The Viable System Model – Part 3

If cybernetics is the science of control, management is the profession of control.

Stafford Beer

The design of a Viable System is not hierarchical and is not authoritative. Senior manager’s role is defined as a ‘Service Provider’ rather than a point of authority; and there is a very good reason for that: Laws of Variety.

It is simply impossible to have an operational unit capable of effectively and efficiently deal with multitude of varieties in its environment and being directed all the time.

System 1 sub-systems are intentionally designed with the maximum autonomy possible. The only thing limiting their autonomy is their defined purpose aligned with the overall organizational purpose.​

Viable System Model - Coordination and Conflict Management

Let’s have a closer look at other parts of the Viable System design:

​System 2 –Coordination and Conflict Management

As mentioned earlier, there is a need for something, that we call here ‘System 2’, in order to ensure the cohesion between different processes.

Viable System Model VSM - System 2

Without it, multiple horizontal managements will try to maximize their goals, without noticing that being inside the boundary of a larger system, they all affect each other. Maximizing one part might have a negative effect on the other part, and vice versa.

Different parts of a system (an organization) have different purposes and roles; and by definition, they might demonstrate conflicting interests.

​Conflict: A Discomforting Difference

Embrace Happiness – The Art of Conflict Management

Conflicting interests will create instability and disharmony between these parts; and, if left unchecked, this will eventually lead to the destruction of the whole system.

To go back to our previous example of a manufacturing company, maximizing the goal of the financial department to decrease the inventory levels to the minimum level, will negatively affect the sales department to be able to satisfy customers in a timely manner. They will push to increase the inventory levels and by doing so, they will negatively affect financial metrics; hence the oscillation behaviour of the system and disharmony between sub-systems.

System 2 does not have an oppressive nature; to the contrary, it has rather a ‘service provider’ nature. The type of control this system does is considerably different than the usual perception of the term ‘control’ and it’s rather negative connotation. System 2 ensures cohesion and harmony, and avoids oscillation.

A good example of this would be a ‘timetable’ to coordinate vacation time for project team members. The timetable’s purpose is not to dictate what to do and what not to do; it merely provides a very simple service; so everyone can coordinate their vacation time in a way that the project tasks are always covered.

System 2, in organizations, has this unhealthy tendency to become a Viable System itself, trying to exercise more and more control, and in the process, becoming a massive bureaucracy by itself.

Reaching the point of equilibrium is a very delicate matter: to avoid both extremes of ‘no coordination’ and ‘over control’. This is one of the major factors for today’s organizations’ failures.

It is critical to understand System 2 as a ‘service provider’ for coordination, sharing information, common standards, and shared values. System 2 is a repository of the organization’s information and knowledge.

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