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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2 thoughts on “Complex adaptive systems and the viable system model as complimentary frameworks

  1. I could never articulate this as well as you have but your conclusion resonates strongly with me. I have recently been thinking and reading about systems in the context of VSM are actually adaptive in complex environments (particularly in relation to social justice movements).

    I think part of this comes from the background of VSM perhaps historically being viewed in the context of managerial and operational effectiveness in the world of work (I recognise this assumption may be wrong).

    I will add Espinosa and Walker to the growing reading list, but I would like to thank you for sharing your insights.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment. I think the historic view of VSM stops its versatility being known and used by more people. I quickly learned to flip it round to focus on people and leadership. This was back in 2011 when I used it for personal development as part of an OU course. I was using it in that way for years, feeling like a spare part in the traditional VSM world. It was only when I read Angela Espinosa and Mark Walkers work that I realised others could see the same insights that I could with regards to the VSM. I have used my Creating the Conditions for Change approach (which builds on my VSM work) in the social sector for a few years now and can see the value of focussing the VSM insights on a particular model of leadership and on what people do and want and need. I wanted to do a PhD in the complimentary nature of VSM and CAS but no-one was interested in supervising it.

      Liked by 1 person

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