Family Enterprise Advisor

A Systematic Business Family?

This week we’re going to venture into the area of Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) and look at how it might be useful in understanding business families and how they tick.

I’m currently at the Spring Conference of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. As a student of BFST and a practitioner who works with business families, it’s really interesting stuff, and there’s still another full day to go.

Bowen Theory is used in many fields, from therapy to coaching and family counselling to clergy working with their congregations. This year’s conference is geared to organisations, which naturally includes family businesses.


The BFST FamBiz Book

I initially learned that the “family is a system” in the first module of the Family Enterprise Advisor program I took in 2013. But we didn’t learn specifically about Bowen’s version at the time. It was later that Murray Bowen’s name came up for me, and I decided to investigate further.

My natural reaction was to search for a book on BFST and Family Business, and when I did, I couldn’t find the book I was hoping to find.

Later, I got this crazy idea that maybe I should write it. I have been immersing myself in this ever since, and I may just be crazy enough to try it.


BFST covers LOTS of ground

The possible applications of the theory are vast, and I thought I’d share a few of my notes, just from today, to give you a flavour. I normally don’t take lots of notes, but when you’re thinking about writing a book on something, well, notes could come in handy.



  • The way a family operates when things are calm is different from the way it functions when it’s tense.
  • Business families are involved in coordinated functioning towards attainment of goals, so decreasing anxiety in the system is very helpful.


Time Factors

  • Families are open to innovative solutions, BUT they want quick results
  • Real shifts don’t occur quickly
  • You can’t use BFST to “fix” someone

Unproductive Effort 

  • So much unproductive time and energy gets used up dealing with anxiety and the emotional issues that family members deal with.
  • Collective intelligence requires diversity of opinion.
  • Hierarchical leadership models are being replaced with distributive leadership.


So many “clients”

Family business advisors work with many different constituents:

  • Individual family members
  • Single generation groups
  • The entire family
  • Business system
  • Ownership system
  • Other advisors and consultants

There is a lot of work involved just in defining these groups to themselves and to each other, and then to work with them in a coordinated way.


Automatic Behaviour

So much of human behaviour, and therefore family behaviour, is automatic. We do so many things without really thinking about them.

People need to be aware of these things in order to learn that they can control them, and they need to practice doing that.

Awareness precedes the ability to exercise the free will required to change behaviour patterns.


More Questions than Answers

BFST doesn’t actually answer that many questions, but it sure can help ask a lot of the best ones. It’s a lens that Bowen practitioners can use to help see things differently, by looking at them from a new point of view.

It doesn’t rely on “cause and effect” thinking, it’s all about the relationships between the individuals, because it’s a “systems view”, where the way the parts are connected together is highlighted.


My BFST Book

One thing that’s becoming clear to me is that if (when?) I write a book on BFST, it will likely just be about how I use it, and will not attempt to be THE book on the subject.

A few respected colleagues have suggested that I actually write the book for a very small audience. This isn’t because there aren’t that many people who could benefit from it, but maybe because so many people could.


An Audience of One

I will likely write the book for an audience of one. Yes, just for me. But I will certainly share it too.

Do I mean that the act of writing can be selfish, and that some people write things for themselves, first and foremost? Well, I know a guy who started blogging like that, and now he just can’t stop.