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Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model
and Team Syntegrity Process
An Exercise in Requisite Variety
Allenna Leonard Ph.D.
Cwarel Isaf Institute/Toronto
allenna_leonard@yahoo.com
RSD5 October 15, 2016
Learning from nature
• Both the Viable System Model and Team
Syntegrity process are designs found in nature
• The human nervous system for the VSM
• The structure of a virus, a crystal or a regular
solid - the icosahedron for Team Syntegrity
• Both methods rely on design principles in
nature
Beer’s influences
Warren McCulloch’s work on nervous nets
Ross Ashby’s work on requisite variety
Beer’s work in Operational Research
Alex Bavelas’s work on peripherality and
centrality
All address complexity by filtering variety
The VSM
Five management functions support the many homeostats
that make up the system’s internal relationships and those
between the system and its environment
Two ever-changing environments:
The present environment
The future environment
Their relative size, division and time scale depend on the
system
Uses graphic shapes for functions: amoeba for environment,
circle for operation, square for management and triangle for
regulatory activity
From Beer’s Brain of the Firm
• System One corresponds to the muscles and
organs
• System Two to the sympathetic nervous system
• System Three to the mid-brain (pons medulla)
• System Three Star to the parasympathetic
nervous system
• System Four to the diencephalon and ganglia
• System Five to the cerebral cortex
Or, more familiarly
• System One produces actions that are
rewarded/supported by the environment
• System Two damps oscillations among System One
operations
• System Three directs the inside and now of the
combined operations for synergy
• System Three Star audits/examines specific aspects of
operations
• System Four explores the future environment
• System Five monitors the balance between Systems
Three and Four and provides identity and coherence
VSM’s Seven Communications
Channels
• Resource bargaining channel (two way)
• Command Channel
• System Two’s Damping channel
• System Three Star’s audit channel
• Channels linking operations with one another
• Vital channels in the environment
• Algedonic (pain/pleasure) alarm channel
Key VSM Homeostats
• Three/Four Homeostat between present and
future
• Homeostats between System Ones and their
environments
• Homeostat between System and Metasystem
• Homeostat between vertical authority and
horizontal autonomy (from Beer) “Autonomy
is a function of the purpose of the system”.
• The VSM describes the necessary and sufficient
conditions for viability
• It is recursive (scalable) – repeating each function
at every level of interest. The design of the
model’s graphics support the depiction of
recursion
• Most VSM designs and diagnoses choose a
system-in-focus and go one up and one down
• Most systems are part of multiple recursive
relationships with varying levels of accountability,
e.g. management, owners, regulators…
VSM Applications
• Many applications in business and industry,
governments, NGO’s, universities…
• Can be used to design, describe or diagnose an
organizational structure with requisite variety
• Most ambitious application was Project Cybersyn
for President Allende of Chile
• Beer was asked to model the organization of the
state-owned sector of the economy
• Story told in Eden Median’s “Cybernetic
Revolutionaries”
Cybersyn Project
• VSM’s were done for factories and homeostats
associated with essential variables identified
• Each unit identified eight to twelve indices to be
reported daily or weekly such as orders shipped,
orders in process, invoices sent, invoices paid,
mishaps, customer complaints, absenteeism…
Workers could select additional indices that
would not be reported to management.
Indices were recorded as time series and
analyzed using Bayesian statistical filters
Deviations from expected ranges reported Local
management given prescribed times to deal
with deviations depending on the severity
Some signals (like a fire) went straight to the top
Samsung should have gotten such a signal when
the second Galaxy Seven caught fire
Cybersyn’s parts
• VSM Models (three of eleven levels designed)
• Operations Room to coordinate actions
• Cyberstride statistical filtration
• Planning using Systems Dynamics
• Cyberfolk – implementation of Allende’s aim that
science should serve the people
• A mode to provide for public participation – not
completed but contributed to Team Syntegrity
• See: 99percentinvisible.org/episode/project-cybersyn/
• Beer’s “Brain of the Firm” 2nd ed.
Team Syntegrity
• Influenced by:
• W. Buckminster Fuller: “All systems are
polyhedra”
• Balance between tension and compression
• Alex Bavelas work on Peripherality and
Centrality
• Considered basic unit to be an infoset – a
collection of people sharing information and
interests
Syntegration standard format
• First preliminary step – formulate opening
question – can be fuzzy
• Second preliminary step – select participants
to populate the infoset
• The 2 to 3 ½ day event begins with individual
comments on post-it notes
• Notes are clustered and a paragraph written
up for each
• Twelve chosen to be topics
• Syntegrations select twelve topics from among those that
emerge from the early discussions
• Topics are mapped onto the vertices of a regular solid –
icosahedron, octahedron, diagonal cube
• Participants are mapped onto the edges each connecting
the two vertices of their team topics
• Non-hierarchical arrangement – each plays a unique and
equivalent role
• Participants play member, critic and observer roles in each
of three iterations of team meetings
• All brought together in final plenary and report
• Process is facilitated but teams responsible for all content
Typical Outcomes
• Team meeting reports and final statements
documented
• Key ideas reverberate around the structure and
show up in different forms
• 90% of the information is shared
• Reduces the probability of surprises or
unintended consequences
• Sharing of tacit knowledge
• Bonding among participants
Criteria for Success
• Skin in the game – real interest in the question
• Having requisite variety among the
participants
• Confidentiality if the topic is sensitive
• Ability to act on the results of the
deliberations – even if cannot make the final
decision
Examples of Syntegrations
• The Future of Retail (at OCAD)
• The Future of the city of London (UK)
• Israeli/Palestinian group on the future of West
Bank Settlements
• Problem Gambling and the Elderly
• Union Bank of Switzerland
• Colombian Ministry of the Environment
References
• Beer, S. (1979) Heart of Enterprise
• Beer, S. (1981) Brain of the Firm 2nd Ed
• Beer, S. (1985)Diagnosing the System for
Organizations
• Beer, S. (1994)Beyond Dispute: the Invention of Team
Syntegrity (all John Wiley & Sons, Chichester

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Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model and Team Syntegrity Process

  • 1. Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model and Team Syntegrity Process An Exercise in Requisite Variety Allenna Leonard Ph.D. Cwarel Isaf Institute/Toronto allenna_leonard@yahoo.com RSD5 October 15, 2016
  • 2. Learning from nature • Both the Viable System Model and Team Syntegrity process are designs found in nature • The human nervous system for the VSM • The structure of a virus, a crystal or a regular solid - the icosahedron for Team Syntegrity • Both methods rely on design principles in nature
  • 3. Beer’s influences Warren McCulloch’s work on nervous nets Ross Ashby’s work on requisite variety Beer’s work in Operational Research Alex Bavelas’s work on peripherality and centrality All address complexity by filtering variety
  • 4. The VSM Five management functions support the many homeostats that make up the system’s internal relationships and those between the system and its environment Two ever-changing environments: The present environment The future environment Their relative size, division and time scale depend on the system Uses graphic shapes for functions: amoeba for environment, circle for operation, square for management and triangle for regulatory activity
  • 5. From Beer’s Brain of the Firm • System One corresponds to the muscles and organs • System Two to the sympathetic nervous system • System Three to the mid-brain (pons medulla) • System Three Star to the parasympathetic nervous system • System Four to the diencephalon and ganglia • System Five to the cerebral cortex
  • 6. Or, more familiarly • System One produces actions that are rewarded/supported by the environment • System Two damps oscillations among System One operations • System Three directs the inside and now of the combined operations for synergy • System Three Star audits/examines specific aspects of operations • System Four explores the future environment • System Five monitors the balance between Systems Three and Four and provides identity and coherence
  • 7. VSM’s Seven Communications Channels • Resource bargaining channel (two way) • Command Channel • System Two’s Damping channel • System Three Star’s audit channel • Channels linking operations with one another • Vital channels in the environment • Algedonic (pain/pleasure) alarm channel
  • 8. Key VSM Homeostats • Three/Four Homeostat between present and future • Homeostats between System Ones and their environments • Homeostat between System and Metasystem • Homeostat between vertical authority and horizontal autonomy (from Beer) “Autonomy is a function of the purpose of the system”.
  • 9. • The VSM describes the necessary and sufficient conditions for viability • It is recursive (scalable) – repeating each function at every level of interest. The design of the model’s graphics support the depiction of recursion • Most VSM designs and diagnoses choose a system-in-focus and go one up and one down • Most systems are part of multiple recursive relationships with varying levels of accountability, e.g. management, owners, regulators…
  • 10. VSM Applications • Many applications in business and industry, governments, NGO’s, universities… • Can be used to design, describe or diagnose an organizational structure with requisite variety • Most ambitious application was Project Cybersyn for President Allende of Chile • Beer was asked to model the organization of the state-owned sector of the economy • Story told in Eden Median’s “Cybernetic Revolutionaries”
  • 11. Cybersyn Project • VSM’s were done for factories and homeostats associated with essential variables identified • Each unit identified eight to twelve indices to be reported daily or weekly such as orders shipped, orders in process, invoices sent, invoices paid, mishaps, customer complaints, absenteeism… Workers could select additional indices that would not be reported to management.
  • 12. Indices were recorded as time series and analyzed using Bayesian statistical filters Deviations from expected ranges reported Local management given prescribed times to deal with deviations depending on the severity Some signals (like a fire) went straight to the top Samsung should have gotten such a signal when the second Galaxy Seven caught fire
  • 13. Cybersyn’s parts • VSM Models (three of eleven levels designed) • Operations Room to coordinate actions • Cyberstride statistical filtration • Planning using Systems Dynamics • Cyberfolk – implementation of Allende’s aim that science should serve the people • A mode to provide for public participation – not completed but contributed to Team Syntegrity • See: 99percentinvisible.org/episode/project-cybersyn/ • Beer’s “Brain of the Firm” 2nd ed.
  • 14. Team Syntegrity • Influenced by: • W. Buckminster Fuller: “All systems are polyhedra” • Balance between tension and compression • Alex Bavelas work on Peripherality and Centrality • Considered basic unit to be an infoset – a collection of people sharing information and interests
  • 15. Syntegration standard format • First preliminary step – formulate opening question – can be fuzzy • Second preliminary step – select participants to populate the infoset • The 2 to 3 ½ day event begins with individual comments on post-it notes • Notes are clustered and a paragraph written up for each • Twelve chosen to be topics
  • 16. • Syntegrations select twelve topics from among those that emerge from the early discussions • Topics are mapped onto the vertices of a regular solid – icosahedron, octahedron, diagonal cube • Participants are mapped onto the edges each connecting the two vertices of their team topics • Non-hierarchical arrangement – each plays a unique and equivalent role • Participants play member, critic and observer roles in each of three iterations of team meetings • All brought together in final plenary and report • Process is facilitated but teams responsible for all content
  • 17. Typical Outcomes • Team meeting reports and final statements documented • Key ideas reverberate around the structure and show up in different forms • 90% of the information is shared • Reduces the probability of surprises or unintended consequences • Sharing of tacit knowledge • Bonding among participants
  • 18. Criteria for Success • Skin in the game – real interest in the question • Having requisite variety among the participants • Confidentiality if the topic is sensitive • Ability to act on the results of the deliberations – even if cannot make the final decision
  • 19. Examples of Syntegrations • The Future of Retail (at OCAD) • The Future of the city of London (UK) • Israeli/Palestinian group on the future of West Bank Settlements • Problem Gambling and the Elderly • Union Bank of Switzerland • Colombian Ministry of the Environment
  • 20. References • Beer, S. (1979) Heart of Enterprise • Beer, S. (1981) Brain of the Firm 2nd Ed • Beer, S. (1985)Diagnosing the System for Organizations • Beer, S. (1994)Beyond Dispute: the Invention of Team Syntegrity (all John Wiley & Sons, Chichester