Open Thinkering


Tag: Stafford Beer

TB871: Rethinking organisational structure through VSM

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

The Viable System Model (VSM) conceptualises an organisation as a network of systems, each with its own purpose and autonomy (Hoverstadt, 2020). This approach helps in managing complexity and promotes a recursive approach to organisational structure, balancing autonomy and control.

Traditional hierarchical models of organisation emphasise top-down control, meaning that decision-making power is concentrated at the higher levels. This approach tries to minimise complexity, whereas the VSM embraces complexity by acknowledging that people at various levels of the organisation are best equipped to handle decisions relevant to their specific areas (The Open University, 2020).

Matryoshka dolls nested inside one another. A small person is inside saying "Keep breaking down the issue..."
CC BY-ND Visual Thinkery for WAO

A key aspect of the VSM is the balance between autonomy and cohesion. Too much autonomy can lead to fragmentation, while excessive control can stifle innovation. The VSM addresses this by allowing different parts of the organisation to operate semi-autonomously within defined constraints. This recursive or fractal nature of the VSM means that each part of the organisation, regardless of its complexity, is viewed as a viable system with similar needs and structures to the whole. (In other words, much like the Matryoshka dolls in the image above, they are nested inside one another.)

Understanding the structure of an organisation through the VSM involves distinguishing between primary and support activities. Primary activities deliver value directly to customers, while support activities sustain the organisation’s operational capabilities. This distinction helps in identifying the organisation’s core identity and value delivery mechanisms, with the idea that each component aligns with the overall purpose. As I have said before, this feels like a wider and deeper approach than that provided by OKRs, for example.

The VSM is a conceptual model rather than a prescriptive methodology. As such, it provides principles, laws, and axioms that guide the management of organisational complexity. It facilitates both diagnosis and design by comparing real-world situations with an idealised model, meaning that weaknesses can be identifyed and mismatches discovered to be addressed.

On a practical level, I see one of the VSM’s key use cases as helping organisations understand how to set up in a recursive way. By managing complexity at each level and devolving responsibility, managers can focus on their immediate areas of influence without micromanaging sub-levels. This approach aligns with the principle that managers should set purposes for the systems they directly manage, leaving sub-management levels to handle their respective systems. (It’s difficult to talk about this non-hierarchically, which is a problem that perhaps I’ll come back to.)

For example, in a software development company, the lead developer manages the development team, dealing with internal complexities, while the project manager oversees client interactions and project timelines. Each level handles its complexity, ensuring that the overall organisation functions smoothly. The recursive approach means that the problems faced by each level are similar, which simplifies management processes across the organisation.

There’s so much more to explore here. For example, I had a fascinating conversation with Steve Brewis yesterday, who knew Stafford Beer personally, and who uses the VSM in his consulting practice. I wanted to talk with him because I saw reference to his ‘snowflake model’ of the VSM which he used while working at BT. However, I think that should be the focus of a separate post.


  • Hoverstadt, P. (2020). ‘The Viable System Model’. In Reynolds, M. & Holwell, S. (eds.) (2020). Systems Approaches to Making Change: A Practical Guide. London: Springer, pp.89-138.
  • The Open University (2020) ‘3.3.3 Applying System 1’, TB871 Block 3 Tools stream [Online]. Available at (Accessed 26 June 2024).

TB871: Systems as waves on the edge of catastrophic breakdown

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

Aerial view of the white caps of waves crashing onto a beach

There’s a wonderful reading from Stafford Beer in the chapter of the Systems Thinkers book on him. Beer was in Chile as part of his work on Project Cybersyn, and used his surroundings as inspiration:

The little house where I have come to live alone for a few weeks sits on the edge of a steep hill in a quiet village on the western coast of Chile. Huge majestic waves roll into the bay and crash magnificently over the rocks, sparkling white against the green sea under a winter sun. It is for me a time of peace, a time to clear the head, a time to treasure.

(Beer, 1974/1995, p.197)

Apart from that sounding idyllic, Beer also used the waves as an example of a dynamic system:

Let me propose to you a little exercise, taking the bay I am looking at now as a convenient example. It is not difficult to recognize that the movement of water in this bay is the visible behaviour of a dynamic system: after all, the waves are steadily moving in and dissipating themselves along the shore. But please consider just one wave. We think of that as an entity: a wave, we say. What is it doing out there, why is it that shape, and what is the reason for its happy white crest? The exercise is to ask yourself in all honesty not whether you know the answers, because that would be just a technical exercise, but whether these are the sorts of question that have ever arisen for you. The point is that the questions themselves – and not just the answers – can be understood only when we stop thinking of the wave as an entity. As long as it is an entity, we tend to say well, waves are like that: the facts that our wave is out there moving across the bay, has that shape and a happy white crest, are the signs that tell me “It’s a wave” – just as the fact that a book is red and no other colour is a sign that tells me “That’s the book I want”.

(Ibid., p.199)

I’ve been saying recently that I need to spend more time thinking about verbs than about nouns, which is part of what I think Beer might be saying here. We need to focus on flows rather than considering entities we see (or conceptualise) as static. He continues:

The truth is, however, that the book is red because someone gave it a red cover when he might just as well have made it green; whereas the wave cannot be other than it is because a wave is a dynamic system. It consists of flows of water, which are its parts, and the relations between those flows, which are governed by the natural laws of systems of water that are investigated by the science of hydrodynamics. The appearances of the wave, its shape and the happy white crest, are actually outputs of this system. They are what they are because the system is organized in the way that it is, and this organization produces an inescapable kind of behaviour. The cross-section of the wave is parabolic, having two basic forms, the one domi￾nating at the open-sea stage of the wave, and the other dominating later. As the second form is produced from the first, there is a moment when the wave holds the two forms: it has at this moment a wedge shape of 120°. And at this point, as the second form takes over, the wave begins to break – hence the happy white crest.

Now in terms of the dynamic system that we call a wave, the happy white crest is not at all the pretty sign by which what we first called an entity signalizes its existence. For the wave, that crest is its personal catastrophe. What has happened is that the wave has a systemic conflict within it determined by its form of organization, and that this has produced a phase of instability. The happy white crest is the mark of doom upon the wave, because the instability feeds upon itself; and the catastrophic collapse of the wave is an inevitable output of the system.

(Ibid., p.199-200)

Beer was writing in the 1970s, but could already see that humans were living in systems that aren’t viable. We place our trust in institutions such as the family unit, the church, educational institutions, and the like. But the truth is that doubling-down on what he calls “the rules of the societary game” won’t help weather the storm much longer (Ibid., p.200):

Indeed, we ought to face the fact that this theory does not work now. People convince themselves that it does, because they see society as an entity, and its main characteristic is to be held most dear. Then they grit their teeth and declare that whatever is wrong with it must and can be put right again. Broken barriers, swept away by permissive morality, can be repaired… The starving two-thirds of the world will eventually be fed (well, not those two-thirds dying right now, but their descendants). And somehow a finite planet, with exhaustible resources, will be made indefinitely to support more and yet more growth.

(Ibid., p.201)

How prescient. As he points out, the above would only be possible “if we are dealing with a fixed entity” where working a little harder would make a difference. The truth is that society, no matter what the conservatives of this world might tell us, is not a fixed system.

But if society is a dynamic system all these phenomena are not simply blem￾ishes – they are its outputs. These unpleasing threats to all we hold most dear are products of a system so organized as to produce them – to produce them, and not their contraries. These are not accidental; and they are not mistakes. They are the continuing output of a systemic conflict which is due to specific modes of organiza￾tion. And those modes of organization have currently arrived at a stage in their inexorable pattern of behaviour which, like the wedge-shaped wave of 120°, is incipiently unstable – on the verge of catastrophic breakdown. Or so I think.


To survive, then, we need to understand the world as a dynamic system. Only then can we change it. I wasn’t born at the time when Beer was writing these words, but I wish the adults in the room had heeded them. (I wish the adults in the room were heeding them now.)


  • Beer, S. (1974/1995). Designing Freedom. London: John Wiley. In Ramage, M. & Shipp, K. (2020). Systems Thinkers (Second Edition). London: Springer. pp.197-201.

Image: Ivan Bandura

TB871: The Viable System Model (VSM)

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

The Viable System Model (VSM) is an approach to systems thinking designed by Stafford Beer.

A viable system is any system organised in such a way as to meet the demands of surviving in the changing environment. One of the prime features of systems that survive is that they are adaptable. The VSM expresses a model for a viable system, which is an abstracted cybernetic (regulation theory) description that is claimed to be applicable to any organisation that is a viable system and capable of autonomy.

(Wikipedia, 2024)

The following diagram is a simplified version from the TB871 module materials:

Diagram of the Viable System Model with an 'Environment' section connected to various labeled subsystems within a circle, including 'Operations,' 'Coordination,' 'Delivery,' 'Development,' and 'Policy.'
A visual representation of the VSM developed by Stafford Beer (The Open University, 2020)

However, it’s more usual to see quite scary-looking and complicated versions which look like this:

A more complicated version of the VSM
An example of a VSM model (Lambertz, 2017)

The VSM can be used in two ways:

  • Diagnostic Tool: The VSM can be used to diagnose a problematic situation by selecting specific features and building an ideal model of the system’s organisational structure. This ideal model is then compared to the actual situation, identifying discrepancies that guide corrective actions to improve the situation.
  • Design Tool: The VSM can also be used as a design tool, where one acts directly to create and implement an ideal organisational model to achieve desired outcomes.

In terms of my area of practice, Activity 3.3 asks us to think about “a situation of interest within your chosen area of practice that you think might be suitable for diagnostic modelling in order to redesign.” In particular, we need to “identify and name one particular system of focus which… appears not to be responsive to changes in the environment.”

I’m focused on library services as a situation of interest, which one could say is not responsive to changes in its environment. This could be for several reasons:

  1. Budget Constraints: the system is experiencing significant budget cuts, limiting its ability to maintain and update educational resources, hire qualified staff, and run educational programmes.
  2. Technological Advancements: there is likely to be a lag in adopting new technologies and digital tools that could enhance learning and information access. This includes outdated computers, lack of e-books, and insufficient online learning platforms.
  3. Community Needs: the system is not effectively capturing and responding to the evolving needs of the community. This includes insufficient feedback mechanisms to understand what educational resources and programmes are most in demand.
  4. Coordination and Management: there are inefficiencies in how educational programmes and resources are coordinated. This could include poor scheduling, overlapping responsibilities, and ineffective communication among staff members.
  5. Strategic Alignment: the strategic goals of the library may not be fully aligned with the current needs and realities of the community it serves. There may be a lack of clear policies and strategic direction guiding the education and information services.

Wrapped around all of this are outdated notions of what a library is for, along with metrics which don’t adequately capture relevant data. It’s not going to be possible to create a library service from scratch, so my focus is likely to be on using the VSM as a diagnostic tool.