WHOLE SYSTEMS Untitled Document

System: A Complex Network of Relationships

We use the word" system" to refer to "the complex network of relationships" that characterize the everyday world in which we all live: the people, families, organizations and communities, demands and expectations, bosses and staff, and practical and political realities. (As Zorba the Greek said, "The whole catastrophe.") Each of us makes daily choices about how to engage these realities and how to juggle demands and priorities - essentially, how to lead a meaningful and desirable life. Our focus is usually on the details of life - not on the complex patterns that affect our "big picture". Thinking in terms of whole systems increases our ability to influence our lives and organizations in new, powerful, and productive ways. Because a "system" is an abstract concept, most people find it difficult to visualize, even while experiencing the system’s influences. We bring people together in ways that make it real.

Why A Whole System Approach?

Horizons works with the "whole system". This approach engages people in a way that releases the creativity inherent in both the individuals involved and in the organization or community. It affects the entire complex set of relationships in the room. This results in a high level of buy-in and commitment to any decisions or plans of action made.

How is This Accomplished?

We do this by bringing together the many voices that influence or are influenced by the issue being addressed in a structure designed to engage the complexity of the group we are working with. People come together and relate as equals, outside of the day to day roles that separate them. City managers, business people and elected officials sit down in work teams as equals with community members, city staff, employees, service providers, homeless people, and community activists. They tell each other their personal stories and share their hopes and dreams. In this context, all these people are able to really hear each other and directly influence and be affected by the actions being undertaken or the decisions or plans being made. Relationships change and new levels of understanding and commitment are reached.

A Common Ground Approach

Classically, organization development has taken a problem-solving or conflict management approach. Problems and conflicts will always arise and, appropriately, demand attention. However, when thinking is limited to problem solving, opportunities for change, improvement, and collaboration may be overlooked.

In many meetings, we spend 80% of our time focusing on the 20% of things about which we disagree.

--Marv Weisbord co-author of"Future Search"

In contrast, whole system approaches engage the entire system, not just the problematic portions. They enable groups to build the kind of involvement and capacity that supports sustainable, positive, and future-oriented results. Whole system approaches could be called democracy in action, for they actualize the coming together of every voice along with a commitment to positive action by all participants. They allow us to spend 80% of our time focusing on the 80% of things about which we agree.


Our understanding of how organizations work most effectively has changed dramatically during the past century. Largely, we have learned to shift our perspective from a hierarchical understanding to a view of the organization or community as a whole—a collaborative and interdependent unit. This shift has resulted from observations that engagement—rather than a command and control approach—greatly increases the likelihood of accomplishing desired results. [Axelrod, 2000] This effect has been observed in many areas of organization development, including visioning, strategic planning, design, re-design, and implementation. [Weisbord, 1987, and Weisbord, 1999]