Table of Content
Table of Content 2
1. WHY DO WE NEED A VIABLE SYSTEM MODEL? 3
2. SOME DEFINITIONS 4
3. VIABLE SYSTEMS AND REQUISITE VARIETY 6
4. UNFOLDING COMPLEXITY 11
5. MECHANISMS FOR VIABILITY 18
5.1 Cohesion Mechanism 18
5.2 Adaptation Mechanism 26
6 APPLICATIONS OF THE VIABLE SYSTEM MODEL 32
1. WHY DO WE NEED A VIABLE SYSTEM MODEL?
The Viable System Model (VSM) offers a holistic form of observing collective behaviours in
today’s societies. Its history goes back into the late 1950s. Stafford Beer created it in the context of
the earlier work in cybernetics by Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch and Ross Ashby. Over the
past twenty years its methods have evolved in the context of the work of Syncho Ltd., a small
research and consultancy company associated to the Aston Science Park, Birmingham, UK. The
work has been driven by our shared desire to understand why institutions, whether large or small,
public or private, are as they are and how we can intervene to make them work better for their
Our work is focused on organisational diagnosis and design. The Viable System Model is a
particularly helpful instrument for this purpose. It allows us to diagnose the structural mechanisms
in use in an enterprise and this is a platform for organisational design. This briefing shows the VSM
as a powerful tool to steer interactions in directions that produce effective structural mechanisms.
Organisational design has to go beyond tinkering with local improvements in the direction of
producing enterprises capable of creating, regulating and producing espoused purposes and values.
Most approaches used in designing or re-structuring organisations are focused on improving value
chain processes without a clear understanding of how these business processes interact with myriad
of organisational processes producing together with them the emergent organisation. We need a
holistic framework to relate business and organisational processes as well as local and global
processes. This is what the VSM is all about.
The VSM helps us to understand how people’s interactions produce shared communication
spaces, whether real or virtual, with particular structures. For instance, shared communication
spaces populated by people with uneven power are likely to produce hierarchical structures,
which themselves become the media to constitute interactions with uneven distribution of power.
This is a social mechanism that leaves in the hands of the few most of the influence in producing
organisational meanings. The declarative power of these few can be seen as responsible for the
creation and development of our enterprises. This distribution of power has fundamental
consequences in the constitution of responsible enterprises.
In this brief we explore how organisation can release the potentials of people, enabling them to
handle autonomously their problems, thus providing enterprises with the flexibility they need to
survive in complex and rapidly changing environments. An effective enterprise produces
simultaneously global cohesion and local autonomy. The first is a requirement to achieve synergy;
the second is a requirement to achieve flexibility and creativity.
The VSM provides a means of observing the structural context hindering people’s communications
as they experience problem situations. A lack of awareness of this context often produces both
unintended consequences and performance problems.
The VSM offers through diagnosis a
framework to assess these risks and through design a framework to ameliorate them. Too often we
tackle problem situations without establishing this necessary condition for effective action. The
VSM is above all about connectivity, about structuring the system to facilitate the healthy growth of
2. SOME DEFINITIONS
Viable systems are those that are able to maintain a separate existence. Such systems have their own
problem solving capacity. If they are to survive, they need not only the capacity to respond to
familiar events such as customer orders, but the potential to respond to unexpected events, to the
emergence of new social behaviours and even to painful catastrophes. The latter capacity is the
hallmark of viable systems; it gives them the capacity to evolve and adapt to changing
environments. While a catastrophic event may at a particular instant throw the viable system off
balance, the fundamental characteristic of viability lessens its vulnerability to the unexpected,
making it more adaptive to change.
An organisation is a ‘closed’ network of people in interaction producing a whole. Organisation
emerges when members of a collective produce a closed network of recurrent interactions. Closed
network, or ‘closure’, means that the collective has decision rules and mechanisms to make up
their own minds about relevant issues, producing through their actions and decisions a whole,
which maintains a separate existence. An organisation has identity and structure.
People’s recurrent interactions produce relations. However, the same interactions in a different
social context may produce different relations. Interactions can be direct communications, such as
everyday conversations, or indirect communications, such as when people coordinate their actions
as an outcome of sharing a context or culture. Relations are the embodiment of social relationships
in a particular collective. It is these relationships that provide the organisation with its identity:
when these relationships change, regardless of whether the individual actors remain the same, the
organisation is not the same anymore; equally, individuals may leave the organisation, but if
relationships remain unchanged, the same organisation remains. It has not altered its identity.
An organisation’s structure is often understood as the formal hierarchy of functionally based
reporting relations among people as shown on the typical organisation charts. In our definition,
structure emerges from stable forms of communication, or mechanisms, which permit the parts of
an organisation to operate together as a whole. These parts can be the various roles that people
adopt in an organisation and the units that they form, such as teams, departments or business units.
Roles and units are resourced by all kinds of materials, tools and technologies. In other words,
stable relations that allow people and other resources to operate together as a totality define
structure. The organisation's structure is thus viewed as a network of stable 'real life' on-going
communications, or organisational processes, and not as static formal reporting relations. Objects,
such as communication devices or information systems, thus constitute an organisation’s structure.
This point suggests the relevance of understanding both the contribution of technology and other
resources to organisational processes and the influence of structure in the design of communication
and information systems.
The idea of a viable system can be applied to any collective or group of people who are in recurrent
interactions and over time develop an identity of their own (e.g. members of an enterprise, family,
local action group, shift in a plant, etc). An institution may not be a viable system if it doesn’t
operate as a cohesive autonomous whole. On the other hand a set of institutions or institutional
parts, if they develop requisite connectivity among them, they may produce a viable system. This
would be case of an education system in a country, where its organisation may emerge from the
interactions among people creating policy in national and local educational authorities, regulating
these policies in regulatory bodies and producing education in myriad of schools and other formal
and informal educational bodies.
When a collective is constituted as a Viable System its members are not only creating but also
producing collective meanings. These emergent meanings are the collective’s purposes and values-
in-use, which may be different to the purposes and values that they create and espouse. No doubts,
members of a collective, by agreeing purposes for their action can focus their efforts better.
However, if debates concerning purposes are inadequate or are poorly grounded in people’s every
day actions, the collective’s purposes-in-use may become out of phase with their espoused
purposes, suggesting lack of coherence (i.e. people not walking the talk) and possibly lack of
alignment with the interests and requirements of customers and other agents co-evolving with them
in their environment. This lack of coherence may derive into ethical and long-term viability
problems, as, for example, recent corporate scandals in the USA have made apparent.
3. VIABLE SYSTEMS AND REQUISITE VARIETY
Ross Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety is at the core of the VSM. Broadly speaking, this law states
that a "controller" has requisite variety - that is, has the capacity to maintain the outcomes of a
situation within a target set of desirable states - if and only if it has the capacity to produce
responses to all those disturbances that are likely to take the outcomes out of the target set. In other
words the situational variety must be equalled by the response variety of the controller.
An example of this law is the case of a man driving a car. The man wants to keep the car on the
road; and as the road twists and turns he responds to these disturbances by turning the steering
wheel, reducing speed, putting more attention, braking the car and so forth. He can be said to have
requisite variety since he can apply such measures as are necessary to keep the state of the car
within its target set (i.e., close to the kerb). If, however, the steering broke down and he could not
respond to these changes then the car would be out of control and a crash would follow (a state
outside the target set). In this instance, the man did not have requisite variety for the task at hand.
Fig. 1 represents a hypothesised viable system such as a manufacturing company, a service
business, a charity or any other collective, which is run by its management.
ure 1 Viable S
The viable system is co-evolving with a range of agents producing its environment, such as
customers, competitors, suppliers, neighbours, etc. This environment is largely beyond the
knowledge and control of the people within the viable system; they simply cannot take for
granted the actions of the environmental agents, let alone know everything about every aspect of
the world within which they operate. Similarly, managers cannot take for granted the people
working within the organisational system, let alone know everything about every aspect of the
viable system that they manage. People may not only be unpredictable but also may defect if so
they wish. However if the organisation is to maintain viability within its environment, and
management is to continue to steer the organisation, then the Law of Requisite Variety suggests
that the variety of responses displayed by the organisation should at least equal that emerging
from its environment, and the variety of responses of management should at least equal that of
the organisation (see Fig 2).
Figure 2 Managing complexity
Yet, as established above, the variety of the environment is far larger than that of the
organisation, which in its turn is far larger than that of management, so, it would appear, these
varieties couldn’t equate. But organisations maintain viability in their environments and
managements more or less give direction to their organisations. Both develop one way or the
other strategies to cope with the much larger variety of the opposite side.
These mismatches are resolved by recognising the fact that of all the environmental variety, only
part of it is relevant to the system; namely that part producing the disturbances that its
organisation has to respond to in order to maintain viability. Also it is not necessary for this
organisation to deal with all this relevant variety since agents within the environment may
perform much of this activity for the organisation. For example, a car dealership network
performs this service for the car manufacturer. A volume car manufacturer could not hope to deal
with each individual customer; instead, the dealer sells the cars and passes on orders to the
manufacturer. Thus the massive variety of all the actual and prospective customers' requirements
is absorbed by the dealership network, which then passes block orders to the manufacturer.
Conversely, the variety of the manufacturer, which may have only a few sites in the country, is
amplified by having a nationwide dealership network giving it a presence in every major town.
The organisational system as a controller of its relevant environment can only respond to a
relatively small number of possible states in this environment, but uses agents in this
environment to respond indirectly to all the others. It is this capacity to collaborate with others
and support action in the shared environment that allows the organisational system to deal with a
much larger variety than otherwise would be the case. How much of the environmental variety is
relevant depends on performance requirements. More competition implies higher performance
requirements, which in turn increase the number of states that are relevant to the organisation.
The above argument suggests that it is possible to match more variety (i.e. achieve more) with
less variety (i.e. fewer resources). This implies to use more of the capacities of the environmental
agents in support of the organisation’s performance. In our example of the car manufacturer,
dealers in the environment deal with most of the relevant variety. However, the residual variety
that is not dealt with by these environmental responses must be met by the organisation of the viable
system itself. The orders from the car dealers to the manufacturer make up the residual variety, to
which the manufacturer responds by producing the required number of vehicles.
The same relational pattern occurs between management and the other participants within the
system. To say that management controls the system does not mean that the varieties of both are the
same, but that the residual variety left unabsorbed by the processes of self-organisation and self-
regulation within the viable system has to be absorbed by management. Complexity, or variety, is
again dealt with by the use of management amplifiers (e.g. delegation, people’s commitment,
training) and attenuators (e.g. exception reporting, modelling, selective conversations).
However, it is a common occurrence for amplification and attenuation processes to creep out of
balance: the promises made by the sales people cannot all be fulfilled due to lack of adequate
delivery channels (i.e. the attenuation of customers’ requirements as expressed by accepted orders
cannot be matched by delivery of products; there is not enough amplification capacity, leading to
underperformance of the system), or the market segmentation in use does not offer distinctions
(attenuation) that the organisation’s response capacity could deal with if it only knew about them;
they treat varied groups of customers as if they were all the same (poor attenuation leads to waste of
Figure 3: Residual Variety
Fig 3 shows this balancing of variety between the environment, the viable system and its
management. A test of effective management is achieving this balancing at a minimum cost to the
organisation and management. In this figure we find that seven environmental critical success
factors -CSFs- (the seven lines to the left of the figure) are matched by response capacity in the
environment itself (the circular arrow, which absorbs the variety of four critical success factors) and
three organisational responses (the three lines to the left of the viable system). It is apparent that
increasing the variety absorption capacity of environmental agents, to the point where say, they
absorb the variety of 5 CSFs would make it possible a leaner organisation, requiring capacity to deal
directly with only two CSFs rather than the 3 shown in the figure. The same argument applies to the
interactions between management and the organisation, where the more self-regulation and self-
organisation takes place locally within the structure the less management is required for a similar
level of performance.
4. UNFOLDING COMPLEXITY
According to the command-and-control model of management, which in spite of all the
management developments of the 80’s and 90’s still dominates management practice, enterprises
are structured as pyramids, with decisions about policy being taken at the top and implemented
through their lower structural levels. According to this practice an enterprise’s total task is broken
down into smaller and smaller fragments, leading to an increasingly narrow definition of tasks and
an emphasis on functional specialisation.
The Viable System Model works on a different principle, one that is derived from studying
biological systems: hierarchy is replaced by structural recursion. Living (viable) systems, from
the most elementary cells to human beings, are self-organising and self-regulatory. Evolution is
responsible for their increasing complexification, where cells’ functional differentiation and
connectivity may produce more complex living systems, without cells losing their self-organising
and self-regulatory characteristics. This produces viable systems within viable systems, at
increasing levels of complexity. Each component maintains its autonomy vis-à-vis its environment,
but contributes to the production of a larger also autonomous viable system. Picture Russian dolls
within Russian dolls, only that there is not only one within each of the larger dolls but potentially
many. All components share the same complexity management requirements to remain viable, at all
structural levels of complexity, and therefore have the same structural requirements, even if they are
functionally differentiated. This will give an idea of how powerfully complexity is managed through
these processes of complexification; most of the complexity is managed locally in each of the
components and only a small residual variety is required to align them with the more global
interests, to increase the likelihood of higher levels of evolutionary complexification. In social
systems we often experience the opposite process; a collective of people with no clear functional
differentiation find themselves without the requisite structures to carry out something that is still not
clearly defined. They interact in given contexts, try to find their common path and hope for the best;
if the ride is difficult some of them may defect if that is at all possible, the ones left behind fight,
suffer and eventually may generate some degree of cohesion. It is in this scenario that collectives
may strive for an improved viability, beyond survival. They can learn from biological systems how
to create conditions for local viability (i.e. autonomy) without fragmentation and loss of cohesion.
Now we are opening the Russian dolls, and learning how is it that autonomy within autonomy can
be enabled; we are unfolding the enterprises’ complexity. We also encounter examples of organic
growth, where individuals or small cohesive units develop synergistic relations with other so far
independent people and /or units and produce a new organisation. Of course we may find many
other forms of complexification from where new organisational forms emerge. Regardless of
whether the process is bottom-up, top-down or of any other form, in all cases we find that there is
The unfolding of complexity in a collective is by and large the outcome of local processes of self-
organisation, rather than purposeful design. The formal organisation chart bears little resemblance
to the organic processes of communication and control in use within, say, an enterprise. In order to
reduce the pain and cost that is often involved in processes of self-organisation the challenge is to
learn, both from past social experiences and also from nature strategies, to manage connecting
processes leading to successful composite viability. This means producing cohesion of components
while respecting their autonomy. For collectives, as meaning producing social systems, this implies
aligning the meanings produced by the actions of each individual with the purposes they
collectively ascribe to their joint enterprise. The better is this alignment, I will argue, the more
effective is the enterprise’s organisation.
A balance should be achieved between actions producing the intended collective purposes and
actions enabling this production. In the extreme, if all actions went into production there would be
neither capacity to support connectivity and cohesion nor capacity to challenge the already ascribed
purposes. This is a crucial distinction; those actions producing these purposes are called primary
activities, those enabling them are called regulatory activities. Viable systems emerge from the
connectivity (i.e. communications and interactions) among primary and regulatory activities.
However, for collectives, whether an action is primary or regulatory is in the eye of the beholder; it
depends among other aspects on the awareness that observers have about the collective’s purposes
and their own individual or group purposes. It is common to find that what keeps collectives
together are relationships rather than shared purposes. Often members of a collective strive for their
own, rather than the collective’s purposes, but are not prepared to defect. In practice this produces
conflicts as different groups ascribe different purposes to their collective’s actions.
Figure 4: Unfolding of Complexity
Fig 4 shows the unfolding of an organisation’s complexity once it is accepted that it has a particular,
ascribed, purpose. It is therefore a hypothetical viable system. Primary activities are implied by the
purposes ascribed to the collective’s actions and are structured in autonomous units within
. What are the meanings shared by the collective? What are they producing as a
collective? What inputs are they transforming into what outputs? How are they producing this
transformation? What customers are they serving? Who is controlling this transformation? In what
context are they doing this production? Answering these questions (which are often less obvious
than they at first appear) help to work out the key transformation in which the viable system is
engaged; this is its primary transformation. Establishing the activities producing this transformation,
as opposed to those enabling its production, permits modelling autonomous units within
autonomous units or levels of recursion in the viable system. This point is explained in what
Producing a transformation in the environment (e.g. offering a successful service to customers, or
increasing people’s aesthetic awareness) is a highly complex relational process that depends on the
collective’s purposes. Complexity emerges from the collective’s relations with environmental
agents, which may be the trigger for organisation. Demanding environments stretch the collective
and put pressure to their ingenuity. This stretching may transform the collective into a cohesive
organisation. The collective needs to find ways to amplify its own variety and to attenuate the
environment’s relevant variety, hopefully making ‘more with less’ (minimising residual variety).
This is a driver for problem solving and ingenuity. The best way to achieve amplification is to
enable individual autonomy within the collective. Autonomy realises individuals’ creativity and
increases the collective’s flexibility to deal locally with environmental variety. However, the
environmental complexity stretching them has structure itself. It comes in chunks of connected
customers and suppliers, or chunks of location based, geographic, needs or chunks of time in which
services are required and so forth. An effective organisational structure maps these chucks of
complexity. How people in the organisation chunk their environmental complexity is a matter of
These autonomous units can be real or virtual, and do not necessarily match the formal units
defined in the organisational chart.
ingenuity. For instance, some may exploit difficult to see connectivity, in the light of their strategic
intent and the technologies-in-use. Some may develop new technologies altogether. Whatever are
the chunks they decide to respond to, the organisation needs to map them structurally. Since in
general individuals cannot cope in isolation with these chunks, organisation fosters structurally their
collaboration to form autonomous units, accountable for chunks of environmental complexity. Each
of these autonomous units is functionally specialised in producing an aspect of the collective’s
purposes. If, as an outcome of a learning process, they find that a number of these autonomous units
could beneficially collaborate with each other to map a bigger chunk of environmental complexity,
they are now recognising a larger autonomous unit embedding a number of autonomous units and
itself embedded in an even larger autonomous unit. Equally they may find the need to break an
existing autonomous unit, say their total organisation, into several units to produce some form of
desirable functional specialisation and thus map better their relevant environmental complexity.
Further structural unfolding may happen within each of the newly formed autonomous units,
suggesting even further specialisation. These are all learning processes, dynamically producing the
organisation’s structure. These processes of complexity unfolding are at the core of how collectives
structure their purposes and values. Indeed organisational qualities, such as transparency, fairness
and participation, also have a structural underpinning.
The organisation’s total transformation is thus produced by the synergistic communications of
multiple autonomous units. Whether these autonomous units are forced by hierarchical impositions
of power, or are the outcome of self-organising processes sensitive to the structure of the
environment’s complexity, is a complex social question that requires empirical observations.
However, some form of complexity unfolding happens in all complex situations and the challenge is
to hypothesise alternatives that increase the organisation’s fit to its environment, considering
available and/or new emerging technologies.
The huge number of primary activities performed by the collective, structured in whatever forms,
define the organisation’s performance complexity. They produce its products and services. The
exact number of structural levels and the number of autonomous units at each level is an empirical
issue, however a good appreciation of the environment and also of the technologies available to
cope with its complexity may help to anticipate successful structures, making the learning more
effective. In all cases the structure is of autonomous units within autonomous units within
autonomous units and so forth (see figure 4). And all autonomous units experience the same
challenge that is, producing an environmental transformation in a situation where their complexity
is much lower than that of the relevant environment. The requisite structures to enable autonomy
and cohesion are common to all of them; these are recursive structures.
Achieving cohesion of primary activities in autonomous units requires regulatory capacity, which is
produced by regulatory activities. The more regulatory capacity is kept at the level of small
autonomous units, the smaller is likely to be the residual variety left to the attention of higher levels
of administration and management. But, how much decentralisation do members of the collective
want and are prepared to accept? This is a political question. A highly centralised structure can be
viable, but only at a high cost of co-ordination and support activities.
An autonomous unit is desirable if the collective gives a positive answer to the question: 'Do we
want to make this unit viable?' Answers to these questions define an organisation’s espoused
purposes. In a diagnostic mode it is possible to observe the actual organisational forms or structures
matching the environmental complexity implied by these espoused purposes; if there is a mismatch
it is possible to diagnose a dysfunctional organisational structure.
Activities enacting personnel, finance, marketing, information services, etc tend to fall into the
category of support or regulatory activities. They produce the regulatory functions giving cohesion
and adaptability to autonomous units. They are crucial to the viability of the overall organisation
and of each of its embedded autonomous units. Regulatory activities are performed at different
levels depending on the balance between centralisation and decentralisation accepted within the
organisation. Functions such quality assurance and human resources management may need to be
devolved in one form or another to each autonomous unit. Modelling this interaction between
regulatory and primary activities is central to the use of the VSM.
This suggests that in any viable system there is, in one form or another, a complementarity between
cohesion and autonomy. The challenge is to find design criteria to make this complementarity
The concept of a recursive organisation suggests that all autonomous units in an enterprise have
(should have) a structure that gives them the capacity for meaning creation (i.e. policy making),
meaning regulation (i.e. management and services) and meaning production (i.e. implementation). It
is seldom that we find these capabilities embodied in the structures of modern enterprises, let alone
in the structure of their component ‘autonomous units’. They remain hierarchical in nature, in spite
of all claims to the contrary. This implies an unnecessary restriction of people’s autonomy and
therefore a reduction in performance complexity. ‘Autonomous units’ to maintain a separate
existence in their environment need to create their own meanings (i.e. policies) and need to
implement them. Traditionally, autonomy means to norm oneself. Additionally, in our view,
autonomy means to produce oneself.
From natural systems we learn that structurally there are two key mechanisms for viability. One is
the mechanism that keeps the components together as a cohesive whole. This is the cohesion
mechanism or as I have called it elsewhere the mechanism for monitoring-control. The other is the
mechanism that supports the organisation’s co-evolution with agents in its environment. This is the
mechanism for adaptation. The next section describes how these two mechanisms operate. For
simplicity of presentation, we will refer, for the most part, to the operation of these mechanisms at
the level of the total enterprise; however, it must be remembered throughout that the same principles
apply to all viable systems, at whatever level of structural recursion they find themselves.
5. MECHANISMS FOR VIABILITY
These are structural mechanism emerging in a collective that is concerned with its viability in the
long run. These are mechanisms that account for making things happen in an uncertain world,
constantly changing and evolving. The first challenge for the collective is to achieve cohesion and
synergy from their connectivity. This requires a mechanism -the cohesion mechanism- that allows
people to produce meanings that transcend them as individuals. The second challenge is to remain
viable over time in co-evolution with those the collective is constructing the world together. This
requires a mechanism –the adaptation mechanism- that allows people to create new meanings as
conditions evolve. These two mechanisms are discussed in what follows.
5.1 Cohesion Mechanism
For a collective to became an organisation they need to achieve cohesion. Cohesion means aligning
individual and collective interests. This alignment does not imply that individuals and their
collective have the same interests and purposes, but that however different these might be, the
implementation of individuals’ purposes produces the purposes ascribed to the organisation. Of
course we may expect that organisational purposes constitute individual purposes in a cycle of
mutual production and constitution. The cohesion mechanism explains how to achieve structurally
this alignment. In other words it explains the kinds of stable forms of communication among
organisational resources that increase the chances of articulating the autonomous units’ programmes
with the organisation’s purposes. For the purpose of explaining this mechanism we will distinguish
between those resources and relations producing the organisation’s purposes, we call them the
implementation function, and those resources and relations steering the implementation function in
desirable directions, we call them the cohesion function.
All autonomous units, whether real or virtual, formal or informal, producing the collective’s
purposes and values constitute the implementation function. It is not unusual to find out that the
units that develop autonomy in a collective are not consistent with the collective’s purposes. This
discrepancy suggests that there is a distinction between their espoused theory and their theory-in-
use. In this situation the collective either adjust their espoused purposes or create the conditions for
the emergence of desirable autonomy and the elimination of undesirable autonomy. Managing the
coherence of established policies and their implementation is the purpose of the cohesion function.
Therefore, the cohesion function is constituted by resources whose purpose is, first to negotiate
programmes and resources with autonomous units in order to make local policies coherent with the
organisation’s global policies, and second to monitor the development and performance of these
programmes over time. Its fundamental concern is the organisation’s internal complexity, that is, the
‘inside and now’, of which it has to be an effective attenuator. For this the cohesion function needs
first, an accurate appreciation of the achievements and capabilities of those units that should
develop autonomy in the organisation, and second, a means to enable their coordination. In this
sense the cohesion function is a form of control that respects and enables the autonomy of units in
Unfortunately control is a loaded term often misunderstood. Cohesion managers and people in the
autonomous units often experience the control dilemma: management, having lower
implementation variety than the autonomous units they control, cannot possibly maintain awareness
of all that is going on within them; there is a natural ‘information gap’. Yet management knows that
they are accountable for any loss of control. The information gap often leads to a feeling of
discomfort and uncertainty on the part of management (‘what is going on down there? How can I
tell if they're telling me the truth?') This anxiety to know more leads to increased demands for
special reports and the undertaking of more investigations, to keep 'in control'; however, in reality
these demands and instructions only serve to reduce the variety of autonomous units, making them
less flexible, as they struggle to fulfil increased management requirements at the expense of
carrying out their own operations. At the very time that autonomous units need more flexibility to
respond effectively to their own environmental pressures, managers' behaviour is reducing this
flexibility. Because of the law of requisite variety management in the cohesion function cannot win
with this type of control strategy. This strategy reduces de variety of implementation units,
hindering their autonomous development and performance. At the same time this strategy increases
the residual variety that management needs to deal with. This kind of relationship is the hallmark of
hierarchies and bureaucracies.
Control games with negative effects are common phenomena in these circumstances. These are
interpersonal games in which, on the one hand, senior management uses the allocation of resources
as a means of exercising control power, and on the other, local management uses its better
knowledge of implementation to manipulate senior management into unchecked decisions. Most of
the time, these games are not the outcome of deliberate actions, but simply of poor interpersonal
Summing up the control dilemma, as people feel the pressure from agents in their environment to
become more flexible and sophisticated, managers sense larger information gaps. However, if they
respond to these gaps with traditional control strategies, less flexibility and larger bureaucracies are
likely to emerge, precisely when there is a need for greater flexibility. A proliferation of control
games is the likely result.
The problem can be redefined as how to achieve cohesion among the all-important autonomous
units, despite managers experiencing these unavoidable information gaps? Or more precisely, how
is it possible to match the desirable large variety of autonomous units to the unavoidable low variety
of management? Indeed, autonomy is a requirement to make units more responsive to agents in their
relevant environments, and the low variety of managers is in their fabric as human being. This
question leads to another question, how to reduce the residual variety that is relevant to management
at the same time of increasing the organisation’s response capacity? Indeed, the more local problem
solving is enabled within autonomous units the less implementation variety is left unattended, and
therefore the smaller is the residual variety left for the attention of management. Answering these
questions in concrete situations challenges our ingenuity but at least the VSM gives us generic
advice; the design of the cohesion mechanism, which assumes that the collective has evolved into a
number of autonomous units embedded in the collective enterprise (itself an autonomous unit at a
more global level). This design is driven by three guiding principles:
i Negotiation: minimise the use of direct commands
Fig 5 shows the operation of the cohesion function in relation to three autonomous units (e.g.
operating divisions in an enterprise), which are to a greater or lesser extent interdependent by virtue
of the fact that they belong to the same organisation. Indeed, working out their interdependence
challenges the ingenuity of the cohesion function. They may interact operationally, by one
providing inputs to another, or through the environment, for example through an overlap in the
markets they serve, or through sharing technologies or through any other ingenuous form of seeing
them as part of the same whole. A key role of the cohesion function, as its name suggests, is to
achieve a degree of cohesion among these parts for which it is held accountable.
Figure 5 Control Dilemma
The central vertical channel between the cohesion function and the management of each of the three
autonomous units (e.g. divisions in a company) is the communication channel through which senior
management negotiations programmes with divisional management. Also, it is the channel through
which performance reports are passed and corporate intervention takes place (e.g. issuing safety
policies in the company) As we have seen above, however, overloading this channel, confusing it
with a command channel, only leads to control dilemmas. No doubt, one way of reducing direct
commands is making use of 'exception reporting' systems, common in most organisations today,
and equally 'management by objectives' avoids too much interference and helps senior level
management to 'see the wood from the trees'. Yet these devices are not in themselves sufficient to
bridge the communication gaps between managers at different structural levels. They may deal with
information overload but not with problems of maintaining organisational cohesion and developing
synergy among autonomous units. The next two 'design criteria' address these issues.
ii Use sporadic monitoring - with discretion
The problem emerges from autonomous units at two different structural levels trying to
communicate with each other. In our example, the enterprise and the divisions are autonomous
units; each of them has its own reality. Neither side can assume that the other assigns the same
meanings to the available information. Making this assumption would deny the autonomy of the
other, which of course is what happens with lower level units within hierarchies. Giving meaning to
the shared information requires its contextualisation and this implies breaking the boundaries of the
autonomous units, and learning first hand the context from which they produce the information.
This is the meaning of monitoring in this framework.
This grounding of information in the operational reality of the other is achieved by developing a
monitoring channel that runs directly between the enterprise’s management and the autonomous
units themselves, bypassing their management (see Fig 6).
Figure 6 Monitoring of primary activities
The cohesion function needs support to decode the accountability reports it receives from divisional
management; what do they mean? What is the division’s attitude to risk? What are their current
concerns? How are they coping? They need an assurance that they are decoding information
properly. Monitoring can take a variety of forms, from the obvious auditing programmes, to
informal conversations, unscheduled visits, sharing common task and many more. However, they
must adhere to the following principles:
a) They must not be prepared, anticipated events - otherwise they are not going to be effective
in recognising values, concerns, and attitudes within the autonomous units;
b) They must be infrequent, otherwise they risk undermining the authority and trust vested in
the management of the autonomous units;
c) They must be an openly declared approach, of which everyone concerned is aware. The
intention is not to play 'big brother', employing secretive tactics and games of subterfuge; it
is simply to demonstrate an interest in knowing what is going on at first hand. If employed
sensitively, monitoring should communicate a message of caring to those involved in the
operations in question, without resulting in defensive behaviours from the intermediate ‘by
passed’ level of management.
d) In general, it must happen only in between successive structural levels. Monitoring activities
at several levels below, like the traditional ‘management by walking around’ of senior
managers not only by-passes several levels of management, which is a poor strategy to
manage complexity, but more significantly may inhibit necessary relations in between.
Negotiation of programmes and their monitoring are the two sides of the same coin, that is, two
sides of the same cohesion function. One without the other is meaningless. Programmes for which
there is no negotiation capacity are not negotiated. Negotiation without understanding the other side
cannot be negotiation. This is what monitoring brings into the cohesion function.
iii Maximise co-ordination among the autonomous units
While, as we have discussed, enabling autonomy improves the flexibility of the viable system, it
also increases the likelihood of units producing inconsistent responses. To counteract this drawback
it is necessary to enable and if possible design stabilisers among autonomous units. Enabling their
lateral communications is indeed a means first to reduce the chances of inconsistent responses and
second to increase the opportunities for a coherent development. Sharing the same culture, setting
common procedures and standards in all those aspects that are not central to the units’ own purposes
can play this role. This strategy, based on enabling self-regulation, is likely to produce consistency
among the autonomous units over time, as long as the entailed learning is not stopped at an early
stage because it is perceived as too chaotic and costly. To a much lesser extent it is possible to use
coordination by direct supervision. This is a useful coordination strategy for those aspects where the
operational connectivity among autonomous units is not high and can be overviewed and contained
by a manager or a corporate administrative unit. Otherwise, being this a centralised form of
coordination, the variety of the autonomous units may overload the cohesion function, as this
function becomes a bottleneck for unresolved communication problems among autonomous units.
Whether we are talking of mutual adjustments or direct supervision an organisation depends on a
coordination function to enable autonomy. It is a critical function to enable connectivity and
therefore cohesion. The better is coordination the less residual variety is left for the attention of the
cohesion function and the more space is given to implementation units to assert their autonomy. The
co-ordination function provides a common language that facilitates lateral communications among
autonomous units and thus enables local problem solving. Co-ordination by mutual adjustment
takes place in the moment-to-moment actions of people, and as such it may absorb far more
complexity than any formal device to coordinate people’s actions from above.
Summing up, the co-ordination function is a powerful, high variety function: the stronger it
becomes, the more the space for self-regulation within the implementation function thus reducing
the residual variety that needs attention of the cohesion function and the greater the autonomy
exercised by the lower structural levels. Together these three functions constitute the cohesion
mechanism (see Fig 7).
Figure 7 The cohesion mechanism
Sadly, it is not unusual that people, especially those operating in traditional, hierarchically structured
organisations, perceive standards as bureaucratic interference with their personal freedom. This is
partly because they often appear as instructions coming down the line ('Here we go again -
management throwing its weight around!') instead of lateral support, designed to make their life
easier in the longer term.
However, if people in support (regulatory) functions can learn to enable people’s coordination,
communicating their purposes with greater clarity, they may begin to change this attitude; and if
such guidelines are clearly couched in a language different from that of direct commands and
instructions, their acceptance may increase. Finally, if an increase in the use of the coordination
function is accompanied by a corresponding increase in local decision making and problem solving,
people may begin to resonate with the expression: 'We are slaves of the system in order that we
may be free.'
5.2 Adaptation Mechanism
However, for viability, it is not enough for the collective to become a cohesive whole; in addition
this cohesive whole must be adaptive to changes in its environment. This is the hallmark of viability
and a necessary condition to transform the collective into an organisation. An effective enterprise is
one that not only 'does things right' but is also able to find the 'right things to do'. Moreover, a
responsible enterprise is one that finds ethical means to do the right things. Capacity for adaptation
and sensitivity to the eco-system are normally associated with the enterprise’s normative and
strategic levels of management.
The three types of resources involved in adaptation are, first those focused on the ‘inside and now’,
that is those constituting the cohesion function, second, those focused on the ‘outside and then’ and
third, those focused on giving closure to the organisation. These last two are referred as the
intelligence function and policy function respectively. These resources together with their relations
constitute the mechanism for adaptation. In what follows we discuss the structures required for this
With reference to the policy function, what is the appropriate contribution of policy-makers? How
can they increase the likelihood that their vision and values will support the organisation's long-term
Senior managers are often confronted by seemingly impossible situations. For instance, it is not
unusual for a board of directors to find out that a new product, in which large sums of money have
already been invested, has no market, or is technically infeasible; or that the new salary policy that
they recently approved has led to damaging industrial relations.
In such cases, managers usually have an implicit awareness not only that they have been deciding
on issues beyond their own immediate technical expertise, but also that important existing
organisational resources - people with the necessary knowledge - were under utilised in the debates
that led to the critical decision now in question.
Furthermore, it is not unusual for people in policy-making positions to feel that they are only
rubber-stamping what has already been debated and decided within the organisation; or that
management briefings focus their attention on issues on which they do not have the required in-
depth knowledge to pass judgment. In these conditions, policy-makers may either abdicate their
responsibility completely by blindly following the advice of their subordinates, or they may take a
'strategic decision' (i.e. a leap in the dark) - and hope for the best.
If most of the time policy-makers are in the invidious position of deciding issues that are beyond
their capacity for scrutiny, how can they keep control of these policy processes? In other words,
how can they help the organisation glide in its environment?
The variety of policy-makers is by definition much lower than the variety of the organisation they
are accountable for; therefore, they must have effective attenuators to filter this complexity and
bring it within range of their relatively limited response capacity. In practice this means that most of
the variety has to be absorbed within the structure only leaving a small residual variety for their
In broad terms there are two main sources of complexity for policy-makers: what is going on inside
the organisation now, or its internal environment, and what going on outside the organisation
challenging its future, or its problematic environment. The former is concerned with the 'inside and
now’ of conditions occurring within the organisation; the quality of its structure, its capabilities and
in general all those aspects that ground policies in operational realities. The latter is concerned with
the 'outside and then' of possible future environmental opportunities and threats; it is concerned both
with the turbulences likely to make bumpy the organisation’s gliding and the corridors for free and
exhilarating flying. We have referred to these two structural filters concerned with these two main
sources of complexity as the organisation's cohesion and intelligence functions (see Fig 8).
These functions exist in one form or another in any viable organisation, but they are not necessarily
related to well-defined entities in the organisation chart: it is perfectly possible, for example, that
resources within one department have both intelligence and a cohesion functions or roles; or that in
a small organisation one individual has all roles. The essential question is how to relate these
resources in order to make policy-making more effective? The basic design rules are as follows:
Figure 8 Adaptation Mechanism
i Minimise the response requirements of policy-makers
There is no need for policy makers to be 'experts' either in their industry or the technologies they
use. In a way it can be argued that ‘policy-makers’ don’t make decisions; organisational issues are
complex enough to be beyond their personal attention, the study of options and related checks and
balances need the participation and contributions of many people within the organisation. It is these
people the ones in the end making the decisions. The challenge for policy-makers is to steer their
interactions along the lines of the organisation’s purposes and values. It is in this steering that they
give closure to the organisation. Policy makers should provide clarity about the overall direction,
values and purpose of the organisation, as well as design, at the highest level, the conditions for
organisational effectiveness. Whether their understanding of technical issues is good or otherwise,
they will (should) not have time to go deep into them. Their appreciation of these issues should be
sufficient to be able to understand and communicate with intelligence and cohesion resources, after
they have gone through the necessary checks and balances among themselves. This approach
reduces residual variety relevant to them. Indeed, to remain in control of the policy processes the
briefings reaching them need to make minimal demands on their attention, consistent with their
contextualised response capacity.
ii Design debates with balanced contributions of the cohesion and intelligence functions
The intelligence and cohesion functions offer alternative, but complementary, perspectives on
shared problems: those of organisational adaptation.
Policy-making is a process, the outcome of which is the choice of courses of action for the
organisation. Which are the transformations the organisation intends to produce in its relevant
environment? The issues of policy concern may have their origins in the policy-makers themselves,
or elsewhere in the organisation and the environment. In the former case, there is a need to
substantiate these issues with further detailed research from a variety of different perspectives; in
the latter case, the ideas need to be subjected to detailed checks and balances from different points
of view before they reach policy-makers.
Effective policy-making requires the orchestration and monitoring of organisational debates in such
a way as to enable people to contribute to the best of their abilities to organisational adaptation and
survival. It follows, from this point and the concept of structural recursion, that the policy-making
process happens (should happen) not just at the level of the global enterprise but also within all
autonomous units, at all structural levels. Extensive debates within the organisation among different
and opposing viewpoints should produce informed conclusions and improve the quality of policy
briefings. Policy-makers should only be exposed to issues and alternatives that have been properly
examined in this way.
A lack of balance in the resources used in the interactions between intelligence and cohesion will
damage the performance of the policy function. For example, if intelligence produces issues of
policy relevance at a higher rate than the control function can cope with, then the policy-makers
may receive views of external possibilities unchecked by on-the-ground management; or if all the
issues reaching policy are concerned with matters of internal efficiency, vital signals from the wider
external problematic environment may be overlooked. Decisions over-influenced by either of the
two filters are likely to be both costly and ineffective.
iii Make intelligence and cohesion highly interconnected
The effectiveness of the intelligence and cohesion functions depends not only on purposeful and
balanced debates among people representing the ‘inside and now’ and the ‘outside and then’, but
also on the on-going interactions and communications of people representing the cohesion and
intelligence functions. These structural communications need also to be monitored by policy-
If the two functions were completely unconnected then, by definition, policy-makers would not only
be receiving information independently from both sides, but they would have the invidious task of
performing all the checks and balances among them by themselves. The policy-makers would be
the only communication channels between two separate sets of people, which, in enterprises of any
size, each deals with far more complexity than the policy function itself could possibly hope to cope
This situation may sound far-fetched, but how many enterprises have established centralised R&D
departments far removed from those managing its current affairs? And how often is Manufacturing
brought into discussions on new product development as an after-thought, when the Marketing and
Technical teams have already defined all the characteristics of the new product? Indeed, current
information and communication technologies may offer a hope in overcoming these structural
Both functions therefore need to be highly interconnected. When this is the case, most of the issues
emerging from each side can be crosschecked with reference to the other at multiple levels before
reaching the stage of general policy debates and the attention of the policy makers.
In the light of the above considerations, the role of policy-makers, or leaders at all levels of the
enterprise, may be elaborated as follows: first, in an uncertain world to identify key issues of
organisational concern; second, to recognise the contributions that different structural parts of the
organisation can bring into the policy-process (i.e. to form working teams containing a balanced
representation of the intelligence and cohesion functions, and for this they need good models of how
the organisation structure works with reference to the organisation’s purposes); third, to monitor the
interactions of these functions as they debate, cogitate and appreciate issues and decide in the light
of the organisation's purposes and values. This is the mechanism for adaptation, which of course is
far more chaotic and complex that the above description may suggest (fig 8).
6 APPLICATIONS OF THE VIABLE SYSTEM MODEL
Fig 9 shows how the two main mechanisms for viability - those of Adaptation and Cohesion - are
combined to define the organisation structure of a viable system. Fig 10 shows these mechanisms
taking into account complexity unfolding; this figure makes apparent the principle of structural
recursion; this is the complete model, which shows a simple structure of an organisation with two
autonomous units, each of which contains two autonomous units. For the purpose of a more detailed
study, a separate VSM can be drawn for each of the autonomous units at each structural level, using
a simple labelling system to relate the models to the unfolding of complexity model.
The key proposition arising from our analysis of the characteristics of viability is that in truly viable
systems, policy, intelligence, cohesion, co-ordination and implementation are distributed at all
structural levels. In complex environments, people's limited capacity to handle variety makes
recursive structures a necessity rather than an option. If all autonomous units within an organisation
are designed to contain these self-managing properties, then the organisation's capacity for
adaptation and learning is widely enlarged.
Figure 9 The Viable Sys tem Model
Inte ll i
Figure 10: Recursive Organisation
The approach to applying the Viable System Model outlined in this management brief has been
used in a wide variety of organisational problem-solving contexts. We have worked with major
institutions worldwide supporting their policy processes. In general our concern is to establish if
they have the functional and structural capacity to produce their policies.
Other organisations have been assisted in making crucial decisions on which activities to outsource,
or which to centralise or devolve to lower level units. By proposing and implementing structural
adjustments - for example, by bringing together those activities which naturally 'belong' to the same
level of recursion and which logically should be highly interconnected - we have been able to
facilitate the adoption of more effective organisational arrangements and working practices.
We have also worked at a purely 'local' level to help solve particular problems that at first sight
seemed to have little to do with organisation design; however, it is often the case that problems in
the implementation of any kind of change are not the 'fault' of particular individuals or groups, but
are systemic in nature. Once the constraints are recognised and removed, and the necessary
supporting mechanisms provided, the 'system' can operate with both intelligence and newly directed
energy. Organisation should be seen primarily as an enabling device.
Since the Viable System Model deals with the structure of communications within and between
enterprises, we have used it to provide a framework for corporate information and communication
systems that are more closely related to the organisation’s ascribed purposes. Indeed, it caters for
information and communication needs of people at all levels of recursion.
As a problem-solving tool, the VSM also provides a common language to help groups within an
organisation to learn and interrelate more effectively. We have used it to help break down barriers
that often exist between functions that see themselves as being at 'loggerheads' with one another,
rather than as complementary parts of the same 'system'. Moreover, the rewarding work of
designing effective organisations becomes a shared process, rather than being perceived as an
externally or managerially imposed threat to autonomy and continuity.
In summary, the VSM is primarily a tool to observe institutions and to support connectivity in the
quest for desirable transformation.
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