Open Systems Planning

Open Systems Planning

Open systems planning is an effective process for managing personal and organisational change. ICI and Proctor and Gamble used it extensively. I learned it from Robin Eades at ICI and Chris Bull, who was then at Sheppard Moscow Associates. Jim Clarke and Charlie Krone, consultants to ICI, first turned the theoretical ideas of Van Bertanlaffy into a valuable set of tools.

The basic ideas

You can draw a boundary around a system. Stones, people and organisations are all systems. Open systems can exchange energy and information with their environments. Closed systems cannot. People and organisations are open systems.

Open systems change. When there is awareness, the system can manage this change to meet its needs. Change management in this model is a three-step process.

  1. How are things NOW?

  2. How do I/we want things to be in the FUTURE?

  3. How do I/ we get there?

The clearer we are about the situation NOW and the desired FUTURE state, the easier it is to act powerfully to improve the situation.

A good way of doing this is to use a mapping tool.

You can use maps to think through your situation. Open systems mapping will also help other people.

The example below is of a hypothetical manager thinking about their position. You can also use mapping as a problem-solving tool by considering a problem as the system. The “influences” can be people, departments, issues or anything that affects the system.

Th chart below is a NOW map with three segments completed. You may get more insights in meetings and workshops if you 1) draw the map in a circle like a spider’s web and 2) invite people to draw “stick people” to represent the relationships now and in the future.

You can download the “spider’s web” templates at the end of this page.


(Can be a person, group etc.)


(Anything that influences the system or is influenced by it)

Nature of relationship

(Use a phrase and a picture to describe this)


(Add a few words to describe how you feel about the relationship, e.g. angry, frustrated, happy etc.)

A manager


Remote, uninvolved

The picture could be a manager in a box separate from customers.



Friendly, supportive

The picture could be two people at one desk, both smiling


IT department

Demanding but unproductive.

The picture could be one angry person and a group running around in circles.


This is an example of a FUTURE Map with three segments expanded


(Can be a person, group etc.)


(Anything that influences the system or is influenced by it)

Desired feelings

(Add a few words to describe how you would like to feel about the relationship, e.g. excited, content, happy etc.)

Nature of relationship

Use a phrase and a picture to describe the relationship if you felt that way.

A manager


Satisfied, hopeful.

Working and learning together.

The picture could be the manager working on a project with customers.


Content, satisfied

Friendly, supportive, and productive.

The picture could be two people at one desk working on a project

IT department


Professional, no-nonsense, effective

People are looking at a planning chart and saying, “We are on track!”

Note that the outer two sections are reversed. This helps people concentrate on building the relationship they need.

How to get from NOW to the desired FUTURE?

The final stage is to decide what to do and then to do it effectively. Problems often disappear when you talk directly and clearly about what you want and feel. In the “customer” example above, the manager could talk to their customers about their current relationship and the benefits of more collaborative working.

The uses of open systems planning

It can help with problem-solving. Put the problem in the middle. Simply sharing the influences on the issue, as seen by the different team members, can be helpful. Encourage open sharing of the data you generate and teach people to listen with understanding rather than jump to conclusions. You can use it for team building, life planning, strategic planning, project management, management development and training (For example, in Leadership). An additional tool, seven-column analysis, helps people manage difficult relationships.


Please feel free to use and experiment with these ideas. I will be interested to learn how you get on and of any new uses or techniques.


Click to download a “Now” map “spider’s web” template.

Click to download a “Future” map “spider’s web” template.

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick