Applying systems thinking to commissioning: remember Barry Oshry!

If you aren’t using the wisdom of Barry Oshry in your commissioning practices, I’m not going to say you should be, but I am going to say you could be.

For those who can’t remember, or who haven’t come across, the basic pattern that Barry tells us develops with great regularity in the widest of organisations and institutions, it looks something like this:

‘There are conditions we all face in whatever organisational position we occupy. Sometimes we are a Top, having overall responsibility for some piece of action; in other interactions we are a 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. In other interactions we are Customers, looking to some other person or group for a product or service we need. So, even in the most complex, multi-level, multifunctional organisations, we are all constantly moving in and out of Top/ Middle/ Bottom/ Customer conditions.’

‘Tops are burdened by what fells 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 non-responsive 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 co-ordinate system processes; Bottoms’ negative feelings towards 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 systems 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.’

(Barry Oshry, Seeing Systems 2007)

Sound familiar? Is should do if you are in the changing environment of public services. I’ve seen this, to some extent, in nearly every area I’ve worked. The thing that makes me feel most pain is when it is being explained in terms of the character, motivation and abilities of individuals, just as Barry describes in his book, ‘Seeing Systems’. What follows is the inevitable moving round or dismissing of staff or alienating them to a point where they leave voluntarily. Alongside this comes reorganising and restructuring and then…………..it all happens again! As Barry tells us, that is because the problem is not the staff, nor is it specific to a particular organisation, it is systemic. He terms the inability to see that it is systemic as ‘system blindness.’ I fear we are all blind at least some of the time.

I’ve seen this particularly in times of great change. Let’s face it, that’s most of the time! As a systems practitioner, I tend to identify it when I am also identifying the pathological archetypes of the viable system model, which tends to widen my vision, helps me to ‘zoom out’ from the situation and look at things from a systemic viewpoint, rather than a personal one. For example, if I see failing change programmes where some parts of the organisation do not know why then need to change or who they need to work with, a lack of cohesion and stretched operations, resulting in questions to management around responsibility, staff unable to co-ordinate efforts and rifts throughout a number of levels in the organisation then I can potentially see the ‘identity crisis’ archetype. With this archetype, there may be some strategic issues or organisational design flaws that require attention. However, once it has happened, attention needs to turn to ensuring that people know what is intended, implementing effective co-ordination mechanisms and supporting staff to solve their own problems. Additionally, the potential management turf war, that is causing the mixed messages, also requires resolution. So, I can see the ‘identity crisis’ and I can also see the pattern of the ‘Tops’ being crushed by unmanageable complexity, the Middles becoming more isolated from one another in the confusion and the Bottoms feeling oppressed and disengaging in response to that.

When the Bottoms start to have negative feelings towards the Middles and Tops and when the Middle peers start to compete, I’ve also seen the ‘baronies’ archetype emerge, albeit not very strongly, but I believe it was there. I have seen a group break off and gain independence. They have remained in their own silo and stopped seeing the worth they can get from being part of the wider ‘whole’. I’ve seen competitiveness prevail and learning shielded from other teams. Fortunately, the group were persuaded to recognise the synergies of working as a whole and were able to re-integrate back into the wider system. I was able to recognise what was happening by applying systems thinking to the situation, which made things feel a lot less disturbing. I felt that I could understand it and then use that understanding to carefully start edging things back in the right direction.

Admittedly, it is difficult to actually see the system, if you are embedded in it. Believe you and me, systems practitioners engage in the patterns above all too often, even though they are aware of them and work to recognise them on virtually a daily basis, sometimes. But, you can try to ‘zoom out’ and see the wider system and the systemic nature of the situation you are in. Systems thinking is a model of thinking that can support you in doing that.

To leave you with another quote from Barry Oshry, ‘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.’ (Barry Oshry, Seeing Systems. 2007)

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