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

How To Build Something That’s Useful


Monday, 9.02pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Deep down, I’m pretty superficial. – Ava Gardner

It’s amazing just how hard it is to do something that has depth, solidity – something that has solid foundations and that you can rely on.

Take writing, for example. It’s pretty easy to write, to rant, to ramble – but it’s much harder to make a point clearly. When you start trying to do that you see that there are many things that can trip you up, like the meanings of words that different people interpret differently.

In my last few posts, for example, I’ve been thinking about story. How is narrative different from story? To some people it isn’t – they’re the same thing. To others, story is the content while narrative is the vehicle. For example, there is a story of Peter Pan and there are narratives – the ones you read in a book or watch in a film or that you were told by your granny at bedtime. And then there’s another definition of a narrative as anything that’s told to you – even a shopping list read out is a narrative – but a narrative turns into a story when it has a purpose behind it, when there is something that brings it together.

Of course, these explanations of the difference between story and narrative are still fuzzy and don’t explain it very well. To do it better we need definitions, not to explain but to constrict and restrain. We need to know what something means in a particular context. We don’t need to know what a story is but what we mean as a story when we’re talking about using it in a business context. We need these definitions so that we can start to make statements that are built on those definitions. Once I define a story as a particular thing it can be used to explain and elaborate on whatever I’m trying to get across.

Statements don’t stand on their own, however, we’ve got to connect them and show the relationships that exist. This can be as simple as paragraphing and sectioning content, but you have to do this unless you want to end up with a wall of text that is impossible to penetrate and understand.

What one realises quickly is that this kind of thinking is hard, it takes time to build up definitions, statements and relationships that make sense. The more words you add the harder it becomes to keep them together, to have them keep making sense. That’s why when you come across a theory that has been well thought through and that hangs together you’re impressed – because you recognise the work that’s gone into it. And when you see something that’s superficial and cobbled together you feel a sense of disquiet, a sense that it’s missing something and that it has no foundations.

When you’re young you want to get to places quickly. Perhaps you have to get older, to realise that it takes time to build something worth having. And even more time to give yourself the permission to take the time that it’s going to take.


Karthik Suresh

Do We Need To Start Listening To More Stories Again?


Sunday, 7.52pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Our identities really are a constant negotiation between the story we tell about ourselves and the narrative our societies like to recite. – Thomas Chatterton Williams

A paper by Kenneth Mølbjerg Jørgensen and David M.Boje called “Resituating narrative and story in business ethics” is helping answer something that’s been puzzling me for a while.

It has to do with interventions in situations that are considered problematic by the people involved in them. This is pretty much everything that’s going wrong, from arguments over having cereal at bedtime at home to the way in which an organisation to respond to the challenges of climate change. How should we approach these situations and what does it take to improve them?

When we’re not certain what to do we tend to fall back on the narratives we’ve grown up with. It’s a little like being stuck in treacle – we find ourselves anchored to the thinking that’s surrounded us when we grew up and it’s hard to pull away. My tendency, for example, is to default to the relatively ascetic nature of my upbringing. If there is a problem the best way to resolve it is to get rid of everything. If you have less then there is less to worry about and logically if you have nothing other than what you absolutely need then you have no worries.

This approach does not go down well with anyone brought up with a predominantly Western narrative where the world exists for humans, where God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” The dominant institutions of the West have internalised this belief, along with a few others to do with rationality and truth that can be traced back to the Greeks, and the result is that they do things for their own benefit and let society pick up the costs.

Society, in general, has been less than amused by the results and has tried to push back. The problem, of course, is that the richest in society benefit from the status quo. The pandemic has shown that rather starkly, with those who have getting more and those who have not suffering most. The disadvantaged, which the paper helpfully lists as including “immigrants, refugees, homeless, landless, poor, sick, underpaid and exploited”, are not heard.

When we enter a situation we tend to take on the views of those that are in there. As parents, we have certain beliefs. When working with organisations, we accept their view of looking at the world and then we try and work within those views. But what if we’re doing it wrong? I have friends who parent very differently. And we see organisations who are doing things differently. What does that tell us?

It tells us that they are listening to a different story, one that may even have more value than the ones we have grown up with. My ascetic story does not burden the earth but it creates new value and if you are born into poverty it makes no effort to change your fate. The materialist story consumes the planet and there isn’t enough for us all to have the same standards of living. But we all want our children to have a better future, and we want our societies to work better for everyone. So we have to watch out for these stories, for these new, inclusive, diverse tales that show how things can be better.

Take a company like BrewDog, for example. They are in an old business, the one of making beer, but they tell a very different story, one where buying their product is not just about good beer but also about saving the planet. It’s a good story and it’s one their competitors will have trouble matching, especially if they are invested in their existing narrative – one that their investments in carbon reductions have to be profitable. But to be profitable you have to stay in business.

The paper argues, however, that stories have been crowded out by dominant narratives, that we are much less tolerant of things that don’t have a simple beginning, middle and end – ones that try and say that they’re telling you the truth. This leads to polarisation, one narrative versus another rather than the understanding of living stories, what’s actually happening in people’s lives. But that’s a larger problem and we’re only going to address it by being open to listening.


Karthik Suresh

Why The Stories You Hear Matter


Saturday, 7.18pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Humans think in stories, and we try to make sense of the world by telling stories. – Yuval Noah Harari

The small people in my house are fascinated by stories. It’s the first thing they want in the morning. Not a traditional story, with a start and an end, but a game story. One of those stories where you start somewhere and you have to make decisions and things happen one after the other and you end up somewhere. And sometimes you win – if we get to the end.

I went through a phase last year of reading Terry Pratchett. He’s the first writer in a very long time that has prompted me to take notes on his books, copying out passages of text. What’s fascinating about Pratchett is that he took the world we know and the settings and stories we have heard and reimagined them in a fantasy world. And he wrote about normal things and made you look at them again.

So what is a story anyway. It’s a pathway through a web of thoughts. Sometimes the web is made up and the story teller is someone who wants to entertain you, so you get taken on a pathway that twists and turns and shows you new things around every corner, keeping you interested from start to finish. In other cases the story teller just wants to tell you about the path they took and so you get to retrace their steps. Or it’s about a future that they’ve imagined and so they talk to you about the path they plan to take and how they get to it through the paths they already know. Other pathways exist but this is the one that they’re telling you about.

In the collection “Turning points in qualitative research: Tying knots in a handkerchief” an essay by Susan E. Chase talks about how stories – narratives – are complex things, and there are disagreements about stories and what they tell us about life and subjectivity and culture and truth and fiction, but “most scholars point to the ubiquity of narrative in Western societies and concur that all forms of narrative share the fundamental interest in making sense of experience, the interest in constructing and communicating meaning.”

We miss this fundamental point when we try and “study” people. There is always the temptation to reduce reality to data, to analysis, to questionnaires and surveys. Without such data, however, you are unlikely to be taken seriously. By people who are in power, anyway, because they need to be able to blame someone else for the decisions they take. And it’s hard work, listening to stories and making sense of what is really going on. We probably need better tools to help us do this better. Any suggestions?


Karthik Suresh

What Kind Of Contribution Do You Make?


Friday, 9.15pm

Sheffield, U.K.

It takes a lot of people to make a winning team. Everybody’s contribution is important. – Gary David Goldberg

We were talking about what people brought with them to an organisation the other day. There are at least three things that make a difference. Do you bring in revenue, do you create value or do you come up with ideas? These three are useful contributions and if you’re doing one of them then you’re in a good position.

Revenue generating people are the ones that are happy networking and reaching out to the market, engaging with prospects and starting conversations. These people are vital because without those conversations you don’t have a business.

When you do have a conversation, however, you have to think about what is going to interest and excite the person you’re talking to. What are the insights, the ideas, the approaches you’re going to talk about? How are you going to do things differently? How are you going to create something that’s perfect for the people you’re trying to work with? That’s where idea generating people come in, the ones who can see what’s needed and create it. The ones that can give people what they need rather than what they say they want.

Conversations and ideas aren’t enough. You also need to deliver something of value. Value creating people are the ones that do the work – that create more for the client than they cost. Everyone in an organisation needs to add value. The language of cost centers and revenue centers is not enough – nothing is a cost if it creates value across the piece. But if you have people that don’t contribute, that act as a drain on resources, then you have to ask yourself why they’re there – what are they doing? You can’t do anything about it sometimes, but it’s worth knowing what’s happening.

But in your own case it’s a good idea to aim to contribute in one or more of these three ways – bring in opportunities for revenue, come up with ideas and try and add value.


Karthik Suresh

What Happens If You Never Improve On Anything?


Wednesday, 7.59pm

Sheffield, U.K.

“One Sunday . . . we went down to the flower market and bought some irises and came back and spent the afternoon drawing . . . He would just draw one line and then leave it, and when I would draw things, I was always erasing, changing, and improving. And he never improved on anything. Rather than do that, he would draw a new one, which is something I never thought of doing in those days.” (Charles Lisanby on Warhol: 1978) – Retrieved from pens.co.uk

It probably comes down to a personality thing but I’m not a fan of rework – or of going over and making work better, for that matter.

This is not a good thing, I am told. William Zinsser, the author of “On writing well”, says that “rewriting is the essence of writing”. You need to rewrite your sentences over and over again and then rewrite what you’ve written. And he must know what he’s talking about.

But Zinsser is talking about WRITING, in all caps, the act of creating something worthy of publication. Something that will stand the test of time. Something you can point to, as a professional, and say, “I made that.”

That kind of making is not what I’m after. That approach assumes that what you want to do is create works of ART, a gift for others. The way I use writing is as a tool for thinking. It’s a utilitarian exercise, the act of bashing out words as I work through a concept because no one will sit for long enough to listen to me talk about it or be kind enough to write down what I say so I can understand what I think myself.

It’s the same with drawing, which is why I liked the reflection on Andy Warhol at the start of this post. Why do we have to go back and make things perfect? Why does it have to be “right”. We’re always telling ourselves that we have to be in the moment – like children are. They don’t worry about making it perfect, while they’re still young, anyway. Drawing is, to me, a process of working out ideas too, and I need to allow myself to make a line and then move on, without regret. I drew the picture above in this way, leaving every line, without erasing. And it does what I need for me.

If we organized our lives so that we didn’t worry about what people thought of us would we do as much rework? Do we try harder because we’re afraid of being judged, or is that why we sometimes don’t try at all? If we weren’t attached to the lines we’d already put down would we have been able to create something even better?

The arguments are not simple. On the one hand you could say that by going over and improving what you’ve done you create works of better quality. The response might be that the work is not what matters. What matters is the observation, the act of doing the work. And if you are going to act why not go ahead and act on creating a new thing than trying to massage an old one? If you don’t like your line draw a better one next time.


Karthik Suresh

Becoming Fearless


Tuesday, 6.36pm

Sheffield, U.K.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” – Lewis Carroll

I’m a little concerned about developing repetitive strain in my wrists. It’s to be expected, I suppose, as I work towards writing a million words. Last year didn’t help, with an average post length of over a thousand words. I keep them shorter now.

If you want to write fewer words, however, you also need to think about how you can make them count. How can you do something that has some value, that makes an impact?

The strain affects writing by hand as well, and so I’m experimenting with different instruments, such as ballpoint pens. Like many people that are fussy about stationery I can go on for a while about the differences between pencils, ballpoint pens and fountain pens and what sorts of problems we have with paper. But now that we have the Internet it’s easier to go looking for other people’s stories.

In doing this I came across The Power of the Ballpoint Pen: An Artist’s Magic Wand, in which Jason Franz talks about how artists like it as a tool. He talks about strategy and purpose – how his strategy is to get his students to get over the fear of making mistakes by using hard to erase media. He also talks about how creation is a process of iterative development, something you do in layers, first sketching out a light outline as you search, then going over the good lines a bit more as you confirm, and then finally laying down a dark like as you punctuate and bring out the essence of your drawing.

I think this inability to erase is important – that’s why I prefer to write with a text editor that makes it just that much harder to delete large chunks and why I use drawing software that has no cut and paste ability (at the moment) and I hope they don’t change that. Putting down a line and sticking with it is skill you have to develop – and that’s the purpose of Franz’s approach. The iterative development he suggests is so that you can understand that just having talent is not enough to create good work – you also need to work at it. He wants you to slow down and see that anything worth having in the real world takes time.

And then the most important message is to let go of fear. When you can erase a mistake you can live your life being timid. Don’t do that. Make a firm line that can’t be erased. Be fearless.


Karthik Suresh

Is This The Model We Should Be Aiming For In Business?


Monday, 8.19pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana passed away on the 6th of May 2021. I heard his name for the first time on the 8th in a talk by Peter Senge on facilitating system change, where he talked about autopoietic systems, a term created by Maturana and his colleague Francisco Varela.

An autopoietic system is something that can maintain and recreate itself. It originally related to the idea of living things, like a cell, but it’s not really used as a definition for life these days. Instead, it’s more akin to a self-sustaining system, one that is capable of ensuring it’s continued existence.

The opposite of an autopoietic system is an allopoietic one. This is a system that creates something else, like a factory that creates cars. The purpose of the factory is to produce its output, not to maintain itself.

Of course, these concepts have blurred over time. Autopoiesis has been applied to more things than living systems. It’s arguably the kind of idea that underpins concepts of a circular economy, where across a wider system of interacting parts we collect and reuse material and maintain the integrity of the whole system.

We talk about sustainable businesses, but perhaps what we should be aiming for is autopoietic ones – business ecosystems that are self-sustaining. Ones that enable their own continued existence.

This is not what happens at the moment. There is arguably huge waste and destruction of capacity and potential. Few businesses last five years, and of those fewer make it to thirty. And there are very few that are more than a century old. If we could do a better job at creating organisations and institutions that are autopoietic, we might be able to move faster towards a more sustainable future.


Karthik Suresh

Understanding The Value Of Being Agile


Sunday, 7.27pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Elves are like trees, grounded and focused from the trunk down but graceful and agile on top. – Orlando Bloom

I’ve come across a few posts on “Agile” in my feed and it reminded me that I didn’t know a whole lot about this approach to developing software. I’ve read the manifesto, of course, and I try and apply it myself. But as I spend more time researching the concepts in this space I wasn’t sure how to think about the approach – what was the intellectual framework that it fell into?

This video by Dave Thomas helped answer this question. Dave is one of the signatories on the manifesto and the basic thrust of his talk is that implementations of the manifesto have lost track of the values that it tried to talk about. And this is because you can’t sell values but you can sell methods and tools and processes. So what you have is an industry that teaches you rituals to follow that are supposed to deliver the kind of results you get if you put agile values at the heart of how you work. Somehow, the rituals don’t quite match up with what actually needs to be done. And it happens all the time.

Dave talks about what the values actually are – and it comes down to the ideas in the image that starts this post. The question of “what” is agile is answered by thinking of the steps you take. You start by understanding where you are, then you take a small step towards your goal. You then see what you’ve learned and what that could mean. And then you repeat the cycle, look at where you are now and take another step.

Dave also talks about this as a model that’s similar to the way in which you steer ships. Ships are hard to steer, they’re big things and it takes time for things to happen. So, you have controllers that help you deal with this, in particular something called a PID controller. PID stands for proportional, integral, derivative and it simply means this. You need to measure how far away you are from the error, what has happened so far and how long it takes for things to change.

This is interesting because Dave, who knows what he is talking about, has likened what he thinks of an agile approach as being akin to a cybernetic system. Cybernetics is literally derived from the idea of a helmsman – someone who steers a boat. I’ve written about cybernetics briefly in this post and explained it in this video. Agile software development, therefore, one could argue is closely related to the field of cybernetics.

The other element of Dave’s talk is related to decision making. He argues that when you have to make a choice between two alternatives that have similar outcomes pick the approach that gives you the most flexibility to change later. This is what we might call preserving optionality – making sure that the decisions you make don’t lock you into a single track that you will be unable to escape from if you need to later. That seems like common sense – but at the same time much of the world of business tries to do just that. And the world of politics, when you think about it.

Anyway, the best part of the talk is about the difference between agile as a verb and as a noun. The right way to think about it is to be agile, to do your work in a way that corresponds to the dictionary definition of the word. It’s not a thing you hold. It’s the way you act.


Karthik Suresh

How Involved Do You Need To Get To Understand Something


Saturday, 8.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved; the pig is committed. – Martina Navratilova

From what I’m told the positivist school of thought still dominates research methods in the U.S. Writers such as Robert Pirsig describe how it affected researchers in the 1970s, forcing them to look elsewhere if they wanted to progress their academic studies, usually in Europe. And even now, forty years later, I understand that certain subjects cannot be published in North American Journals.

I suppose academics, like all other people, are trapped in their histories. We all find it hard to let go of ideas that have worked for us, and that we therefore believe are true. No one changes in an instant. What happens is that attitudes change over time, small variations happen until we reach a tipping point and then one set of beliefs is replaced by another. It happens in that instant where the balance tilts from fractionally on one side to the other, and then it seems inevitable.

I think that must also happen with the positivist viewpoint. As a reminder, positivism according to Google’s dictionary is “a philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and therefore rejecting metaphysics and theism.” Metaphysics, according to the same dictionary, is “the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time, and space.”

Let’s focus on the bit of the positivism definition that has to do with scientific verification. That has something to do about repeatability – when something happens in a particular way regardless of who is watching. And that’s the first gulf because when you move from observing things like stones being dropped from a height, where we are pretty certain that the stones don’t know about or care about who or what else is involved, to observing people and groups who are quite often intensely aware of being watched, things stop being quite as repeatable and therefore not as scientific.

So we wrap it up in methods that look like science because they produce numbers – like questionnaires and surveys or, in these modern days, cookies and search histories. The use of this data, in theory, helps us predict what’s going to happen on average. This is a seductive approach, the idea that science will help protect us from the risks in the future through superior scientific methods.

But we know that doesn’t work too well. The last two decades should tell you that. Scientists are probably following economists in mostly telling you what’s happened rather than being right about what’s next.

So this is perhaps the big challenge for our time. We have mastered the world – the physical one around us and we know how to make it do things that no other creature can do. What we now need to do is learn how to master ourselves.

Preferably before there is no world left.


Karthik Suresh

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