Photo by Fred Geven -Farming Matters Follow Economic dimension on Flickr

Photo by Fred Geven -Farming Matters Follow
Economic dimension on Flickr

What do you want to do? How are you doing it? How are you going to rewrite the end of this story? At the last SIDELab meetup, Allenna Leonard, one of the foremost Systems Thinking minds, joined us for one of our usual braingasm sessions.

In the session, Allenna introduced the group to the Viable Systems Model (VSM). The approach is largely attributed to the work of Anthony Stafford Beer, and is based on the human nervous system. During the 1960’s Beer had been doing a considerable amount of organisational consulting, some which involved working for cooperatives. These cooperatives rejected the dominant narratives that centred on top-down authority or obedience welding approaches to management. Many of the organisation Beer worked with had developed systems that were more democratic or autonomous. Beer has observed that these systems that gave agents autonomy, also lacked sufficient structure to be viable organisations. Using systems theory and cybernetics, Beer developed the VSM model as an approach that allowed agents within any given system or organisation to operate autonomously.

In short, the VSM approach can be described as a structured approach to designing a viable organisations that allows people to co-work in healthy autonomous organisational work settings.

The most interesting application of VSM would have to be its application in Chile. Beer and his colleagues applied VSM at a national level in what would come to be called Project Cybersyn. Fernando Flores a high ranking Chilean wanted to write a different ending to the story of Chile. They wanted a Chile that empowered its people at all levels. This daring attempt to apply VSM at a national level would eventually be foiled by a government takeover. In our discussions, Allenna seemed to think that had the project continued, it likely would have been an example of how you can design a national system premised on the decentralised decision-making VSM approach.

Unpacking VSM

The VSM model is based on three major elements: the Environment (things outside of the system, political climate, economic stability, suppliers and customers), the Operational Parts (the bits that do the ‘work’, like a factory or a team within a factory), and the Meta-System. (The bits that monitor, optimize, create synergy within, and define the purpose of the system).

These three elements are then divided into five interacting sub-systems:

System 1: Primary Activities (This is the Operational Parts mentioned above, the parts that do the ‘work’ of the system, and is made up of smaller micro-VSMs).

System 2: Stability Creation (This the first level of meta-system, its purpose is to create stability and resolve conflict between the System 1 operational units).

System 3: Internal Regulation, Optimisation, & Synergy (This system looks at the operations of system 1 as a whole, and tries to optimize system 1 interactions).

System 4: Future Planning & Adaptation (This system looks to the environment outside of the System in Focus, as well as the System in Focus within time, and tries to seeks to ensure the survival of the system in a changing world).

System 5: Policy, Identity, and Definition of System Purpose (This is the top level of the meta system. It defines the overall context of the system and its purpose, provides ground rules, and is the final level of ‘authority’).

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Reflections from the conversation.

The process reminded me of business alignment and reorganisation approaches, but with one major difference. The model really focused on giving participants in the organisation autonomy. Although this autonomy could be seen as a way of liberating agents within the system, it also embedded flexibility and adaptability to the environment into the organisation being designed.

For many of us, we are concerned with wicked problems like school dropouts, environmental sustainability, transportation, family friendly workplaces etc… These are not easy problems to resolve. The VSM model offers a rigorous way for an organisational designer to think about the viability of their organisation. My major caveat is that I find current explanations of VSM to be inaccessible. Practitioners working in the field are unlikely to take the time to carefully read VSM literature. It might be useful to work on making the model more accessible by using more intuitive language.

It is important as always, to note that VSM offers one pragmatic approach to organisational design and thinking. Four powerful benefits of the model are:

  1. It provides organisational designers with a powerful approach to thinking through the various components or parts that make up an organisation.
  2. The model provides a systematic process for putting checks and balances in place so that problem solving can happening quickly and at the level it is occurring.
  3. It engages in the rigour of determining if the proposed organisation is feasible. One of the fundamental questions it asks is, are you doing something customers wants? If you are producing a product that customers want then chances are your organisation can be viable.
  4. The model focuses on both what is happening in environment and what is likely to happen in the future. Very few organisation notice when their environment is changing and can respond in a way that keeps them viable. VSM emphasises paying attention to the present and the future.

For those of us interested in innovations for a better world, VSM offers a very powerful tool towards helping us rewrite the ends of our stories.

Written by Keita Demming.

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