This week at SIDElab we revisited Staford Beer’s Viable Systems Model (VSM). The first time we explored the model, Allenna Leonard explained a process that is summarized in a previous blog entry. This time Franziska Beeler, one of SIDELab’s regular’s and VSM lovers, walked us through model again.

She began the session by asking us to think about what makes a system viable? Some of the responses included, a system that is sustainable, something that is life supporting or self-supporting, a system that is resilient, or a system that can adapt to its environment. Franziska even gave an on camera summary at the end of the session, which means you can probably stop reading and hit play below.

All systems exist within systems.

The most important reminder for me, was when she returned to the concept of recursion. To understand recursion it is helpful to think of Russian dolls. Each time you go down a layer you have gone down one level of recursion. This metaphor reminds us that all systems exist within systems. Within the context of viable systems, recursion helps us think about what level we are considering when looking at particular system.

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Photographer: Luke and Kate Bosman Title: Topless grumpy Retrieved: from Flickr

In the Viable Systems approach, every system is made up of three elements:

  1. Operations – elements that do things.
  2. Management – elements that control the doers.
  3. Environments – surroundings in which they function.

In order to cope with the environment, Management needs to ensure that the operation matches the amount of variety that exists in the environment. So let’s say the environment has a variety of three dots; then the operation should also have three dots. If the environment had five dots, then the operation should have five dots. Management guides the operations to match the variation in the environment.

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A note on the word control.

Essentially, these systems are about control. Determining how organizations regulate the way their systems respond to the environment in which they are operating.

We all have concepts of control, but in this sense, control in this context should not be understood as a top-down function, used by management to enforce things. That’s not at all how we should use the word. Controlling is more about being informed about what’s happening, and guiding operations towards being efficient and effective. All systems are equally important. All systems are important to the viability of the system and when done well control happens as a result of the five systems working together. Control in this sense about system regulation or balance. Some of the best examples of control come from nature, with seasons following each other, prey and predators keeping each other in balance. Control in this sense, is more about systems regulating each other to maintain balance. We should not think of control from as a top-down dictated activity. In this video Staford Beer speaks on this alternate way of understanding control and cybernetics.

Understanding the VSM approach 

One of the problems with the VSM is that language used to describe it makes it inaccessible to most people. For example, one would never use the term “Viable Systems” when speaking with a client, but they are likely to use the concept of matching the variety of operations in the organization, to the variety of operations in the environment, but phrased in a way that the client understands that we need more operations.

The language that is most inaccessible, is the way Beer explains the different parts of the viable system. He uses the terms system 1, system 2, system 3 etc… to describe the five systems.

System 1: The entire collection of interacting operational units. Think of where the action is in the system. It is the part of the system that does things.

System 2: Is responsible for stability/resolving conflict between operational units. This system coordinates things.

Systems 3: Is responsible for optimization/generating synergy between operational units. Think of this as the optimizing system.

System 4: Is where future plans and strategies happen. It is where the viable system adapts to the changing environment.

System 5: Is where decisions to maintain identity happen.


A more informal way of understanding thesis fives systems can be to think of them as follows:

System 1: The Operations (Does Things)

Call Centre, ore mining, teaching, facilitating, productive writing, first responders (police, paramedics, firefighters), making products and delivering services, muscles and organs

System 2: Coordinates Things (Timetables, schedules, resource list, hiring)

Think about the way that information flows, or the way things are scheduled. This it the level at which we ensure enough people are scheduled to work, or that there is enough gas in the tank.

System 3: Optimizes Things (standard management)

This is usually the level of the CEO, or conductor, but it also strongly influenced by other systems too. This level is influenced by the environment it where senior managers (control things) or audits what is happening the firm.

System 4: Observes, Concludes or Thinks about future things to do.

This we the actors in the system observes the environment, makes conclusions about how that influences the system or conducts research and development in order to respond appropriately.

System 5: Holds onto our Values and Identity

Makes decisions to maintain the identity of the system. This level maintains the mission, vision and value statements. It is where the are decisions are made, think of the board of directors, or consider it to be the decision-making filter. This system manages the alignment of the organization and culture is strongly influenced by system five. Founders tend to set the culture and systems can become viable if the values fit with the culture.


There are few things to remember about VSM systems:

  • They need to have a higher identify in order to exist
  • Many systems overlap; many roles can be taken up by the same person, but they exist in different systems
  • Complexity requires complexity in order to be managed
  • Variety absorbs variety

In summary:

A VSM is a system that is self-organized, autonomous, adapts to its environment, and is made up of several recursions. The VSM is organized in such a way as to meet the demands of surviving in the changing environment.


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