Leading Systems, by Barry Oshry

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In 1969, Barry Oshry decided to run a simulation on institutional racism called “the Society of New Hope” so that people could take on different roles in society and see how that unfolded. To his surprise, it quickly spun out of his control, as the “Have Not”s disabled the cars in the parking lot so nobody could leave, locked themselves in their quarters rather than do their assigned work, and took Betty Friedan as a hostage from the “Have”s to negotiate for better conditions.

He learned so much from that experience that he decided to keep running these simulations and called it the Power Lab to study how people operate within systems of power, and this 1999 book summarizes what he learned from three decades of that study. The setup is that there are three classes: the Elites “who own and control most of the society’s resources and institutions”, the Immigrants “who enter the society with little more than the clothes on their back”, and the Middles “who manage the institutions of the Elite and in return are able to enjoy a modest middle-class life”.

What’s fascinating about these “Lessons from the Power Lab” (the subtitle of the book) is how the same patterns keep re-occurring across dozens of iterations of the society, showing that the behavior patterns are not a function of the individuals involved, but of the design of the system/society itself. As Oshry writes in the introduction:

We are system creatures. Our hearts and minds are shaped by the structure and processes of the whole systems of which we are a part. Until we recognize and learn to work with that reality of our existence, we are likely to continue to do needless damage to ourselves, to others, to our systems, and to other systems. When we are blind to whole system phenomena, we are at their mercy; only when we see and understand these phenomena are we able to create sane and healthy social systems for all humankind.”

When we are in a system that is not working for us, “we can change this system by changing our relationship to it”; in particular, “system power is the ability to bring the system to self-awareness” and “the determining factors for system power are: the belief that one can make a difference, a deep understanding of system process, and the courage to act.”

This is at odds with the American culture I grew up in, where every problem is seen as an individual problem (witness the eternal debates around gun violence), and power is seen as a static function of position. Oshry sees a different path because “We are not visitors to the system, we are part of it. Rather than fixing ourselves (or narcotizing ourselves against our feelings), we can change our relationship to the system. And by changing our relationship to the system, we change the system, sometimes in small ways and sometimes fundamentally.”

My experience is that this plays out in as small a system as a relationship between two people – if I am not getting what I want from the relationship, the “system power” move is to have the courage to change how I relate to the system, by calling out the dynamics (which Oshry calls “system sight”) and by taking different actions or reactions. I also love this as a coaching move; when I hear a client telling me how if they do this, the other person will do that, and they can predict the whole script of the interaction before it even happens, I point it out and ask them how they will change the script. They realize they are replaying the same moves over and over again, and the only way things will change is if they do something different; even just calling out “hey, we are replaying the same script” can shift the dynamics. As Oshry writes, “we are free in the system when we step out of the flow and seize the opportunity”.

Sometimes changing the system requires energy or even conflict. Oshry suggests that “power is the management of system energy” and “system leadership [is] the management of human energy”, because “peace suppresses the potential of systems”. The cost of keeping things running smoothly and not jeopardizing what you have is “the self-inflicted suppression of energizing that could elevate the system to a more robust level of existence.” and “The unrelenting avoidance of energy has the predictable costs of deadening us and them.” I was inspired by this as a coach, in realizing that sometimes my job is to inject energy into the system by challenging my clients, because while it might upset them, “it might also bring them to life, mobilize their thinking, cause them to stretch and grow”. More generally, if we want to change a system to better fit our values, we might have to risk our safety and comfort to disrupt the system with new energy.

Oshry shares three common tensions within systems that he observed repeatedly in the Power Lab:

  • “Systems Individuate and they Integrate: The members operate independently of one another… and they interact with one another, functioning as components of an integrated whole.
  • Systems Differentiate and they Homogenize: The whole develops variety (diversity) in form and function, with the forms and functions becoming increasingly different from one another…and system knowledge and capacity are spread throughout the system so that these differentiated forms and functions maintain their commonality.
  • Systems Stabilize and they Change: Systems maintain continuity in form and function over time… and they change form and function over time.

Oshry’s key insight is that “system health requires all six processes”, and when systems become unbalanced, they become weakened. To return to the example of America’s individualist culture, he points out that a system that is individuated and under-integrated will have these symptoms: “System members ‘do their own things’, concerted system efforts are weak, short-lived, or nonexistent; there is duplication, redundancy, missed opportunities for synergy; members compete with or are indifferent to one another’s concerns.” Sounds familiar, right? It describes much of American political culture, as well as many companies where I have worked.

Oshry goes on to share how these system dynamics tended to play out within the Power Lab:

  • Among the Elites, the tendency was towards Differentiation without Homogenization. Each leader became possessive and territorial of their own area, leading to turf warfare and conflicts about systemic direction.
  • Among the Middles, the tendency was towards Individuation without Integration. They get stuck doing their jobs alone, torn between satisfying their manager above, and their customers below, with no sense of collective vision or belonging.
  • Among the Immigrants, the tendency was towards Integration without Individuation or Differentiation. They exist in a “world of shared vulnerability” where their only power comes from acting collectively, so they are pressured to conform to the shared worldview.

Again, I can easily map these dynamics onto my own observations and experiences within corporate America. And that’s Oshry’s point – these are system dynamics, and only by acknowledging they are properties of the system can we start to change them. If we know that the tendency of leaders is towards turf warfare and conflict, we can build in more processes of Homogenization and Integration to bring them together towards a shared vision.

The last point I’ll share from the book is that “position [in the system] does not determine power”. To reiterate his prescription, “the determining factors for system power are: the belief that one can make a difference, a deep understanding of system process, and the courage to act.” We may feel that we have no power because we are “just” a low-level individual contributor or “just” a middle manager. And yet we all know the stories of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who saw the system as it was, figured out how to mobilize power from their position within the system, and had the courage to believe they could make a difference. No matter what your position is, you can share your awareness of the system (your “system sight”), increase the creative tension and energy in the system even if it may lead to conflict, and invest in the system processes that are being ignored (e.g. integration over individuation).

I love Oshry’s insights into human systems, and his advocacy for the power we each have to change those systems if we apply our “system sight” and act with courage. I will come back to his “Lessons from the Power Lab” when I am feeling stuck, and I will definitely use this book as an inspiration for my clients as well.

P.S. I didn’t even mention the many great stories he tells! At least half of the book is him sharing stories from different iterations from the Power Lab, many of which are funny and insightful. My favorite was “Begging with Barry” where he quit his job as a Middle, so the Elites cut off his food and the food for the Immigrants he was serving, and he needed to figure out a way to acquire food. He organized a group of volunteers to leave the campus and go begging door-to-door in the surrounding residential neighborhoods, and it worked! That may seem like it was “cheating”, but we can always expand our definition of the boundaries of a system. Amusingly, he ran up against the next barrier the next day when the police were called on his band of volunteer beggars, and he desisted, but later realized he had the opportunity to go even bigger in expanding the system: “Stepping through the limit situation and allowing ourselves to be arrested and jailed would have provided us with a broader platform from which to raise issues of poverty, hunger, suburban isolation, and so forth. … The threat of arrest was the beginning of possibility, not the end.” Keep expanding the possibilities!

P.P.S. This book feels like a practical companion to Donella Meadows’s book Thinking in Systems, taking those principles and applying them to human systems.

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