“Total Systems Power” by Barry Oshry

The Conditions We Experience in Our Roles within Systems

What each of us can do in our multiple roles as Tops, Middles, Bottoms, and Customers to create a system with outstanding capacity to survive and develop.


This post summarizes Barry Oshry’s Total System Power. In I learned about Total System Power at DeEtta Jones’s Library Management Skills Institute 2: The Organization workshop.

As I observe organizational challenges and barriers and encounter moments of frustration, I reference Total System Power; it helps me frame the conditions I and others might be experiencing. And from there, I can better engage in identifying a root problem and possible paths for solutions.


Let’s look at systems and the conditions we experience.

Overview of Systems

Systems survive and develop by:

  • Coping with dangers
  • Prospecting among opportunities

Powerful systems have outstanding capacities for coping and prospecting. And systems are nested and intertwined.

Our roles within systems are multi-faceted. The conditions we experience are varied and may be simultaneous.

Four Conditions

The conditions imply positions in a hierarchy. That is both intentional, but remember, we each operate within numerous hierarchies, and our conditions may reflect positions above or below our rank in the hierarchy.

Each of us face four conditions in our roles: Top, Bottom, Middle, Customer.


In the Top condition:

  • We are responsible and accountable for strengthening the capacity of the system.
  • We have the Power of Developing: strengthen, share big picture, involve system members, ask for help, delegate important challenges, coach.
  • We sabotage when we suck up responsibility from others.


In the Bottom condition:

  • We are experiencing problems with the system.
  • We have the Power of Fixing: inform higher-ups, clarify problem costs, use proximity to elaborate solving vision
  • We sabotage when we hold higher-ups responsible for the existence of and solution to the problem.


In the Middle condition:

  • We are experiencing conflicting demands
  • We have the Power to Integrating: share information, coordinate functions, move resources, use collective information.
  • We sabotage when we over-emphasize one connection at the expense of others.


In the Customer condition:

  • We are looking to others to move your work ahead.
  • We have the Power of Validating: evaluate quality, provide detailed feedback to the right people, suggest improvements, be involved throughout the delivery; Be a true partner in getting your needs met.
  • We sabotage when we say the system that delivered the product is at fault, but we are not.


I decided to write about this, because I keep observing organizational conditions. In ’s Hyrax Development Support & Engagement Working Group meeting, I began noticing that our partnering organizations may well be experiencing a Customer and Middle condition relative to Samvera 🔍’s partner system.

So I shared a summary with the meeting attendees, and now share this summary with you.