The Viable Systems Model, next new thing or anarchy?

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There’s a lot to like about The Fractal Organization by Patrick Hoverstadt, and I recommend it to anyone interested in how organizations work and the contribution that organizational design makes. I won’t rehash the entire argument in a blog post, but rather pick out bits and pieces that I either found insightful or those that I found lacking. Or, as a cynic might say, those pieces that fit my mental framework and those that didn’t.

Let’s start with the good:

1. Designing organizations to make decisions at appropriate levels rather than stifling innovation through over-centralization. This is the key point for me.

2. Leaders as facilitators – overly proscriptive leadership does not work when managing technical specialists. Good use of the quote from Lao Tzu on what people will say of a great leader “Of course, we did it by ourselves.” (Here’s where I pretend I have heard of this guy, and have studied his works carefully).

3. Views on change management…resistance is more of an outcome than a cause. People will not resist what they have designed. Also, the idea of asking for the input of those who will be affected by a change, all the way through those on the shop floor. Of course, practicality issues come in to play here leading to…

The things that I was not completely sold on:

1. Facing the practical reality of asking all stakeholder groups to help determine the “What” of change rather than just the “How”. At different points in the book, it appeared to me that he wavered between asking everyone, and having senior management decide the “What” and then consulting lower levels only on the “How.” I’m sure the author would have a clear response to this issue…however, I’m not convinced that the issue was completely tackled in the book.

2. The obligatory Toyota reference coupled with the obligatory chastisement of Western businesses. If the West was really as bad at business as business academia seems to believe we are, we’d all be living in places that look like Uncle Tony’s backyard shed. Conversely, if Japanese firms were as great at business as most academic works seems to portray them, well, fill in your own reference…I’m too lazy to think of two clever ones in the same post. Toyota and the survivorship bias will be forever linked in my mind.

3. The example monsters – The fact that people/editors, etc. demand example after example from any author of this type of book causes some forced examples that don’t actually illustrate how the VSM caused success or failure to adhere to VSM principles caused failure. This one is a bit unfair since even empirical evidence is often insufficient to determine or illustrate causality in the murky world of business and economics.  Anyone up for creating a parallel universe or two?

Overall, the book generated some good insights and was definitely worth reading.

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