The power+systems model in action: Bristol City Council

Public sector consultancy and PSTA delivery partner RedQuadrant shares a case study in service transformation

You may know Barry Oshry’s power+systems insight into organisations – the way tops, middles and bottoms predictably behave?

The tops hold a lot of the responsibility in organisations and make the strategic decisions, but they don’t necessarily know what is happening on the ground; here, the bottoms are trying to do their job but have decisions and orders passed down to them. Meanwhile, the middles are juggling the wishes of the bottoms whilst attempting to please the tops above them with good results.

I saw this theory coming to life in our work at Bristol City Council. For four months, we worked with 60 senior practitioners – working on the front line (though often managing others), the so-called bottoms. Then, on review day, we brought the bottoms, middles and tops together in one room for a whole day. When we initially started working with this group, a lot of them felt overworked, unsupported, powerless – very typical experiences of the space. The group that was now sitting in the room was completely different. They felt empowered, united and optimistic about the future. This came about through our development work with them, through a real commitment of their managers, and from just bringing them together as a team.

The last piece of the puzzle was creating a conversation between the different levels – a ‘time out of time’. By letting the team listen to each other’s feelings – not stories or examples, but real experiences – we created an understanding of how it felt to work at each level, what problems they were handling, and how that made them feel. We created a safe environment where people could talk honestly, and people were in a position not to judge but to listen. This resulted in a room full of neither tops, bottoms or middles, but instead a room full of people who were all working together to make Bristol a better place.

If you would like to discuss the above project or any similar opportunities, then please contact Hedwig de Jong at