The Viable System Model

Around 1970, Stafford Beer developed the viable system model to diagnose the faults in any organizational system, programme, institution, nation, or enterprise. It uses cybernetics, which – according to its originator Norbert Wiener – is the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine, but there are many other interesting definitions. The central question could be formulated as: How can organizational efficacy be maintained? How can organizations sustain their own existence? Or: How do organizations create viability?

Click on the image to go to the original concept map.

Here, viability is defined as the capacity to thrive and survive in an often unpredictable and turbulent environment. Typically, this requires systems that are able to adapt to the changing environment by changing the organization. This means that the organization must be able to understand the new environment and adjust the purposes of the organization to suit the new conditions. The Viable System Model provides the principles for modeling such an organizational system and enables practitioners to identify mismatches with the environment, weaknesses in the organization, and missing systemic elements in the organization. This self-knowledge may lead to redesigning the organization and ensuring its survival and growth.

Viable System Model (VSM) is also based on the Conant-Ashby Theorem, which says that every good regulator of a system must be a model of that system. So, in biology, for instance, the brain has to form models of its environment. And in organization theory, hierarchy is a bad model, because it leaves unexplained how organizations work or fail.

Click on the image for the full concept map.

The Conant-Ashby Theorem also implies that for a model to be any good, it has to satisfy Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety: “only variety can absorb variety.”  For VSM to do so, it has a fractal structure, according to which lower levels of organization replicate higher levels in their basic structure of management, co-ordination, and operation in order to mirror the variety or complexity that is found in the environment. Complexity has 4 main drivers: technology, geography, customers, and time. These same drivers are used to “fractally” subdivide the organization. According to VSM, each subdivision is composed of five subsystems: (1) operations; (2) co-ordination; (3) delivery management; (4) strategy; and (5) governance. At the operations level, the organization provides value to the environment. This is the basis for the exchange of money, matter, and energy. Subsystem 2 co-ordinates the primary operations on a daily basis to reduce disruptions to a minimum. Subsystem 3 allocates resources to enable the operations to take place. The primary task of subsystem 4 is to respond to changes in the environment (e.g. consumer trends) and make changes to the organization accordingly. Subsystem 5 is concerned with overall governance, especially identity (mission) of the organization and the optimum balance between subsystems 3 and 4.

This is the first of several posts on VSM in this blog. They are based on Chapter 3 of Systems approaches to managing change : a practical guide. It is by far the most complex chapter in the book. It was written by Patrick Hoverstadt, who also wrote The fractal organization. If you think systems thinking is fascinating, then the Viable System Model is absolutely awesome. If your interest has been kindled by this post, you may like to browse Javier Livas’ channel on YouTube. One could say he embodies the political implications of VSM.

P.S. 1: This is by far my most popular post ever. Closely related posts are: Subsystem 3 of the Viable System Model : cohesion,  Subsystem 4 of the Viable System Model : intelligence, and Subsystem 5 of the Viable System Model : policy.

P.S. 2: There is also a LinkedIn group on VSM.

P.S. 3: SCiO (systems and cybernetics in organisations) is the biggest UK systems organisation and has a strong focus on the viable systems model – see www.scio.org.uk and for forthcoming open days (four systems speakers for £10) see www.scio.org.uk/events. I particularly like the online SCiO Organisational Maturity Model (OMM), which allows you to analyse the structural integrity of your organisation (or business) and to improve the capability of your organisation to operate more effectively and adapt to change. The OMM provides feedback in the form of one or several Archetypes (such as Fantasy World, Control Dilemma (aka Micro-management), Stray Lamb, Baronies (aka Silo Management), Shockwaves (aka Bottlenecks, Beer Game), Reinventing the Wheel, Matrix (aka Dotted Line Relationship), Missing Link (aka Management “Black Holes”), Bricks without Straw, Dictators (aka Stretch Targets, Salami Slicing, Arbitrary Cuts, Arbitrary Targets), Open Loops and Reverse Polarity, Goldfish, Here be Dragons (aka Blind Spot, Blindsided), Bunker Mentality (Ostrich Mentality), Bean Counters, Castles in the Air, Strategic Silos, Death Spiral, No Grassing, Whistleblower’s Charter, Identity Crisis, Following all the Fads, Giraffe). It is up to you to see whether the suggested archetypes fit your situation and can help you address your organizational problems. The archetype description includes: symptoms, system structure, and possible ways forward.

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About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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3 Responses to The Viable System Model

  1. Thank you very much for your post. I am a big fan of VSM, at least with some modified forms, which I think have evolved since Beer first brought us the model. So I endorse your encouragement of its take-up, which was also recently recommended by the developers of S-D logic. I suggest that you represent your visual model of requisite variety and VSM as a highly simplified model – I do not think it has enough requisite variety to describe its own world. For example, complexity is vastly more complex than the four drivers you articulate (whose arrows should in any case be in the other direction). But if you were to say it was a simplified representation, then it is nice. You might also want to show more feedback loops: for example how identity conditions operations et al. while operations et al. condition identity? Such things as culture and brand emerge from this (each representing a different systemic chunking of reality). Have you given any thought to the application of a) perceptual control theory to this and B) ternary Cybernetics, and the operation of imparity? the latter would also lead to such things as value propositions and customer experience, which are not included in the model and yet are the purpose of it.

  2. Alex Hough says:

    Hi Sjon,

    I was a member of the group which produced the SCIO OMM, a Google search brought me here.

    It’s interesting to see you using a concept map with VSM, I am working on something which combines them with organisational maturity.

    It would be good to your thoughts on OMM four years on. I am reviewing the online version as the terms and conditions of the web host (Dropbox) has now changed

    best wishes

    Alex

    • Hi Alex, Thanks for your interest in my concept map of VSM. I made it when I was still interested in systems thinking in a broad sense. Over the past few years this interest has evolved in an effort to come to grips with the systems approach as originally intended by Churchman. I just had a quick look at OMM. It seems to me that the systems approach could well be combined with OMM (as it can with any other form of systems thinking or management and organizational ideas). Best, Sjon

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