The dance of power and robust systems —

Barry Oshry’s Power+Systems and and Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model

I’ve been a long-time student of Barry Oshry’s work ( www.powerandsystems.com ), which is based on observations of human behaviour in experiential learning situations, and in the world. Barry is an artisan of experiential learning, and an observer and expert in long-distance pattern recognition.

On the one hand, he sees that, when we step into the space of, in an interaction, being a:

  • top (responsible for the whole, needing to get things done but can’t do them yourself)
  • bottom (needing to do the work but with no responsibility for the whole, and a lot of vulnerability)
  • customer (needing the work done, but with no responsibility for delivery — just judgement)
  • a middle (the customer wants something from you only the organisation can provide, and vice versa), and
  • a consultant/adviser (you and the organisation want you to prove yourself of immediate value)…

…we step into conditions, a way of seeing, understanding that comes (it seems inevitably) with the conditions. And with that way of seeing, comes an instant reflex response which is the only response that makes sense based on that way of seeing and those conditions:

  • tops — suck up responsibility
  • bottoms — blame ‘it’
  • customer — expect results
  • middles — slide in between and try to keep everyone happy
  • consultant/adviser — seek to be of immediate value, either as an expert (telling them what to do) or a servant (being told what to do)

Those reflexive responses (locked in as they are to your perceiving of the world) turn out to be lousy responses, which actually exacerbate the system conditions. And, by doing so, exacerbate and reaffirm/strengthen the ‘obvious and essential’ response. The predictable outcome matches the instant reflex responses, and seems to be ‘just the way things are’:

  • tops — become overloaded
  • bottoms — become victims
  • customer — end up righteously screwed
  • middle — become stretched/torn/nobody…
  • consultant/adviser — end up feeling used and abused

By the way, the pain of this constant failure of potential is offset by the pleasure and energy we gain from these negatives — we can tell stories where we are the most important part of the system (albeit as victim).

The challenge is to find, and move towards, more enabling responses (which, of course, will go against instincts) — tops who create responsibility throughout the system, bottoms who take responsibility for their condition and for the whole thing, customers who get in early as a partner, not late as a judge, middles who maintain their independence of thought and action, and consultants who develop a co-learning approach with their clients. All of these responsibilities put us in service of the whole system, they enlarge our potential and our responsibility.

The same sort of pattern occurs in human groups, whereby there is an instinctive human response to encountering the Other (the dominant or the outsider), or the Different, which disables both groups, all the individuals, and the system as a whole.

From the cultural work, Barry has identified four requirements for robust systems:

  • two dimensions of love: homogenisation (commonality across the system — becoming more the same) and integration (becoming more connected), and
  • two dimensions of power: differentiation (specialisation across the system — becoming more differentiated) individuation (becoming more different)

As a cultural study, the thesis is that both power and love need to be expressed and balanced to have what he calls a ‘robust system’. Many human systems have a preponderance of power dynamics, many an overabundance of love. Both are as sterile and problematic as the other.

The Viable Systems Model identifies the core, fundamental requirements for an organisation to exist, and continue to exist. One of the (many) ways this in which this can be summed up* is as being about balancing the

  • adaptation of the whole,
  • autonomy of the parts,
  • stability of the whole, and
  • integration of sub-systems.

…in other words, enough flexibility (discretion) to deal with the complexity of the world, enough rigidity (limits and norms) to prevent the organisation from dissolving into… well, not-organisation.

It’s not a stretch to see Barry’s dynamics of power as the adaptation of the whole system and the autonomy of sub-systems, and the love dynamic as stability of the whole system and integration of sub-systems.

Here is Barry giving a 90 minute overview of his thinking at a SCiO open meeting (shorter videos are also available): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddI-8zPG0dI

This dance of power, then, as it plays out in our organisations and social groups from scales small to large, shows how our systems are constantly reinventing themselves — and how our active learning (responding to our conditions) shapes our understanding and our actions, recreating the system constantly.

If we seek to intervene in systems to make change, we have to understand these dances and these self-shaping systems, or we are doomed to repeat them.

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Some references, because we all know how exciting the footnotes are:

This post was provoked by a discussion on the CYBCOM listserve: https://model.report/s/ihf8oy/that_most_basic_need_of_humanity_which_is_to_use_ideas_freely_-_and_the_dance_of_power

And by many years of study of Barry Oshry’s power+systems work — see

*Just as with Barry’s work, and perhaps even more so, study of the Viable Systems Model from Stafford Beer will reward you with many and unexpected gifts.

Try: