In this paper, I will:
1. provide a framework for creating total system power at all levels and in all positions;
2.describe the regularly recurring pitfalls that limit total system power, and
3.demonstrate how these pitfalls can be avoided in order for systems to realize their full potential.
An Empowered System
A system in which people at all levels and in all positions are able to make happen what they want to have happen and what the system needs to have happen
I. What is the fundamental business of all systems? Whether we are dealing with the family, a sports team, a division within the organization, the organization itself, or a nation, the fundamental business of all systems is survival and development, continuing their existence and realizing their full potential.
II. How do systems survive and develop? All systems interact with their environments. In these environments are dangers to be avoided and opportunities to be taken advantage of. Systems survive and develop by coping with dangers and prospecting among the opportunities.
III. How does each part of the system contribute to Total System Power? Each part of the system has its unique potential contribution to Total System Power. These potentials are often not realized for reasons described below.
Tops as Shapers. The unique contribution of Tops is to function as system Shapers. Tops shape the system by looking outward, studying the system’s environment, sensing its dangers and opportunities, and by looking inward, seeing that the system has the structure, culture, inspiration, and resources needed for coping with these dangers and opportunities.
The following are areas that Tops as Shapers are responsible for. This does not mean that Tops are expected to do these things alone; it does mean that whether or not these functions happen is Top’s responsibility.
Tops empower the system by:
1.developing a vision of what the system is and can be, a vision that inspires system members, that taps their passions.
2.developing structures that mobilize human energy and enable to system to live out its mission.
3.developing a culture that supports creative, productive, and satisfying work. Culture involves such elements as atmosphere, traditions, rewards, and acknowledgement systems.
4. seeing that the system has the resources – human and material – to do its work.
Workers as Producers. The unique contribution of Workers is to function as System Producers. Workers produce by being the experts on the system’s products and services, by fully applying their intelligence and expertise to the work of the system, by having an intimate knowledge of customers’ needs and aspirations, by using their closeness to work and expertise about work to determine how work best be done in the organization, and by involving themselves in ways of improving products and services.
Middles as Integrators. The unique contribution of Middles is to function as the Integrating Mechanism of the system. They coordinate system parts such that the system functions smoothly with the parts feeding and supporting one another while avoiding dysfunctional conflict and unnecessary redundancy. Middles integrate the system by regularly integrating with one another, sharing information, diagnosing common system issues, and solving problem.
Customers as Validaters. The unique contribution of Customers is to function as system Validaters. They are in the best position to determine if the system is doing what it is supposed to be doing and doing it as well as it should be doing. Customers validate the system by providing the system with timely feedback positive and negative, by offering concrete suggestions as to how the system could improve service, and sometimes organizing with other customers in order to accomplish these matters.
IV. These sources of power support one another.
There is no conflict among these sources of power.
1. The better the job Tops do in shaping, the better the structure, resources, and climate there is for the Workers to produce.
2. The better Middles are at integrating, the more freed up Tops are to shape, and the more Workers are supported in producing.
3. The better Customers are at validating, the more everyone knows how well the system is doing what it is supposed to be doing.
V. Pitfalls to Total System Power: Burdened Tops, Oppressed Workers, Torn Middles, and Righteously Screwed Customers.
Why Tops don’t shape. Tops exist in a world of complexity: difficult issues to deal with, unpredictable issues, things that Tops felt were dealt with keep coming back. In the face of complexity, what Tops often do, reflexively, without thought or conscious choice, is suck that responsibility up to themselves and away from others. When that happens, Tops become burdened by this overwhelming complexity. Under such conditions, shaping becomes a good idea but something for which, unfortunately, one just doesn’t have the time or energy.
Why Workers don’t produce. Workers exist in a world of disregard: there are things that are wrong with their condition, and things that they see that are wrong with the system, and their sense is that “higher-ups” should be fixing these things, and they are not. In the face of this disregard, what Workers often do – again, reflexively, without awareness or choice - is hold “higher-ups” (not themselves) responsible for their condition and for the condition of the system. When that happens, workers become oppressed: there is energy focused on higher-ups, what they are doing or not doing, disappointed at them, angry at them. Under such conditions, Workers are not inclined to be the Producers as described above.
Why Middles don’t function as the integrating mechanism. Middles exist in a tearing world, pulled between the often conflicting demands and priorities of Tops, Workers, Customers, Providers, and other Middles. Middles find themselves caught between other people’s conflicts. In the face of this tearing, what Middles often do – again, reflexively, without conscious choice – is slide into other people’s issues and conflicts and make them their own. Middles hold themselves responsible for resolving these issues, and what makes this even more difficult is that the others also hold middle responsible for resolving their own issues. When this happens, middles become torn: torn apart from one another and torn internally, weak, confused, loss of independence, not fully satisfying any of the folks they feel they should be serving. When that happens, being the integrating mechanism of the system is not a possibility.
Why Customers don’t validate. Customers live in a world of neglect – products and services not coming to them as fast as they want, in the quality they feel they deserve, or at the price they want to pay. In the face of this neglect, what Customers often do – with out awareness or choice – is to hold the delivery system responsible for delivery. That is, it becomes crystal clear to the customers that the responsibility for delivery rests fully on the delivery system and not at all on them. When this happens, they become the righteously screwed customer: angry at the system, frustrated by it, feeling entitled and unfairly treated.
VI. The keys to Total System Empowerment: Awareness, Choice, and Stands.
1. All parties need to see their potential contributions as Shapers, Producers, Integrators, and Validaters.
2. All parties need to recognize the reflex response as they are happening.
3. All parties need to be able to say NO to the reflex responses and to have alternative stands from which to operate.
Top Stand. In the presence of Top overload, instead of sucking responsibility up to myself and becoming the burdened Top, my stand is: Be a Top who creates responsibility throughout the system.
Bottom Stand. In the presence of Bottom disregard, instead of holding higher-ups responsible for my condition and for the condition of the system and becoming the oppressed Bottom, my stand is: Be a Bottom who is responsible for my condition and for the condition of the system.
Middle Stand. In the presence of Middle tearing, instead of sliding in between other people’s issues and conflicts and making them my own and becoming the torn Middle, my stand is: Be a Middle who maintains my (and my middle peer group’s) independence of thought and action.
Customer Stand. In the presence of Customer neglect, instead of holding the delivery system responsible and becoming the righteously screwed Customers, my stand is: Be a Customer who gets in the middle of delivery processes and helps them work for me.
VI. Final Note. The reflex responses that destroy the possibility of Total System Empowerment are predictable, but they are not inevitable. The Stands, on the other hand, are not predictable, but they are a human possibility. These stands not only enable us to create more powerful systems, they also elevate each of us to higher possibilities for ourselves as human beings.
Barry Oshry is the Chief Theoretical Officer of Power + Systems, Inc. He is the creator of the Organization Workshop on Creating Partnership and the Power Lab which is the subject of the prize-winning documentary Power Lab: Living in New Hope. His books include Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organization Life and Leading Systems: Lessons from the Power Lab.