Power and Systems

 Graphic by Trevor Melton

Graphic by Trevor Melton


Power issues have a profound effect on systems change efforts. Ideally, a convenor—whose only stake is the good of the entire system—would lead the process. When efforts to change systems begin, power players inside the system may try to take over the process. But if they succeed, the effort to change systems dies.

Organizations with system-wide power naturally wish to preserve it. They may conduct hearings, focus groups, and community meetings, but their model of listening usually does not involve others in systems redesign. The participants, ostensibly included, often doubt the legitimacy of the outcome created “for” them.

Once a neutral convenor gathers the requisite blend of people, she empowers them to co-create the path forward. Alfredo del Valle, our colleague and Chilean systems practitioner, emphasizes that in a legitimate process:

Strong participation is a product “of” the actors, not a product of experts “for” them. It multiplies intelligences and enriches ideas. It humanizes, dignifies, and actualizes people. With the right tools, it can be a realistic, effective, interesting, and attractive process. And it offers the most efficient and effective solution to high complexity.

Engagement gives people power.

It was Barry Oshry, a pioneer in the field of systems leadership, who noted that systems have tops, middles, and bottoms. People at the top have the power to assemble resources and develop systems. They give everyone in systems a clear understanding of opportunities and perils.

People in the middle are systems integrators. They move back and forth in systems to connect the parts. They diagnose problems and opportunities and move resources and knowledge to where needed.

Because they hold the ground truth about systems’ functions, the people on the bottom are the systems fixers. They identify areas needing work; explain the costs and consequences of doing the work; and deliver the goods their systems produce.

When the tops discover an issue, insert themselves, and apply their power to solve it, they limit the problem-solving brainpower. This reinforces the counter-productive belief that others have no power.

When middles become stuck in silos, they squander their power. They cease viewing the big picture, cause parts of systems to disconnect, and create more issues for the tops.

When bottoms reflexively expect the higher-ups to solve all the problems, they yield what little power they have. They leave problem-solving to tops and middles, people remote from the solution. This increases the likelihood problems will persist.

Tops, middles, and bottoms each have a unique power to unleash systems potential. If an Alpha leader causes others to abdicate their power, systems remain locked. When leaders share power, systems evolve beyond hierarchy as power distributes appropriately to tops, middles, and bottoms.


Carter Andrews helps businesses and communities improve complex systems. He champions collaborative design that features strong participation by diverse participants. Download his paper Leadership for High-Complex Systems in Future Ready Nashville to dive into the world of complexity.

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