Viable System Theory

The Viable System Model: A blueprint for organizational change

Across the globe, professional sports organizations are beginning to recognize that restructuring in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic will be a necessity. Although that process will require a lot of difficult decisions to be made, it is an opportunity to rethink organizational structures and build leaner, more efficient models for a new reality. As teams begin to think about those issues, their primary task is to challenge current structures in order to create new ones that will prove sustainable and viable in the future, whatever that future turns out to be. 

One of the most effective tools available to organizations undertaking this type of forensic review is systems theory; the study of how systems operate in a symbiotic way with their physical and social environments. By synthesizing systemic and functional analyses, systems theory is particularly useful for those who are seeking to generate a deeper understanding of how the component parts of the organization contribute to the effectiveness of the whole.

The Dangers of ‘Salami Slicing’

A misunderstanding of systems can be a major stumbling block for many organizations as they seek to restructure. This is often exacerbated by the self-imposed silo-ism that is common across many industries, with organizations accustomed to introspection and mistaking job titles for genuine structure. In a crisis situation such as the current pandemic, where organizations are faced with having to make significant budget cuts, a lack of clarity around structures can result in reflexive ‘salami slicing’ across the business, with even cuts being made across each function. 

This response may seem fair and logical in some respects, but it often serves to make a bad situation worse. A better approach is to identify the key functions that need to be performed to ensure both survival and future success, and eliminate those which are deemed ‘nice-to-have’  to ensure that essential functions aren’t deprived of resources and can remain strong. But how are organizations to differentiate the essential from the expendable in times of crisis? Such knowledge can only be acquired through a detailed analysis of the entire organization, something that can be difficult to achieve from within.

Viable System Model

One of the most prominent systems theory models, and one that holds particular relevance for sports organizations in this present moment, is the Viable System Model (VSM). Developed by Stafford Beer, the father of management cybernetics, the model seeks to deal with any system on any level to ensure that it is “adaptable for the purpose of surviving in its changing environment.”

For Beer, a viable system is one that is able to survive within a specific environment while maintaining a separate and interdependent existence. Inspired by the human nervous system, the system which he believed was the best for dealing with complexity, Beer based his VSM around five functions essential for viability:

  1. Operational
  2. Coordination
  3. Control
  4. Intelligence
  5. Policy

By dividing the system into these functions, the model enables organizations to concentrate on their five primary interactive subsystems. Numbers 1-3 focus on internal operational functions, while four and five concentrate on the environment, with number four having a particular focus on the external and future once five has delivered strategic direction. In essence, 4-5 manage the organization, while 1-3 implement the policies of management.  

Of course, VSM isn’t the only useful model in this area, but it does enable organizations to engage in a novel approach to understanding their own structure and the environment in which it exists. As Beer himself explained, “The value of the model is to make clear how the organization actually works, as distinct from the way it allegedly works, so that it may be streamlined and made more effective…in short, the model is intended for use as a diagnostic tool.”

VSM in a Sporting Context

Sports organizations are notoriously conservative. Recruitment tends to be relatively incestuous and structures are often left in place for no reason other than “that’s the way we’ve always done it”. As a result, their approach to structural change can be at best defensive and at worst reactionary. Systems analyses such as VSM enable that conservatism to be more effectively circumvented.

Coping with complexity and being adaptable in the face of change is at the heart of management and leadership, particularly in turbulent times such as those we are facing now. For sports organizations coming to terms with a radically different economic and competitive landscape, a systems approach can provide cross-disciplinary theories and methodologies to help deal with current challenges more effectively than simply offering insights from a single discipline or a ‘let’s get through today’ mentality. 

A properly conducted systems analysis will reveal how each function within the organization is currently performing and decide whether that function is as efficient, or indeed necessary, as it could be. If not, then identify the reasons for the inefficiency and rectify them or remove the function entirely. Not only will this enable costs to be saved by eliminating structural excess, it will also preserve the functions that are central to the continued viability of the organization through such a challenging time.

Chris Mann is Head of Content at Sportsology

Interested in learning more about organizational restructuring? Download our latest research paper, Back to the Future: How about a Beer?

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