Invisible Dynamics - Klaus P Horn - ebook

The company isn't booming, the customers are drifting away, innovation is at a standstill – What's wrong? A rational analysis can provide you with pieces of the problem, but never the whole picture. Systemic constellations give you the missing link. Success with this method in companies such as Daimler-Chrysler, IBM, and BMW has contributed to a booming interest in Europe. When the systemic structure of a team, company or market becomes clear, it is obvious what has to happen next. Individuals who are not involved in the problem situation are used to represent people or parts of the company and a trained consultant uses feedback from the representatives to reveal hidden dynamics and point to solutions. Anyone in a position of responsibility in industry or government, or an organisation in health education or welfare can profit from this book. It is easy to read and practical, with case examples and short summaries for quick scanning. "A totally obscure situation suddenly became as clear as day. How come we couldn't see the obvious before?! For all of our company leaders it was a total revelation." O. Wassermann, CEO of Wassermann AG/Swisslog, Munich, Germany

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Invisible Dynamics

Klaus P. Horn/Regine Brick

Systemic Constellations in Organisations and in Business

Cover: WSP-Design, Heidelberg

Layout: Drißner-Design u. DTP, Meßstetten

eBook edition, 2018

ISBN 978-3-8497-8169-9 (ePUB)

© 2001 Gabal Verlag GmbH, Offenbach

© for the English edition 2005, 2018 by Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag und Verlagsbuchhandlung GmbH, Heidelberg

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced by any process whatsoever without the written permission of the copyright owner.

Title of the original edition:

„Das Verborgene Netzwerk der Macht“

Bibliographic information published by Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek.

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in the Deutsche Nationalbibliografie; detailed bibliographic

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1.The Organisation’s System – Your Most Important Working Capital

1.1The invisible control system in your business

1.2Conscience as a systemic compass

1.3The invisible lines of power

2.Systemic Constellations – Revealing Invisible Dynamics

2.1The development of this method

2.2Two paths to the same goal: Solutions

2.3How does a systemic constellation function?

2.4When is a systemic constellation useful?

2.5What skills are needed to lead constellations?

3.Systemic Constellations in Practice – Case Examples

3.1“We are losing our best people!” Director of a medium-sized company fights high employee turnover and internal resistance

3.2“I can’t get a foot in here.” A young business manager is not accepted by his employees

3.3“What do we need in order to grow together?”Problems following a German-French company merger

3.4“I want the rewards we have earned.” Red ink in a branch purchased by a medium-sized family business

3.5“Who is the undercover boss here?”A business consultant on the wrong track

3.6“Where am I heading?”A successful professional at a fork in the road

4.The Value of Systemic Constellations – Questions and Answers from Seminars

4.1Turning the key to success – from problem to solution

4.2Activating resources – individual and organisational growth

4.3More than just being there – Using participants’ observations

4.4The latest magic formula? – Critical questions about the constellation methods

4.5Questions from participants in a business symposium

5.Systemic Coaching – From Macro- to Micro-systems

5.1How macro-systems and micro-systems fit together

5.2Hidden potential – the harmony of opposites

5.3The invisible power system in your personality

5.4Managing your inner team

5.5Training the head of the inner team – An aware ego in everyday life

6.Beginning to Use Your Systemic Know-How



About the Authors



The constellation methods described in this book have been used successfully in our company for years.

As specialists in process-orientated management for over fifteen years, we have organised procedures and supply chains in business and industry using our own simulation software. Using this software, we can simulate the procedure and handling of future contracts and materials. We create a situation as though the planning, procurement and production were actually taking place.

Identify bottlenecks using simulations.

The simulation identifies potential bottlenecks so that they can be corrected before they can cause delays or missed deadlines or affect productivity. With problem areas cleared, contracted work and materials flow freely through the company and supply chains.

An ingenious idea, but so simple and unusual that it often meets with scepticism or even complete rejection. “Simulation isn’t the same as reality!” “Do you actually think you can depict our complex procedures using software?” “There’s no way it can work.”

Communications up-date

These are some of the reactions, plus a lot of head shaking, that we are often confronted with when we approach new customers. For many years Dr. Horn and his team have helped us to deal with this reaction constructively, using systemically orientated training. Instead of retaliating with a defensive, “Yes, but …,” on our side, we have been able to recognise the signs of interest embedded in such negative reactions. The ice is soon broken and, after a while, our customers themselves can’t remember why they were previously so blind to something as easy and effective as this. In the process, they are also learning to overcome barriers and anxiety and to work together as a goal-orientated team. Our trainers call that a “communications update”, one that alters old patterns and habits that are no longer useful.

Nonetheless, like many of our customers, I had a similar reaction when Dr Horn told me one day that using a different kind of simulation he could depict a human business system and smooth out problem areas just as we were doing with technical business systems. I felt that it was clearly impossible, because you would have to deal with people in all their complexity. Of course, he interpreted this as a sign of interest on my part, and so it led to our people sitting down together to get acquainted with this new kind of simulation.

We presented Dr Horn with a customer situation that we felt was a complete muddle, one that had already cost us many sleepless nights, and we challenged him to demonstrate how he could put it in order.

Confusing situations made clear

Using representatives, we set up a constellation of the system, and we were truly amazed. It was crystal clear to everyone exactly what was going on. This confusing muddle was suddenly laid open like a book. Every person in our group felt as though a veil had been dropped, we could see where the problem lay and what the solution was. The real surprise, however, was still to come when, less than three months later, the exact solution that had appeared in the constellation actually emerged in reality!

Why constellations function, we still don’t really understand, and neither do the systemic experts, but the fact that they do and that they lead to solutions, can be documented.

These days, to the benefit of our customers, we work successfully with Dr Horn and his partner as specialists for business systems: we at the technical level, and they at the level of human interaction.

To get the most benefit from this book, regard your own objections as signs of interest. You will be richly rewarded by valuable, stimulating input that perhaps may sometimes seem like magic.

Otto WassermannChairman of the Board, Wassermann AG


Do you understand the significance of a good team line-up in football? Do you know how important network connections are for the marketing success of a company? If you do, then you are already familiar with some of the most important principles of this book.


Today, a business is considered well positioned and “well-connected” when it is in a strong market position, with executives skilled in human resource management. Behind the rhetoric lies more than just a passing trend. It reflects the importance of the “network connections” within the organisation for the success or failure of the operations. Because awareness of these connections is at an unconscious level, it has been little used up to now, denying us a valuable navigational tool. The network constellations, in which our business ventures are embedded, are by no means accidental. These interpersonal systems, which we know as teams, departments, companies, and markets, follow certain laws, and their success depends on the degree to which they conform to these laws.

The systemic constellation method offers a tool that can depict complex interconnections and reciprocal effects in a clear and simple way. In widespread networks as well as clearly defined teams, this method also helps to sort out entanglements and to recognise hidden resources in obstacles.

More inner democracy

As in any new development however, this method also presents you with an unreasonable demand. What is it? It demands that you risk more “inner democracy”. To profit from this method, you have to dethrone your rational mind as the sovereign ruler in ways of learning, problem solving and innovation. Relinquishing this out-dated monopoly on the transfer of information and energy makes much in the business world more attractive and colourful. Letting go of the monopoly of a linear-analytic method also opens new pathways in business management and consulting. It complements the potential of logical thinking and digital analysis with the invisible knowledge and concealed information already existing in the organisation’s system.

In systems of human interaction, there exists a kind of invisible field of information, similar to the way the Internet contains a vast wealth of information about concrete questions. The information we scan on the web can only be used when we make selections and, similarly, the information contained in an organisational system can only be accessed through a particular procedure. Contrary to current trends, the selection process in a system of human interaction requires an analogue procedure, the language of symbolic images.

To decipher them, we need a special kind of high performance processor – the emotional intelligence of the right brain. The concentrated information about a business system is stored in unconscious images that can be made visible through the elegantly simple process of the constellation method. These images have an enormous advantage in that they are comprehensible to everyone. Complex situations and problems that would be exceedingly difficult and time-consuming to work out using logic and analysis become clear at the speed of a mouse click.

Culture of the organisation

The product here can be neither counted nor increased. It is however what determines the success of a business and its ability to adapt to the future. Current nomenclature refers to human capital and the culture of an organisation. Why has the culture of an organisation become a central topic of discussion? It is the glue that holds the entire complex structure together. A sense of belonging and loyalty of the members to the organisation are important components of this glue. Under stress, it becomes clear whether the glue will hold, or whether the support structure will collapse.

When the culture of an organisation binds and supports, it is most clearly visible at the interface between organisation and individual. This is where the track is laid that determines whether the train will proceed to its destination or be diverted to a siding. The enormous significance of the “switching” factors has become clear only now in our age of information. Thomas Sattelberger, member of the Lufthansa regional board, described human capital as “the real bottleneck in business”.

The future belongs to networks, both global and regional.

The success of a business is dependent on how harmoniously the organisation’s system works and what place it finds in the complex market networks; and it depends on whether those running the business understand and respect the laws of human systems.

The “human capital” of a company consists of not only the right employees, but also the right bosses! Those in decision-making positions have to attend to systemic balance if they want to achieve a stable balance. This is true for small family businesses just as it is true for multinational concerns.

Systemic constellations and coaching:A new approach to problem solving …

The procedures presented here provide access to the information in the network of a company. Therefore, systemic constellations and systemic coaching may emerge as the problem solving method of the future. This is a new approach that is spreading throughout the world from its origins in Germany, and initial scientific research has confirmed the positive effects of the method in a variety of well-known businesses.

… for organisational systems in business and industry

Although the constellation methods are increasingly attracting attention in the public eye, there has been a paucity of material available to those wishing to apply the method in businesses. With this book, we hope to communicate the usefulness of this new approach in business. The book is meant for practical application, and you will gain from the examples presented here, whether they have to do with strategic business decisions, team development or personal goals.

Regardless of your position in your organisation, the application of systemic principles can give you insight into problems, help you in making critical decisions and open new perspectives for the development of the organisation.

For over twenty years as trainers and consultants, we have worked with the questions, problems, goals and visions of our customers, who include individuals as well as businesses of all sizes and in various fields. The innovative method of systemic constellations, which is what this book is about, has become an important tool in our repertoire of skills. With the help of this method, we have been able to help many customers to find solutions to complex situations, to clarify goals and to develop new perspectives. Solutions can often be found in situations where the tools of classical training and coaching would not have been sufficient. Nothing is as successful as a method whose time has come! Nonetheless, other, complementary approaches are sometimes needed, particularly in implementing solutions in everyday situations. We have included an effective approach for moving from macro-systems to micro-systems, a transfer which can be critical to success.

Overview of the book

What can you expect in the following chapters? In the first chapter we look at the invisible mechanisms that influence a business. Chapter two details the development of the systemic constellations method and describes what actually happens. Examples of constellations done with our customers allow you a glimpse into the practice. These constellations are documented in the third chapter. In our seminars and lectures, we are often confronted with interesting questions about systemic work. As you may be asking some of the same questions, a selection of many of these questions and our answers have been included in Chapter four. Because individuals must apply the solutions that emerge, the interface of the macro-system (the business or organisation) and the micro-system (individuals) is of paramount importance. Our approach to systemic macro-micro-coaching can be found in the fifth chapter. The conclusion in Chapter six contains a checklist with which you can begin to apply systemic principles in your company or organisation immediately.

1. The Organisation’s System – Your Most Important Working Capital


The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

It would be a mistake to believe that you, as a businessperson, run your business alone. As manager or employee, if you are of the opinion that your boss or the board of directors are setting the priorities, you are overlooking something critical. In actual fact, everyone together is running the organisation. This is not meant in the sense of “we’re all in the same boat”, nor is it in the sense of the common ownership of the Soviet era.

It is not only those belonging to the organisation who participate in the success or failure; others also play a role – for example, the customers, the share holders, the users, the competitors and perhaps foreign affiliates. Like a network, they create a powerful whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

The whole functions as a living system, whose dynamics have effects that are often in direct opposition to the decisions made by the company executives.

How is this possible? When we consider individuals, it is very clear that everyone has their own blind spots and from time to time acts and reacts unconsciously. At the very least since Sigmund Freud, it has been generally accepted that the unconscious has a powerful influence on our actions, feelings and thinking. Our rational thoughts and actions have even been compared to a floating nutshell, and the unconscious the sea. As long as the sea is calm, the nutshell captain believes he is in control.

A company also has an unconscious.

It is not only individuals that are influenced by the unconscious, but also human systems – families, organisations and businesses. Martin Buber pointed to this conclusion with his well-known statement that the unconscious is not in, but rather between individuals. This unconscious between people is not only a phenomenon of mass psychology, as observable at a football match, pop concert or campaign speech. Even more, it is a powerful but invisible structure in organisations, departments and teams, that functions according to its own rules and principles. Therefore, we speak of a “system” and systemic rules.

Within the system, we are all connected to one another.

What is a system?

What is a “system”, actually? Simply stated, a system is a number of elements that are connected to one another in continuously changing relationships. With any change in one element there is a simultaneous change in all the other elements. This is not true of all technical systems, but it is true of all living systems, including people, organisations and businesses.

If everything in a company system is in a constantly changing relationship, it means we have to let go of the comfortable habit of thinking in terms of cause and effect.

Within the networks of living systems, there is not always a cause first and then the effects. Effects may show up for which we can find no cause at all.

An effect may be a result of a cause that has arisen simultaneously and invisibly in a different place and is itself an effect stemming from yet another cause. From the good old cause-and-effect chain, we come to a circular image in which the events emerge in various places simultaneously and lead to results, also in various places.

Simultaneous and reciprocal effects in systems

Assigning guilt achieves nothing.

One response to difficulties, which is still widely popular, is to look for the guilty or responsible person. This falls short because it doesn’t solve the problem. Seen systemically, the “guilty party” may not be a causal factor, but may be functioning as a symptom carrier for the system. In such a case, this person’s culpable behaviour could be the effect of an invisible systemic connection. Firing the “guilty” person would be a solution something like, “If the red warning light comes on while driving, remove the light bulb and drive on.”

The organisational consultant Grochowiak looked at systemic reciprocal effects using the example of a frog pond:

Let’s imagine a pond and look at the population density of the frogs occupying this space. The population will grow precisely in relation to the amount of food available. If the number of frogs increases in response to a surplus of food available, there will be less food available, which leads to a decrease in the frog population. With fewer frogs around, the quantity of available food increases, which allows for a responding increase in the number of frogs, and the cycle begins anew. (Grochowiak, Castella a. Klein).

The obvious is the most difficult to see.

It remains to be said that frogs suffer from another problem that we humans may also share; they do not always recognise their food! A frog can only identify a fly and catch it if the fly moves. If it remains motionless, even right next to the frog, it is invisible to the frog. Therefore, a frog might starve to death, surrounded by the most luscious flies, if they are lazy enough to lie still. We would do well to learn from the frog example, and not overlook solutions that are sitting right in front of our noses. It is well known, however, that seeing what is obvious is particularly difficult!

Systemic pictures instead of analytical descriptions …

To solve complex systemic problems, business leaders and consultants have to change their habitual avenues of awareness, and free themselves from linear-causal descriptions and explanations. This is where the constellation method can complement classical approaches to consultation by portraying the organisation systemically rather than analytically.

Using this method, you can easily get an overview of the situation as it is at the moment. Tensions that are preventing progress become visible immediately, for example, difficulties between production and marketing or between management and a foreign affiliate. You can see whether the position of a department or individual is right in the larger company context, and how things need to be changed to improve the functioning of the whole.

… makes solutions clear.

When systemic connections become clear to our customers, many react with, “It couldn’t possibly be that simple! We have invested so much time and money over the years without ever really solving the problem!” The pain of such recognition is well known in many contexts. These days, for example, simple, inexpensive software solutions can solve problems in logistics that used to involve a major investment of time and effort, often with unsatisfactory results. Force of habit, however, can keep companies from accepting such solutions, sometimes for years. Often, the resistance is not due to economic or technical considerations. Now and again, even the most innovative managers appear to get caught in a strange reluctance to accept something new.

How does it happen that people who have proven themselves many times over with their daring and good business sense, are suddenly plagued by doubt? They are responding to a “gut” reaction, an instinct based on the impact of a shift in the systemic whole. No matter how smoothly innovative software simplifies a technical procedure, the effects at the interactive, human, systemic level can be disastrous. To avoid this kind of turbulence, any major restructuring steps should be accompanied by a systemic check. Proponents of a new technology or streamlined process may feel discouraged by a half-hearted response to this newly introduced improvement. Because they are looking at the linear, analytical aspects of the situation, they miss the systemic level, which is critical to success.

The systemic level is critical to success.

Of course it is important to optimise a company technologically, but the match is being played elsewhere. Even in the age of information technology, businesses are human constructions and they function as all interactive human systems – simply, logically, and consistently – like a biological organism. Our bodies, too, are complex organic systems that require a particular kind of nourishment, a certain amount of movement, and a set quantity of fluid. They react with irritation to the poisons of our civilised life, particularly when combined with stress. As we know, those who are aware of the systemic laws of the body and act accordingly have an easier time than those who consider themselves impervious to these demands. Interactive systems behave in a similar way. Here, too, we have a choice; we can make an effort to understand and conform to the rules and demands, or we can wilfully ignore them in favour of short-term gains and suffer the consequences later.

Human systems function according to the powerful, unconscious laws.

Also in the organism of a company, the system, there is an underlying awareness of what is useful and what is harmful. This awareness does not belong to any individual and is not based on expert analysis. More accurately, it exists in a kind of informational field. What this informing field is, exactly, and how it functions has not yet been fully investigated, but we can benefit from its effects nonetheless. Just as in IT, even if you don’t understand what the Internet is and how it functions, you can still use it if someone explains what you have to do to select what you need. Then, you can call up a wealth of information at any time from any place.

Using systemic constellations, you can tap into the informing field of your business. You can select what you need from this network that receives all relevant information about the web of relationships in the company.

How does such a field of information work in practice? It works unconsciously. Because the systemic information is not consciously employed by the individuals involved, but remains inactive, it is usually interpreted as a “hunch” or a “gut” feeling. For example, the head of production in a company may not know exactly what is going on between sales and a customer, even though it affects him directly.

Let’s say that the sales department has promised an important customer a large delivery within four weeks, even though the production schedule shows that it will take two months. This agreement takes place without the head of production knowing about it, but he “knows” something nonetheless. An uneasy feeling creeps in when he looks at his production schedule and he decides to talk to the head of sales about the projections for the quarter. This is already a sore point between the two, since the production manager continually feels over-ridden by the sales manager and keeps trying to defend himself against the consequences of his colleague’s hasty decisions.

When information from the system is inactive, only vague feelings are available.

In this situation, the production manager is not mistaken in his “gut” feeling. He discovers that the sales manager has once again disregarded his instructions. The salesperson, on the other hand, is insulted that, instead of appreciation for a top sales contract, he gets grumbles and complaints. Sparks fly between the two, not for the first time. The conflict becomes a continual state of tension that makes clear communication and a good solution difficult. Using a modern approach in good clearing sessions, the two managers have still not made any progress. This is where the constellation method could be of help to bring the systemic dynamics to light, resolve the conflict and ease the tension in the field for the future. In a constellation, the systemic information is consciously activated. In the second chapter you will see how the method functions.

What practical use is there in making the informational field conscious in a company?

Just as a glimpse into the unconscious may free people of suffering, the recognition of systemic barriers in a company can support the emergence of new solutions. Buried resources are freed up and cooperative work is facilitated.

When systemic principles that allow a business to function smoothly are not followed, problems arise. If you were to fill a Formula 1 car with diesel fuel, even the best driver, in the optimal pole position, would still have no chance of winning. This is a consequence of ignoring technical rules, not a lack of skill.

Systemic laws are simple and sensible.

In both the laws of nature and the laws of systems, ignorance of the law is no defence against consequences, just as breaking the law in our society has consequences, whether you are aware of the law or not. Now, we all know what kind of petrol our car needs, but we often tank up our body, a biological high-performance machine, with diesel instead of super. As we commit our little sins against our bodies, we are, of course, fully aware of the combined effect of cholesterol, stress, and too little exercise. Knowing is clearly not enough to make us act in a way that leads towards what we want. Therefore, we have to learn through insight or suffering. If insight does not produce results, a confrontation with acute consequences will make us stop and look for a different solution.


There is a special force that directs individuals as well as organisations either towards their goals or into diversions – conscience. In this context, it has little to do with moral principles or noble ideals. It is, rather, a kind of compass that tells us if we are on the right course. Our systemic conscience provides us with a sort of social orientation, not in the moral sense of informing us what is good and what is evil, but rather if we are going in the right direction in our environment.1

Systemic conscience gives directional orientation, not moral judgement.

This precise inner compass points to the north factually, without reference to morals. In business systems, the correct direction –“north”– may differ radically. In a traditional German small family business, as an orientation for everyone in the system, “north”, might indicate punctuality, precision and a readiness to put in an effort for the sake of the company. Values such as punctuality and exactness, or expectations of voluntary, unpaid overtime provide the how and what in a system like this. “What do we want to achieve? To deliver precisely made products, on time, to our customers. How do we want to achieve that? Through maximal individual effort and involvement.”

Whether an extreme effort and involvement is effective and whether it will bring economic rewards, is open to question, but that is not the issue here. “Effectiveness” is not a value that determines “north” in this company. There is no doubt that all the people in this company, from the youngest trainee to the top boss, are all brought into line in a systemic way. Everyone in this system has a good conscience if he or she works evenings and weekends willingly, and a bad conscience about a leisurely coffee break. This is not particularly unusual, since the orientation described here is widely accepted in our society and therefore embedded in a larger systemic network.

The amoral (not immoral) nature of the systemic conscience becomes clear when we look at the example of a Mafia system, in contrast to the example described above. There is not one iota of difference in the way the conscience operates. A member of this criminal organisation has a completely clear conscience, for example, when he demands protection money from a restaurant owner in his territory. The “what” and the “how” lie directly “north” in his system. Along with his share of the money, he might get a clap on the shoulder from his colleagues or boss as a sign that, “You’ve done well. You belong to us.”

Belonging, at all costs

Belonging to a group means survival. This inheritance is ours from our origins in the animal kingdom; the various stages of evolution stored in our behavioural repertoire. For our closest relatives, the mammals, belonging to the pack or the herd is a matter of life or death. The lost sheep is as doomed as the rejected lion cub.

Because we are equipped with the strongest possible motivation to assure our place in our current social system, it is extremely difficult to change counter-productive behaviour that shows up in the larger organisation.

For example, when high-precision, quality production is in opposition to the demand for speed and price reduction, there is a problem. What good are perfect, high quality products if no one will buy them because the customer can achieve his own goals with cheaper electronics delivered faster? It would appear to be time to change the basic orientation! However, the workers and bosses run up against their systemic conscience.

Example: Mechanical engineering

The crisis in German mechanical engineering in the last decades shows us that a change in orientation is exactly what does not happen, even when total ruin is the inevitable consequence. The members of an inter-personal system would rather pay that price than go against their systemic conscience. This stance, in the case of mechanical engineering, in Germany has been strengthened by the arrogant belief, formed in the successful years before, that good German quality work could never be replaced by electronics, and certainly not by products from Asia. If a systemic simulation using constellations had been done at the beginning of this crisis, it would have been clear what the effects would be of the attitude of German industry towards electronic innovation and towards Asian competition. A clear picture of the future consequences would have made corrective measures possible.


System laws work invisibly.

Who or what determines your business strategies? Economic calculations alone could hardly be responsible. In the last decade we have experienced a boom of “soft” factors. Corporate identity, company philosophy and development of a vision are all buzzwords. An import from the USA is the current trend to identify human resources as the actual bottleneck in business. However you define your goals and strategies, your business does not operate only according to its self-declared tasks and goals. It is also determined by invisible laws, which operate most powerfully for the good and for the bad.

Because these laws are hidden, people in an organisation are usually not aware of them. How do you feel their effects? Well, how do you notice that you have overstepped the biological laws of your own body, perhaps on New Year’s Eve? A hangover gives the feedback the next morning! When you respect the biological limits and laws, you feel good in your own body. In the same way, as a member of an interpersonal system, you feel supported and strengthened when you observe its rules, and you feel personally weakened when you ignore them.

Typical symptoms in a business that indicate that the laws of the system have been violated are: employees and customers suddenly leaving, internal power struggles, sabotage, massive drop in sales or crippling stagnation.

Without systemic support, financial reorganisation rests on a weak foundation.

These alarm bells have usually been misinterpreted up to now. What do executives do when things slow down and get stuck, when market share and sales drop and employee turnover increases? They call for restructuring and financial reorganisation! The effectiveness of these steps is questionable, as some “stars” of restructuring have publicly demonstrated. Firstly, not all problems can be solved through control. Secondly, in ignorance of systemic effects in the situation, financial reorganisers may make things worse, despite the best of intentions. The system reacts as if to an invasion and mobilises the last resources available and uses them counter-productively. It functions similarly to a human immune system, which responds to an attack by producing warning symptoms.

Human systems – families, companies, and organisations – strive to survive, so they protect their members from attack from without. If one of the systemic principles is seriously disturbed, an unconscious rebalancing occurs, with uncontrollable effects. What gives rise to this phenomenon?

A company functions in a network of people, information and technology and is closely connected to other networks, such as customers, markets, and so on. Every move has an effect on all those involved. Therefore, there is an unspoken awareness in the network of what is good, what disturbs, and what will weaken or strengthen the whole. When parts of the network are working against one another, or pull out of the whole, the system will function poorly. A problem often arises at this point, like a warning of an overdrawn account.

In the practical work with companies, departments, teams, and organisations, certain principles keep appearing, the “laws” according to which the system functions. Regardless of the size or kind of organisation, consultants and researchers have observed how people in such systems react with the certainty of sleepwalkers to respect or disregard for these principles. They experience their work surroundings as harmonious when the laws are observed and react with confusion when the principles are violated. In the next section we will present an overview of some of the important laws and principles of systems with examples and explanations of their basic function.

Principles favourable to systems

What is, must be allowed to be: the principle of respect

Acknowledging reality opens prospects for solutions.

What does it mean that what is, must be allowed to be? First of all what this means is:

Reality cannot be denied. To be capable of action, all the members of the system have to recognise and have respect for the way things actually are.

As simple as that sounds, it is unfortunately not so easy in practice. All too often critical developments in an organisation are glossed over. It happens again and again that company leaders themselves cannot admit a downward trend. As a result, they cover up the true situation from their colleagues and workers. Everyone feels, however, that something is not right. In some cases, the extent of the crisis is known quite precisely throughout the company, but no one utters it aloud.

Meanwhile, the denial peaks in a collective fantasy. “A major job is about to come in that will turn the company around.” In families there is a similar denial, for example, when everyone knows that the father is terminally ill, but they hide this fact from each other. When denial can be set aside and reality faced, the collective acknowledgement of the actual facts of the situation has a freeing effect and opens the system to solutions. Those involved look with courage squarely at the naked reality in its entire, often painful enormity. Only then are they capable of decisive action.

There is another form of acknowledgment that is perhaps familiar to you from everyday work life: active recognition of the givens. In situations where there is uneasiness or worry about expectations or tasks, it can clarify things to bring up the basic systemic reality. Rationally, it doesn’t make much sense to say something that the others already know. Nonetheless, it has a powerful effect when something is said, such as, “You are the boss of this department and I’m your employee.” “You are the customer and your satisfaction is paramount for me.” “You have been in the company for 12 years and I’m new here.” In this way, the speaker communicates that he or she is aware of both of their places in the system and acknowledges and confirms that.

The balance of giving and taking

A “grace period” for new employees

Have you ever come across one of those teams, in which a few team members do the lion’s share of the work? The unevenness of such arrangements is clear to an outside observer, but is typically not clear to the team participants. Sometimes those who are carried by others are new, inexperienced team members, who still need some time to work themselves into the position. Compensation is easy and often occurs naturally if the newcomer spontaneously acknowledges what they have received. They might express this by helping out wherever they can, even when some of the work is not in their job description. When long-time colleagues, however, lean back and take it easy while others do all the work, they are freeloading.

Success in a team is only possible when such imbalances are corrected. When balance has been restored, a new challenge arises. Are those who have been carrying the load up to now willing to distribute the work more fairly? This cannot be taken for granted. In order to do this, they must be willing to hold themselves back and to accept help from others. For capable people, that demands a degree of trust that may be more difficult than doing everything themselves.

It is not always more blessed to give than to receive.

You may have seen situations where a dangerous imbalance develops because the team leader refuses to accept the support and help of team members and denies others the chance to develop. Instead, a boss like this is always there for the team, helps without being asked, takes over difficult tasks and even solves their problems for them. The flip side of such a willingness to help is that real teamwork cannot develop. It is difficult to bridge the gap between the leader’s competence and the team members’ dependence. When the team members have no opportunity to perform well themselves, they soon feel useless and either leave the company or quit inside themselves. The saying that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” may be true in a religious context or in the boxing ring, but systemically, it leads down the wrong path.

Balance is essential for successful mergers.

How does a balance of giving and taking function in larger contexts? Does this also have meaning in multinational concerns? Look at the current trend towards mega-mergers with their eye on the shareholders. If a company executive is looking only at the shareholder value, he or she is perhaps ignoring the efforts of the workers who should be thanked for the success. Their achievement is taken for granted, without acknowledgement or appropriate compensation. Such imbalances harbour the potential for one of our greatest dangers, when small firms or poor countries are left empty-handed following mergers and globalisation. Of course, great ships do not sink immediately from listing to one side. They initially appear to steam on ahead on a course to success with no damage – until the crisis suddenly breaks out and becomes apparent.

The right to belong