A First Pass At Understanding Viable Systems


Tuesday, 6.38pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Many leaders are tempted to lead like a chess master, striving to control every move, when they should be leading like gardeners, creating and maintaining a viable ecosystem in which the organization operates. – Stanley A. McChrystal

I’ve been thinking about organisations and how you can work out if something is working or not. I saw a presentation about how informal networks between people play a large role in what happens in organisations, regardless of the formal organisation chart and read an article about the viable system model (VSM) and how it can help you think about training – and this got me interested in looking once again at the VSM and whether it’s useful.

The VSM was developed by Stafford Beer and the images that are used to represent it have always felt alien and ugly to me. There are too many straight lines and icons and connectors. That’s fine if you’re designing an electronic circuit or an architectural floor plan but I found it hard to deal with when working with the fuzzy business of day-to-day work and life.

But if I redraw what the VSM means in the less intimidating picture that starts this post it lets me see what’s going on. We start by looking at where work is done, where value is delivered. You probably create value in more than one place – with different products and services so we next look at how you coordinate what’s going on. Next, you look at how you control and deliver – what’s important and what’s not and what happens first and what happens next. Then you look at information, how do you look outwards and decide what to communicate inwards. And finally you have the policy and vision – what is it that you are trying to do as a whole.

These five elements are called System 1 through 5 respectively. And you can look at them at different levels – they’re recursive so each value delivery unit has these five elements in there as well. It’s easy to recognise this when you think of something like your house. What are the value centers – doing your work, raising the kids, looking after the house? You have to talk to each other and coordinate what you’re doing. You decide what to do based on what’s on your schedules and what you’ve agreed to do. You decide what to do based on the information you have, choosing one class over another for the kids or going for a job that’s closer to home. And you do all this because of how you want to live your life and raise your family.

Now, is knowing this model valuable? Does it help us understand what’s going on any better? On the one hand, it’s simply labelling things you do anyway, things you have to do otherwise nothing would work. On the other hand, having these elements named gives you a checklist – how often do you get into trouble because you haven’t taken the time to coordinate things with your other half and the kids have ended up being forgotten at nursery? Once, in my case, which is not bad going for a decade or so.

I have to say, I’m not sure it’s much more useful than as a checklist. Yes you have to have those five elements, but then again you don’t. Sometimes what you want to do is something you figure out after doing lots of things for a while. Policy might emerge from the work. Coordination is all very well if you have the time. But sometimes you have to make the call and just get it done your way. Even though this model tells you that these things need to happen it can’t tell you how you should do each bit in your particular situation – that’s something that’s up to you.

And the biggest issue of all is that people don’t fall neatly into a model. If coordination is not happening because two people aren’t communicating you can’t fix that by asking them to use a particular form because the underlying problem might be that they were in a relationship and then fell out and now hate each other.

Sometimes I think that the solution to most human problems might come down to the simple approach. Get people to change. If that doesn’t work, change the people.


Karthik Suresh

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