Insights from the Viable System Model for Personal Development, Coaching and Creating the Conditions for Change

In my Creating the Conditions for Change work, we focus on the individual as much as the wider system. Learning and development starts with ourselves, and this is where exploration of our fractal layers in the system starts.

I started using the viable system model for my own learning and development back in 2011 as part of an Open University course, U810 Continuing Professional Development in Practice. Its value was immediately obvious to me and it became not just part of my own CPD but the first area of focus in my consulting and coaching practices. If a person can master their own learning and development, they can then use the same techniques on the team, department, organisation, place, can’t they? Yes, they can, and it is often how I help others to embed the thinking of the viable system model without ever mentioning its name.

A number of people have asked me about this lately and in my Creating the Conditions for Change work, every area I work on is firstly focussed on the individual – how do we learn, change and adapt? How do we develop our skills and talents for self-referencing and self organisation? How do we enable ourselves to instigate and make change? How do we create connections with others, build our networks, collaborate, reciprocate and encourage our own human system coherence? How do we allow ourselves humanity and healing in our everyday lives? How do we ensure that what we are doing this in line with our identity and our own stated purposes? How do we make sense of the world around us and pivot when we need to? How do we accept our responsibilities, be accountable to ourselves and develop our own identity, purposes and goals? If we can’t start with ourselves, then we are going nowhere.

The viable system model was initially useful for me personally for clearly setting out the configuration of my own development, so that I could see how it fit together as a viable system. I was able to identify how my cyclical second order thinking and co-creation of knowledge and insight were acting to co-ordinate and performance manage my own development as a learning system. This is something I might not have otherwise recognised. This is one of the reasons that learning became a central element of my Systems Thinking Change Wheel, a key diagram in my Creating the Conditions for Change suite of materials. If we master how we learn, then we can master how the system in which we are embedded learns and the system in which that sits and so on.

The viable system model enabled me to identify areas I needed to strengthen in my own learning and development system. System 3, where I needed to strengthen how quickly I could bring new thinking into my everyday practices, giving sufficient time to both personal, work and development aspects of my system. System 5, where I needed to better govern the balance between looking forward and dealing with the everyday and refine what my identity was and would be going forward.

The viable system model was also a useful framework that enabled me to understand that strengthening the capability of the control function of my learning system in future would develop requisite variety and would keep my system under control.

It also enabled me to make explicit the value of my intellectual capital and enabled me to identify risks to my learning and development system. This is something I see people almost ‘throw away’ in practice as they hand their power to others and hide their skills and talents.

It encouraged me to use my own autonomy in future and take control over my learning and development activities to mitigate against risk to me as a system and strengthen my personal viability, rather than undertaking learning and development activities to please the agendas of others.

After using the viable system model on myself and realising its value, it became a staple in my consulting and coaching practices. My aim – to enable others to do the same for themselves and then, in turn, for others they encounter on their life journey.

Joe Navarro explains it beautifully in his new book, ‘Be Exceptional’ when he says these three things, ‘self-mentorship is a gift you give yourself’,  ‘luck is the residue of the hard work we put into our self apprenticeship’ and ‘delight in where you learning quest takes you’.

Note: this work is part of my Creating the Conditions for Change consultancy, training and coaching kit. If you build directly on it, do remember to act with integrity and reference it appropriately.

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