Viable Organizations with Beer

by Ray Arell

I am a strong believer that sound organizational models are the key to a company’s success and its viability in the complex world in which it must survive.

The key to any viable system, much like human systems, is the ability to restructure, evolve, or undergo exaptation to remain viable.

What is a viable system?

Back in 1972, Stafford Beer published a model called the Viable Systems Model (VSM). His focus was on applying cybernetics to the management of companies, and this work became the foundation for most of my thinking around how to build adaptive and cunning organizational structures which are the key to business agility.

The subsystem patterns of a VSM

Viable subsystem patterns are something that we see within each team in an organization. So whether I am looking at a first level team or the executive office, they all behave as a viable system. The only difference would be that the first level team is focused on a small part of the larger delivery and the executive office is focused on a larger portfolio of products that include that first level team. The following diagram breaks down the patterns that make up a viable system:

Applying VSM in your company

Most organizations have a majority of the VSM subsystems present within their company but have split the subsystem across their hierarchy. A team in this model may be only focused on the “here and now,” and other teams may be responsible for the other VSM subsystems. No single team is a viable system on its own and cannot work independently to complete its charter. This creates waste and slows the agility of the teams.

Structured for cunning business agility

With these organizational patterns in place in all teams within your company, you are enabling a higher level of business agility or cunning agility. Cunning because the viable system you built can think in both the “here and now” while looking ahead strategically for opportunities and threats. Agile because the systems allow you to adapt to your stakeholders’ needs and easily assemble groups of viable systems to take on greater opportunities.

Supporting Agile Adoption Workgroup and the Agile Coaching Network

This article is based on the discussions of the Agile Alliance Supporting Agile Adoption Workgroup. I want to thank Hendrik Esser, Jutta Eckstein, Eric Abelen, Bjarte Bogsnes, Jen Coldewy, Marcin Floryan, John Buck, and Elena Vassilieva for their challenging insights. If you would like to hear part of our conversation about organizational design, you are welcome to listen to a special edition of the Agile Coaching Network (ACN) podcast.

Agile Alliance is a nonprofit global member organization, supporting and serving the Agile community since 2001.