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Week 6, 2022—Issue #190

Viable Systems Model (VSM): Environment, Operations, and Metasystems

Photo by Karen Lau on Unsplash

Each week: three ideas on the future of work and organization. This week: three ideas that help explain how the Viable Systems Model (VSM) can help balance organizational effectiveness and control.

VSM is like a Unified Field Theory for organizational design and development. It helps us to unbundle organizations into their component parts, and it helps us understand how those parts can and should work together.

Fig. A: Adaptation of Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model (VSM).

Let me explain:

1. Environment

The top-down hierarchy is the by far most common organizational model around. It’s so ubiquitous in fact, that it can be hard to imagine alternatives. But alternatives do exist and among them, VSM is a prime contender. The reason is simple: the top-down hierarchy wasn’t built for a world of constant and continuous change, but VSM was. In fact, VSM is modeled as a Complex Adaptive System — a pattern found in nature that is notable for its ability to adapt to environmental change.

2. Operations

Complex Adaptive Systems feature loosely coupled yet highly aligned subsystems (e.g., cells in the body) that can be configured and reconfigured as needed. VSM’s contribution is that it identifies five activities or processes present in all such subsystems: “1. Operations” encompass the primary activities needed to fulfill the entity’s purpose (e.g., care in hospitals, teaching in schools). These activities are then supported by “2. Communication” which enables said activities to coordinate their work.

3. Metasystems

VSM also defines three meta subsystems. First, there’s “3. Cohesion” that monitors the primary activities, ensuring they all pull in the same direction (i.e., alignment, optimization). ”4. Intelligence” looks ahead, providing the primary activities with insights on future opportunities (i.e., research, innovation). Finally, “5. Governance” is concerned with policy decisions relating to identity and values. Taken together, these five activities describe everything the subsystem is and does.

According to Wikipedia, VSM is used to model autonomous systems capable of producing themselves, and it considers such systems “viable” if they’re able to continuously adapt to environmental change.


Producing themselves? Indeed. This is another fundamental trait of Complex Adaptive Systems. They are recursive (i.e., characterized by recurrence or repetition) and fractal in nature. Like snowflakes, they feature patterns that recur at progressively smaller scales.

As complex as VSM might be, it’s also brilliantly simple. Because as we model organizations, we repeat the same pattern over and over again, in more and more intricate detail. Hence the Unified Field Theory analogy above: in VSM, we find a single framework with which to model and diagnose organizations in their entirety.

That’s all for this week.
Until next time: Make it matter.

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