Complex adaptive systems and the viable system model as complimentary frameworks

Back in 2018 I blogged about my work in public services and the complimentary nature of complex adaptive systems and the viable system model which I was bringing into my work (which was incorporated into the Creating the Conditions for Change workshop materials).

I was inspired by the writings of Angela Espinosa and Jon Walker in their book, ‘A Complexity Approach to Sustainability, theory and application’. It made me feel like I wasn’t going mad when, in my work, I believed that VSM and CAS were complimentary to each other.

Espinosa and Walker explain that complex adaptive systems are open systems whose elements interact dynamically and nonlinearly. They exhibit unpredictable behaviours, are affected by positive and negative feedback loops and co-evolve with their environment. They demonstrate ‘path dependence’ i.e. they have a history, an emergent structure, they self-organise when they are far from equilibrium, or at the edge of chaos. As a result of self-organisation, these systems exhibit emergent properties. They have learning networks, which are able to co-operate to manage their resources and develop adaptive behaviours. This co-operation emerges in the course of reciprocation strategies, rather than evolving from some sort of central control.

As I said in my blog in 2018, those versed in management cybernetics and the viable system model might say that whilst ‘cybernetics is about how systems regulate themselves, evolve and learn and its high spot is the question of how they organise themselves’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011, p11) aren’t they closed systems? A ‘closed system’ being one which has coherent, closed networks of relationships?’ So how can the VSM be useful in a situation that has the hallmarks of, and appears to be behaving somewhat like an open system?

Espinosa and Walker explain the beautifully complimentary view of the complex adaptive system and viable system frameworks working in harmony together. Viable systems are open to energy and information and co-evolve with their environment. However, they are organisationally closed. Their organisational patterns and evolution are self-referential, self-organising and self-regulated. However, when we observe from a cybernetic perspective, we can consider the viable system model but then we can extend our understanding by considering its dynamic interaction with the environment in which it sits and therefore the viable system’s characteristics as a complex adaptive system. ‘The CAS and the VSM are complimentary frameworks that explain issues of complexity management (VSM) and complex evolving behaviours (CAS)’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011. p15).

Think about that for a moment………. If groups like integrated teams and those working on systems change etc get this right, manipulating their reciprocation strategies (which features heavily in my Creating the Conditions for Change approach) may form a structural coupling that allows the organisations involved to induce change in a complimentary way.

Working with these insights helped me to create the workshop materials for Creating the Conditions for Change. I was already heavily working with the VSM. However, I had tipped early on from a point in my VSM work where I was considering management principles to where I was considering leadership and how the same principles apply to human beings and systems change, which was ongoing work from 2011. What is it the people need in complex situations? I started to consider the attenuation of fear and anxiety and the amplification of confidence and curiosity. I remembered the exceptional peer to peer support my work in pharmaceutical specials included. I remembered the self-organising and relationship building in my managerial roles. I remembered how, in my NHS work that when the relationships and interaction between teams was poor, everything suffered.

I believed back then, and I still believe now, that CAS and VSM are complimentary frameworks. I believe this because I got to where I am in my work via the viable system model and yet I work successfully in complex situations. Those who don’t know my work with the VSM often immediately assume I come from a world of CAS and living systems. That wasn’t where I started nor, indeed, where I start now.

What amazes me is the infighting between those who focus on VSM and those who focus on CAS. In my opinion, their quest to be seen as the best and their argument about what came first, systems thinking or complexity science misses the point. What is it that emerges when these two frameworks are used together? Something quite powerful, in my opinion.

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Optimising our energy using insights from the viable system model

(part of the ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach by Pauline Roberts, Systems Practitioner)

We’re tired, aren’t we? All of us. Exhausted, some of us. We live our lives at a pace that barely gives us time to stop and think. Barely gives us time to consider our own health and wellness. Barely gives us time to contemplate saying, ‘no’. The work I have been doing in systems change exemplifies this. People are tired. Exhausted. They want and need rest. There is little work-life balance. 9-5 Monday to Friday has become excruciatingly punishing. Tempers are fraught. Mental health is suffering. People are tired. When we are in this state, our energy is depleted by even the simplest of daily tasks. Our cognitive abilities are muted, and our enthusiasm and motivations dulled.

Over the years I have worked with Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model. I have applied it in a wide range of complex situations and the insights it gives me into the world of work, and indeed our lives, are never ending. From his neurocybernetic model of an enterprise, management principles emerged. From my academic learning and application of these principles, insights into change and systems change emerged. Inquiring into the complex situations I was faced with by exploring boundaries and purposes as conceptual constructs became the norm. Considering the perceptions of the observers of the systems in which I was embedded and observing became the norm and my insights grew.

Where Stafford Beer highlights to us that manipulation of complexity should be the task of the manager, I contemplated, ‘But what are the tasks of the leader? The system leader? The system changer?’ It was deep in contemplation about this when the insights from the viable system and wider work by Stafford Beer and the work of Ross Ashby started to come to light. In our management systems if we need to attenuate complexity, what is it we have to attenuate (and amplify) for the people in the system? For them to work without becoming burnt-out?

Fear! We need to attenuate fear. And anxiety, stress, fatigue, panic, anger, jealousy, sadness, lack of confidence and our ability to tumble into imposter syndrome. Only when we attenuate the negative elements of these emotions and reactions will we have enough energy to be able to effectively manipulate the possibilities of the environment around us to our benefit. Of course, not all fear is bad. Not all anxiety is bad. Not all anger and jealousy is bad. But it does become bad for us if it is overwhelmingly caused by our working conditions and by those who we interact with on a daily basis, who are in the same stage of depleted energy as ourselves.

Using the viable system model in my work, I will routinely contemplate variety attenuation in terms of implementing things that co-ordinate the work, so that the people doing the work are supported better. I contemplate the resources required and the perverse performance indicators that might be in place. I contemplate how we might balance the variety equation in terms of dealing with demand. In addition, my Creating the Conditions for Change approach focuses on how we can attenuate the negative emotions and/or feeling of burn-out we may experience in the workplace and how we can amplify our positive energy, so that we can engage with the complex situations we are embedded in to a greater and more effective degree.

In my work with Creating the Conditions for Change there is a strong focus on increasing confidence and reducing fear. A focus on peer-to-peer support, collaborations, storytelling, reciprocation strategies and relationships. On networks, communities, honesty, openness, trust and vulnerability. On sharing and making meaning together. On coaching one another and learning together. On humanity, authenticity and integrity. On self-referencing and identity.

It is not just the working environment we need to optimise. It is ourselves and our own health and wellness. It is these conditions that support us, nurture us and enable us to embrace our own humanness, that we need to optimise. It is the kindness we seek and want to give to others that we need to optimise. Only then will we have amplified our energy levels to be able to have effective energy exchanges with others and with the environment around us.  We are a major part of our work ecosystems. The same principles I would apply to any other elements of the work are what I would apply to us. For me, those insights came from both systems thinking in general and very largely cybernetics and the work of people like Stafford Beer and Ross Ashby. They existed in a different time and in a different context, but the same principles apply, in my opinion.

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