Book Review

Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life

by Barry Oshry, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, Calif., 2007, 272 pp., $29.95 softcover

Over the past 40 years, Barry Oshry has championed the need for all of us who live among the dense trees and tangled undergrowth of our organizational worlds to work hard to gain a sense of the whole, a complete and deep knowledge of the entire organizational forest. He, among others, has argued that the “not seeing the forest for the trees problem,” though not new, is exacerbated by the increasing complexity of organizational life today.

In the second edition of his 1995 book Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life, Oshry helps readers understand the organizational dances and rituals spinning above them, below them and around them more clearly and shift their view from “system blindness” into “system sight.”

To do this, he tells stories, creates metaphors and describes programs and trainers who can help whole organizations to transform themselves. He tells readers not to expect the book to be an ordinary reading experience. He forewarns us the book will have “acts and scenes, pinballs and talking body parts and mysterious ‘swimmers’ … amebocytes and slugs and earthworms, a variety of dances, and even one set of ballet notes.” If we read on, we get an entire play in four acts.

Oshry tells us to work harder to develop meaning in our working lives by understanding and developing relationships that are deep, satisfying and transforming. This is hard work. The book is a demanding read that requires continuous questioning and thinking. It could easily stimulate great dialogue and be a catalyst for positive change.

Reviewed by Perry Berkowitz, chair of education leadership and counseling department, College of Saint Rose, Albany, N.Y.