a proposal you think they will be enthusiastic about, and instead, they put up a wall of resistance. Their resistance is stuff heading your way. Noxious and a mystery. And your reaction: I just don't get it; what is the matter with these people?

You know that your customer is upset, so you make a gesture to soothe the customer's feelings, and instead of appreciation, the customer replies with anger and sarcasm. More stuff heading your way. And your reaction: How did these customers get to be so nasty?

You send a memo to your Top Executive, making what you feel are valuable suggestions for improving the operation. Weeks go by, and there is no response to your memo. More stuff. (Physicists would probably refer to this as "minus stuff.") And you react: Those Tops, they talk the talk, but don't walk the walk.

So stuff comes at us regularly—noxious stuff, mysterious stuff, minus stuff. And how do we react to stuff (not always, not everyone, but with great regularity)?

1. We make up stories that explain the stuff. Our brains don't like mysteries, so in the absence of knowledge about other people's worlds, we quickly fill the void with our stories about them. We create our myths about their motives, and because we don't see ourselves making up stories, we see our stories as the truth.

2. We evaluate others. In our stories, we see them as malicious, insensitive, or incompetent.

3. We take the stuff personally. We experience it as if it is aimed at us and intended to hurt or block us.

4. We react to the stuff. We get mad, we get even, we withdraw.

5. We lose focus. If we had started off with some good intention, we quickly lose interest in that good intention, and instead our focus is on the stuff, our stories about what lies behind the stuff, and our emotions.

6. Our actions then become the stuff for others. They make up their myths about us—about our motives and competencies. They take our actions personally and react to us—getting mad, getting even, withdrawing—and on and on it goes when we do not see the worlds of others.

7. And if there had been any hope of creating partnership with one another, those hopes are diminished if not evaporated.

Reflection: As you know yourself, when stuff happens that is noxious or a mystery, about how long does it take you to run through the above list? [Hint: Some readers measure their reaction time in nanoseconds.]

Chapter Two

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.

6 Seeing Context

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

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.


Excerpted from Seeing Systems by Barry Oshry Copyright © 2007 by Barry Oshry. Excerpted by permission of Bharrett-Kothele Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Barry Oshry is the founder of Power + Systems, Inc., developer of the Power Lab and the Organization Workshop on Creating Partnership, and the author of Leading Systems.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews