Open Systems Planning

Open systems planning is a powerful process for managing personal and organisational change. ICI and Proctor and Gamble used it extensively from 1960 onwards. I learned it partially from Robin Eades at ICI and from Chris Bull who was then at Sheppard Moscow Associates. Jim Clarke and Charlie Krone, who were consultants to ICI, first turned the theoretical ideas of Van Bertanlaffy into a useful 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 by definition are changing. When there is awareness, the system can manage this change to meet its own 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 own situation. Open systems mapping will also help other people. The example is of a hypothetical manager thinking about his/her own position. You can also use mapping as a problem solving tool by considering the problem to be the system. The “influences” can be people, departments, issues or anything that affects the system.

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

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


(Can be person, group etc.)


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

Nature of relationship

(Use a phrase, and a picture if you can, 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

Picture could be manager in a box separate from customers.



Friendly, supportive

Picture could be two people at one desk both smiling


IT department

Demanding but unproductive.

Picture could be one angry person and a group of people running around in circles.


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


(Can be 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 if you can, to describe how the relationship would be if you felt that way

A manager


Satisfied, hopeful.

Working and learning together.

Picture could be the manager working on a project with customers.


Content, satisfied

Friendly, supportive, productive.

Picture could be two people at one desk working on a project

IT department


Professional, no nonsense, effective

People 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 here to there?

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

The uses of open systems planning

The basic method can help with problem solving. Put the problem in the middle. Simply sharing the influences on the problem, as seen by the different members of your team, can be helpful. Encourage open sharing of the data generated 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