Thu 13 Dec 2018 6:09PM

Synergy between Sociocracy and the VSM

PC Philip Coulthard Public Seen by 150

The Viable Systems Model ( VSM) by Stafford Beer has been around for many years and Jon Walker produced an informative guide back in the early 70s, now supplemented by his joint publication "Complexity Approach To Sustainability, A: Theory And Application (Series On Complexity Science) " Sociocracy is better understood today, it is well presented and publicly available material with Sociocracy 3.0. Where are the nuances between the two models. Is cybernetics real or a myth, a relic of the past and only applicable to AI? Where is the evidence to support any one model over the other? Could there be emergence of a new paradigm as these two models interweave, or are they best left alone.


John Niven Thu 13 Dec 2018 7:06PM

I'm very much a newbie with both, so take everything I say with a pinch of salt. I see the VSM as a way of modelling or understanding how the various human and non-human parts of "a system" (in my case, Greencity, a worker co-op that - like Suma, and Essential and Infinity - wholesales wholefood) are organised, and how they regulate each other. Sociocracy provides a way for the human parts of the system to decide on and create change to the system. I don't see sociocracy as a model, so much as a process. This is maybe taking a metaphor too far, but if the VSM is the data structures, then sociocracy is perhaps the algorithms. Or perhaps the VSM is the computer program in its entirety.

In any event, I see the two as complementary. My colleague Harry is an active participant in Greencity's sociocracy practice sessions, and has a picture of Project Cybersyn's ops room on his PC's desktop. Perhaps that's a better metaphor - sociocracy can guide the part of a VSM that sits in the Tulip Chairs.


Douglas Racionzer Fri 14 Dec 2018 5:17AM

There has been a lot of work over many decades around how groups make decisions. I find the work by Garfinkel and others very helpful.

Models such as sociocracy are useful but can obscure, in their detailed procedures, the contexts and the work of members of these contexts in making sense of democratic decision making.

I am happy for cooperators to use whichever model or mix of models (or none) they find useful to making recognisably competent democratic decisions.


Douglas Racionzer


Graham Fri 14 Dec 2018 9:18AM

I'm also very much a noob on both fronts, but have always thought that the VSM could be a valuable tool for co-operatives. I would be interested in learning more about it, in particular where people in co-ops have used or are using it for real, and their experience of the pros and cons. Other than the online information at https://www.esrad.org.uk/resources/vsmg_3/screen.php?page=introduction useful information on the VSM seems to be fairly costly to access, with Jon and Angela's book mentioned above priced at £48 for the paperback. If there is interest, it would be great to update the website. I know we'd have Jon's support for that (he's a neighbour and friend).

As for synergies with sociocracy, that's a question for people with more experience of both than I, but again I'd be keen to listen to that conversation.


Philip Coulthard Tue 19 Feb 2019 8:29PM

Hi @graham2 , the Heart of Enterprise is a little cheaper, I don't like to promote Amazon but a used HB copy for just over £20 is a recommended good buy.
I have written to John Wiley and Sons to see if it is possible to get a electronic copy, so far no joy.


Philip Coulthard Fri 14 Dec 2018 2:08PM

Dear Graham, I placed a series of posts on the https://usqc.org website. Its just a personal wordpress site which I have used to store all of my BSI 9001:2015 QMS diploma assignment on. You are welcome to browse and I would be grateful for any comments. I too got my understanding of the VSM from the esrad link but in my case I had also read "One from Many" by Dee Hock which was a signposted book from the Transition Towns web site for which I am most grateful. Perhaps what made my journey more special over the last 10 years was working with a bunch of physicists who have a political span from the right of Genghis Khan to the left of Roy Jenkins. So I think I can say it was apolitical.

Dee Hock used the word Chaordic and I think I can say that reflected well the working methods we used from the outset of winning our first tender. We were a coop by name but a consortium by nature and the BSI modules explain much of that journey and why I have ended up as I have. There have been many insights along the way, from behavioural psychology, dissonance, understanding of choice, exercise of free will, wellbeing, spirituality and mindfulness. My hope is that there is sufficient interest to re-examine the ISO9001:2015 QMS and rebuild it once more, using the richer tapestry of all of us to produce a true evidence based management system which our kids can use to help them rebuild their lives. So that they have the inner strength and creativity to choose to mitigate against an unsustainable World.


bob cannell Fri 14 Dec 2018 3:58PM

Thanks for inviting me Philip. I am obsessed with how people get along together in collective actions. Decades ago it was assumed that people behaved collectively like ants or bees or the organs of the body or nervous system (VSM). Prior to that of course were the machine models, still very much in use in capitalism.
My long practical and theoretical experience has convinced me that none of these are analogous (showing the same relationships between individual agents) with human groups. They may be metaphors (look similar but relationships are not the same).

VSM is stuck in the systems theory era when we now know that human interaction cannot be reduced to a system (an assemblage with clear boundaries of agents where the rules governing the interaction between agents are discrete and discoverable). Indeed weve known since the 18th century but chosen to reduce people to the role of agent to control them.

VSM suffers from the who controls the controller paradox of all cybernetics. Second order cybernetics moves it on one level but then you need third level and fourth and an infinite regression unless you make a political choice to stop.

Ive read quite a bit about VSM and as I said its probably ok as an operational and tactical management tool but it has no answers for strategic challenges. What Ive read is speculation and poor at that.

I dont want people wasting their time investing in a severely limited and probably inappropriate tool when they could be enjoying working together in more productive ways. For the last few years Ive promoted the ideas of Ralph Stacey who rejects the concepts of systems of sentient human minds. Where there is sentience there cannot be a system because people dont always follow rules. But what people do is communicate and respond in vastly complex processes and networks. An organisation is a conversation with participants using different means to converse. Sociocracy fits this post systems view, which is why Im interested.

Ive used this non systems, process thinking in my management and consulting work and it works really well Whats more its suitable for everyone. You dont need to be trained or an expert speaking jargon (VSM is full of it) to do it.
So Im not vry interested in VSM as such. To me its like trying to find a way to reintroduce steam engines onto the railways, why would you? But there are enthusiasts..


Simon Grant Fri 14 Dec 2018 4:12PM

Thanks @bobcan I'm really interested to read your thoughts and reflections on VSM, which make good sense to me. Perhaps we can reframe the question to VSM advocates, to ask what they think is a good value-for-effort application of VSM? I'm neither an expert nor an advocate myself, but from my limited knowledge, I wonder if just knowing what the different VSM "systems" are helps people to grasp a little of the genuine complexity of complex systems.

I would agree that a human being (and even more so, any assembly of humans) is not a system in a mechanical or engineering sense, but in the broadest sense perhaps we can get a little insight through system thinking, while not confusing the systems model with reality? The big question to me, which I hear very much echoed in what you write, is whether it is worth the trouble, or whether there are more useful ways of spending one's time. That question seems open to me.


Martin Meteyard Sat 15 Dec 2018 11:26AM

Says the steam engine enthusiast @bobcan lol :)


Philip Coulthard Sat 15 Dec 2018 11:38AM

Dear Bob,
There is a curiosity in me which tries to investigate things which don't quite feel right. I understand your reasoning of "lets move on" but surely our past got us to where we are? I would hope that academics would at least have some interest in celebrating our past so that as you say we can then look forward. I will look to the references you have kindly provided. Yet would you agree that Stafford Beer was a "National Treasure" and part of this countries great heritage? Then why would Liverpool's John Moores University, the home for Saffords collection, send me the letter below:
Following on from your enquiry, I have included some information about the Stafford Beer Collection below. At LJMU Special Collections & Archives we hold the Stafford Beer Collection, which consists of his personal library and his archive collection. More information about the Stafford Beer Collection can be found at https://www.ljmu.ac.uk/microsites/library/special-collections-and-archives/special-collections/stafford-beer-collection, including catalogues for both the book and archive collections. "If you would like to consult material from the archive you would be very welcome, but you will need to request material at least 24 hours (excluding weekends and bank holidays) in advance of your visit. The book collection is available to browse in the Special Collections & Archives Reading Room in the Aldham Robarts Library (https://www.ljmu.ac.uk/contact-us/find-us#read-more). Please note that if you would like to visit us you will need to show printed photographic ID and wear a visitors’ badge to gain access to the library, and you will then need to sign in at the Reading Room and abide by the reading room rules."
Why would you hide away from students eyes, original source material? Is this celebration of open and transparent learning in our education system? Why is it that we have a bright shiny new "Sociocracy3.0 " whilst Staffords work is stuffed in cupboards gathering dust? What could come to light is we start following the money? There are such programs which are state sponsored using TM theory and SNM Theory, I don't wish to start a new conspiracy theory but too much of what I am discovering just does not add up.
I will try to keep replies on this forum to a minimum to respect others time but it would help me to best evolve some form of synthesis of the two models if people would engage and comment on my contribution so far.


bob cannell Sat 15 Dec 2018 2:36PM

Theres only so much time in a life. In my search for a strategic management methodology that works for non-hierarchical organisations I have done extensive literature reviews of what is on offer. The various methods use different basic models, usually reflecting the dominant technology of the time and I would place VSM in the late industrial early computing era.

We have moved on a long way since then. Our understanding of how people interact with each other in purposive ways in organisations is much more sophisticated. Indeed we have moved into a much better understanding of complexity which much better describes our 'as lived' lives today. VSM does not enable a modern understanding of complexity. It is both too mechanically simplistic and too complicated in use.

VSM publications with 'complexity' in the title dont seem to understand the difference between 'complicated' and 'complex'.

Stafford Beer was a genius for his time and worthy of study but trying to adapt those ideas for our modern vastly more complex world seems a waste of effort to me.

We need ideas which start from the premise that our social world is complex. That is, it is unmeasurable, unpredictable and uncontrollable. It is not a knowable system at any level.

If you want to know where Im at now you could try Ralph D Stacey Chris Mowles - Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics 6th edition 2016 Pearson. Its dense stuff.

If you google 'Break Free From Our Systems Prisons' you will find an essay I wrote about Staceys work for the UKSCS and how to use it in practice. Its also much more accessible (and shorter) than the book.

I tend to take an intellectual way to investigate these matters so Im delighted that more pragmatic people are developing processes like sociocracy which are rapidly developing away from a systems model towards a complex responsive processes model. Or to be glib, 'all organisations are living conversations between humans' and that's it. All else is illusion.




Pete Burden Sat 15 Dec 2018 10:42PM

I am with @bobcan on this one.

I think there is something very fundamental going on here. It's to do with how we operate as human beings. Living in complexity - really experiencing it - raises anxiety.

This is often a difficult thing to raise - I know because I have been given a hard time elsewhere, for even suggesting it.

I think systems thinking in its many flavours (and a managerialist approach in general) is attractive because it reinforces the idea that we are outside of 'the system'. And therefore we don't need to look at our own contribution to what we experience - the 'process' of working and being.

I don't deny that systems thinking has had value - as a lens. Models can be useful. Maybe VSM can be useful in that way.

But it is important to remember that they are only models, and they may delude us into thinking we are 'outside' the experience.

And why are we drawn to models, if we are really honest? Because often they reduce our anxiety?

I think a better way to approach organisational life is to notice our own anxiety. Notice our own communication and work to improve it. And to trust that different and better results will emerge from that, than trying to stand outside and analyse - and 'change' something or someone (usually someone else!).

This is difficult work - harder than standing outside. Because it means updating our own thinking. And becoming more emotional literate.


Roy Brooks Mon 17 Dec 2018 9:28AM

''I think a better way to approach organisational life is to notice our own anxiety. Notice our own communication and work to improve it. And to trust that different and better results will emerge from that, than trying to stand outside and analyse'

Like @graham2 , I'm new to this, but, if my last couple of years experience with Gildedsplinters are anything to go by, I'm with @peteburden on this.

Challenge is though, can one/how does one apply this to sustaining a commercial entity swimming in the foetid water of late capitalism when the extant business models, while clearly redundant, still hold sway?


Dave Hollings Mon 17 Dec 2018 9:35AM

There are over 7000 co-operatives in the UK with a combined turnover of over £36 billion pounds and employing around 235 000 people.

The first hurdle to get over is the idea that somehow co-operatives ‘can’t work’. The second is not to succumb to the British disease of innovation every time, but to examine what has worked for successful co-operatives and replicate it time and again.



Pete Burden Mon 17 Dec 2018 6:42PM

Simply put I think there are two options:

  • talk about things
  • talk to people

When we talk about models and systems, whether it be VSM or Sociocracy or any other, we also run the risk of talking about the businesses we are in and come across.

Talking to is completely different - we focus on how we communicate, not what we say.

We can move from talking in abstract terms - "Which model is better?". To talking in concrete terms - "What is your experience of working in your coop?"

We can argue for ever about which model - VSM or Sociocracy - is better. If we ask people about their actual experience we will get a different result.

And if we work to improve how we ask those questions - about experience - we will probably get different results each time.

For example, asking a question that one doesn't know the answer to and then really listening to the answer will give a different result from asking a leading question, and not bothering to listen to the reply.

(Just look at what happens at Prime Minister's question time - leading questions, and no listening. The result...)

If we speak consciously and listen carefully I think we'll usually get a different result. Rather than talking about systemic patterns we are actually changing them.

That's how we apply this @roybrooks

It also means we can actually learn together from what has worked and what hasn't - we can look at the evidence together. That is sadly quite rare I think.

It's hard, I admit. It means giving up power - often based on knowledge and experience - and becoming more open to experience.


Douglas Racionzer Mon 17 Dec 2018 7:27PM

Thanks Pete that rings true.

Each cooperative, each organisation can be treated in three distict ways: As a system in which people have roles and functions.
As a process of conflict in which thesis gives rise to antithesis and resolves itself in a synthesis.
As a complex of situated narratives and interactions in which we collaborate in co-creating our reality

Systems and approaches and models work best within the systems approach. I am for the situated narratives and interactionists...


Dave Hollings Sun 16 Dec 2018 7:13AM

There is an important concept in science which says that any new theory (and there are always lots of new theories) has to work at least as well as the existing theory to be taken seriously - as opposed to being the pet theory of one person or a small group.

I remember 30 years ago being very excited by the VSM model and reading up on it. But over the last 30 years whole new co-operative sectors (not to mention other forms of mutual action, social as well as economic) have sprung up. None of which seem to use the VSM. I think we would be better spending our time considering and studying what has worked than a model which, exciting though it seems, has not been made to work.


Philip Coulthard Tue 19 Feb 2019 8:38PM

I am trying to search for synergy @davehollings :slight_smile: . Given all of the examples of use provided by Stafford, Jon and Angela, what evidence can you offer which supports your statement "exciting though it seems, has not been made to work"?


Dave Hollings Tue 19 Feb 2019 9:21PM

If the model works in general (not in a few special circumstances) then it is readily replicated. We can see this throughout the history of the co-operative movement (and throughout human history). So the evidence is 'the dog that did not bark'.
If the model worked, after 30 years there would be dozens if not hundreds of such enteprrises thriving around the country, with new groups picking up the model and running with it because it met their needs so well. And there aren't.


Philip Coulthard Tue 19 Feb 2019 10:00PM

Is the epistemology of your argument correct Dave? :thinking:
Where there not times in our past where the church refused to look down the telescope or Einsteins theories were mocked by the established view of the day? I came to this community looking for answers I knew I would not find elsewhere. There are subversive forces at play and a gift to them would be allowing "complicated" and sheer ignorance to serve their purpose. I know it is impossible to change your view its not your fault its that blasted dissonance that afflicts us all. :slight_smile:


Philip Coulthard Wed 20 Feb 2019 9:24AM

I wish to clarify use of the term "sheer ignorance". It was not aimed at @davehollings but a general expression where knowledge becomes clouded, through being considered "complicated" underused or covertly hidden. Perhaps the question could be asked, who's self interest is served by promoting awareness?


Pete Burden Sun 16 Dec 2018 9:18AM

Yes, I think that is fair enough @davehollings. It makes sense to me to focus on what works.

And, of course, there will be aspects of Sociocracy that 'don't work'. That is one of the problems of trying to apply a model. We also need to take the context into account. Stafford Beer did what he did, and whether you judge what happened a success for him or not depends on one's own context, and his.

My own view is that now, at the end of 2018, we are better off moving away from applying models from outside and instead becoming more aware of the steps we can follow when we are communicating with other people.

I like that this topic is framed as the synergy between VSM and Sociocracy. Looking for synergy is a positive way to engage with something. Similarly, I wonder what similarities we can find in what all of us here are trying to do in the organisations in which we work. And what we can learn about what has worked well and what has not not worked so well - using models, or using processes of communication?


bob cannell Wed 13 Feb 2019 2:44PM

Maybe the information systems (S1 operational, S2 conflict resolution, S3 coordination, S4 external view, S5 policies) in VSM that Beer and others say are necessary for an organisation to be viable, are useful to guide conversation in an organisation to 'cover the bases'. A facilitator could use them as a checklist, 'colleagues, dont we need to talk about how we look at the external market environment?'
But these Subsystems dont cover all 'necessary' topics so theres a danger of them blinding people to other things they should be considering.


Pete Burden Thu 14 Feb 2019 3:51PM

Yes, I think that's right. There's a big difference between using a framework to support a conversation, while still recognising it is just a framework.

And believing the framework represents reality.


Philip Coulthard Tue 19 Feb 2019 9:44PM

Dear Bob @bobcan , I find the idea of using the VSM as some kind of "checklist" unfair on such a useful model. From previous posts I know you have suspicions that the VSM could be used by people who prefer Hierarchy or use "complicated" to bamboozle the workers. But I think you may have a wrong understanding. The VSM can be used as a force for good or for evil. If it could be used for one force alone then it could not truly be a organizational systems model. I believe the model is universal but that does not mean that progress in thinking of complexity should be excluded. Stafford Beer proposed that a measure of complexity was variety itself. He did not conclude which form of complexity falls within the variety measurement. Perhaps this is something @jonwalker or @angelaespinosa would be kind enough to explain? A big revelation for me was the concept of "variety matching" which I understand from the Heart of Enterprise to be separate from "requisite variety". Requisite is useful when considering freedom and constraint where minimal constraint is used to allow the autonomous self organizing units to operate. Eg Imagine if no one had thought of the white line in the middle of the road, how many months ahead would you have to plan your journey to avoid collision? Whereas "variety matching" is matching the variety (complexity) of the environment to that of the organizational variety ( complexity) of the system in focus. Eg's failure of high street shops to meet shoppers needs, where the digital age offers so much choice and experiences and methods of delivery. Failure of Transition, due to constraints on protest, leading to the formation of Extinction Rebellion. Perhaps even failure to understand the London riots could be looked at in terms of variety matching?
I know these examples will be contested but as yet no one has come up with how Sociocracy accounts for variety and surely we all need to make progress in determining if this is all cobblers or not?


Philip Coulthard Wed 20 Feb 2019 9:42AM

Apologies for the proposed examples of variety matching, that retched electronic pen got the better of me. At least if we have to take the letter to the post box, there is time to reflect.....Would any reader please disregard the examples, they are not evidence based and evidence should be the basis for finding synergy, albeit they seem intuitively to have merit . :cry:


Philip Coulthard Mon 17 Dec 2018 11:55AM

I appreciate there is an impatience to move on but surely one thing we know today is the power of dissonance? That blind spot which affects us all. Mankind has been getting it wrong for the last 2000 years or so, isn't it only right that we should temper our patience and consider the evidence? I guess somewhere there must have been a publication I missed debunking cybernetics two and I find it hard to move from a evidence based system back to philosophy alone. So some :thinking: one please provide the link. As Bob mentioned legitimate governments have been from power and so it is important we can show the new way forward is whiter than white and not some inconvenient truth, buried. I am sure some of you are probably thinking why don't you ask the CIA but isn't this a bit like the lads playing cricket, smashing that window and one of the poor boys is pushed forward to ask for their ball back. Only ten thousand times worse.


John Niven Mon 17 Dec 2018 2:32PM

For me what matters is whether I can convince the other members of my co-op that there's value in dedicating time and energy to something. For the VSM I can point to Suma's (historic) experience, and for sociocracy I can point to the (current) experience of Outlandish and Unicorn. Sociocracy is a much easier sell in that respect. There's also the question of educating members about one or other - and sociocracy seems much easier to teach and learn than the VSM (resources easily available and affordable). And our experience with sociocracy so far has been really positive, so I imagine there'd be little appetite for adopting the VSM as well, unless there was a compelling business case for it.

Don't get me wrong, what I see of the VSM looks fascinating and I'll continue to look at it personally. But I'm not convinced it's the answer to the problems we're currently trying to solve. I tend to agree with the apples/pears comments made earlier - sociocracy and the VSM are very different solutions to different (though frequently overlapping) problems.


Pete Burden Mon 17 Dec 2018 7:16PM

Hi @philipcoulthard

You say we've been getting it wrong for 2000 years or so, and we know the power of dissonance. And that we need to temper our impatience and consider the evidence.

I am also hearing that you think it is difficult to move from a system based on evidence to one based on philosophy alone.

I am not sure what you are referring to?

Do you mean moving to a system like Sociocracy, or what @bobcan was talking about which some academics (notably Prof Ralph Stacey) have called 'complex responsive process'.

In either case I think you're right that process-based ways of thinking (I would include Sociocracy in that - it's both a structure, and a system, and a focus on process) - are not always as easy to find 'evidence' for.

That's because the base assumption is that the world is complex - therefore context, goals, and process interact to produce sometimes unpredictable results. What happens in one situation may not work again in another.

I guess that is the same for VSM - how and where it is applied will affect what happens subsequently?

This is a problem for social scientists to grapple with - research approaches such as ethnography come up against these issues all the time.

For our purposes I think we need 'promising practice' - not always 'evidence'. (Can't remember where I heard this term, but I really like it!).

So, for example, @johnn 's point about the experience of Outlandish and Unicorn and his own experience of educating members is 'promising practice'.

I also certainly don't want to debunk cybernetics. I think we need to build on the 'shoulders of giants'. (I believe Sociocracy has roots in cybernetics, too, by the way.)

Process philosophy and the philosophy of experience is also not a new idea - Heraclitus pointed out that we can never step in the same river (of complexity?) twice.

I think, pragmatically we need to take the best of what those traditions tell us, as well as all the other roots. And use that to inform our current practice.


Philip Coulthard Tue 18 Dec 2018 12:29PM

Thank you for your reply Pete, Can I suggest we park this whole conversation till after Christmas? I make the suggestion for several reasons, I ordered "The Heart of Enterprise" by Stafford Beer and its going to take some reading. Up till this time I have relied upon the abridged work on the VSM from Jon Walker and whilst it was a useful introduction I am beginning to understand there is so much more to this subject. I go back to that ISO 9001 diploma course, there is no way I should have got through that using the VSM as a reference it was a bit like the Compton scattering experiment, where particles unexpectedly came straight back at you. I should have immediately gone to the source text and not wasted this forums time until without a fuller understanding. I will admit to one small departure from convention. In using the VSM I too the view of the model seen from a ConFederal perspective which is discussed in Jon's paper from the perspective of nation states. For a self organising structure I still think this could apply but I need to dig deeper so I would prefer to continue once I have read the book and Complexity and Management by Professor Ralph Stacey.


Pete Burden Tue 18 Dec 2018 5:47PM

That's great with me Philip.

Sounds like you're going to do some more reading on Beer - going back to source. There is a lot to this subject. I only begin to recognise how much I don't know.

Personally, although I don't want to contradict you, this dialogue has been helpful to me already. I really don't think you have wasted the forum's time. And I suppose it is, in any case, really up to other people to decide!

By the way 'Complexity and Management' is now quite old - the trouble is the more recent books like 'Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics' and 'Tools and Techniques of Leadership and Management' are very expensive.

I found @bobcan's article "'Break Free From Our Systems Prisons" here: https://www.academia.edu/36658111/Break_Free_from_Our_Systems_Prison.

There's also a nice chapter by Andy Smith in 'A Field Guide to Organisational Development' which I very much like because it charts his personal journey in coming to terms with a complex responsive process approach. It's on the web here https://www.roffeypark.com/wp-content/uploads2/Andy-Smith-Chapter.pdf. The parallel perhaps is Stacey's own journey through the idea of Complex Adaptive Systems to arrive at Complex Responsive Process (or what some people call complex 'social' process)? You need to read right to the end to get the whole story of course!

BTW a friend of mine knew Stafford Beer and told me some lovely stories about him. Sounds like he was a very special man.

Good luck with the reading, will be good to hear what you find, and have a great Christmas!


bob cannell Thu 20 Dec 2018 2:18PM

There are 6th editions of the Stacey book 'Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics' available for under £10. They are fine. I wouldn't recommend getting any older ones because the thinking developed over the years and the first editions are no longer so useful.

If you want a mind bending and eye opening read I thoroughly recommend it. There's nothing I like more than reading something that so resets my view of the world and fits in the stuff that hasn't fitted. Systems based techniques and models didn't fit my lived experience as a coop 'manager'. Was it me not using them correctly or maybe there was a better systems theory based tool that I didn't know about or maybe it was that coops are rubbish businesses (but the evidence was a probable no to all of these).

And then I read Stacey and discovered that senior managers in normal businesses (like him) felt the same way. But unlike most, he wanted to get to the bottom of what that problem was. Why did we have this huge denial, that all schools of strategic management and our thinking about what an organisation is were rubbish as effective tools of management?. Most managers knew it but weren't saying it.

Then I knew how to proceed, what should be encouraged (effective communication) and what discouraged (blocks to communication) and suddenly my practice became much more effective or 'promising'. Which as Pete says is a sign that what you're doing is probably more 'right'. No longer barking up the wrong tree.


Philip Coulthard Fri 4 Jan 2019 10:14AM

New Year update:
Wow! when I said I hoped to read "The Heart of Enterprise " over the Christmas period, I really had no idea what I was about to embark on. Thank goodness I has Jon's abridged version on the VSM as an introduction. There is no way I could stay with this work if I had no invested so much time and effort into the ISO QMS diploma. I will now have to rewrite everything I have produced so far. All is not lost, although this is heavy weight stuff it adds maturity and depth to what can be rewritten. During the last few years I had a growing unease that I was discovering some form of coverup, after all turkeys don't vote for Christmas. It has been refreshing to find in the "Forward" to Jon Walkers book, "A Complexity Approach to Sustainability" acknowledgement of the wider sciences behind complexity and that this book along with others form a series of volumes. The series editor is Professor Henrik Jeldtoft Jensen. I am no intellectual heavyweight, just a jobbing guy trying to make sense of the reality as I observe it. If anything could be learned from reading my contributions it is perhaps in appreciating what is needed to improve the educational material and support for this science so that practicing managers can embrace and change how they manage their organizations viably and sustainably.


Jon Walker Sun 20 Jan 2019 8:06PM

VSM and Sociocracy

Angela and I have been working with Oscar and Siri (from Sweden) who were involved in setting up a community using Sociocracy, and were interested to see if the VSM had anything to say about the problems they were having. We gave a talk in Kerry on our discussions last summer, and here’s a very short synopsis of what we found.

The two approaches are very, very similar in many respects.
• They are part of the family of organisational theories which base effective organisation on unleashed individuals and self-organising work groups, and then design structures to knit the autonomous parts together in an effective, coherent whole organisation. Elinor Ostrom’s 8 principles are also relevant, as is much of what Laloux writes about with his Teal theory.
• Both have their origins in systems and cybernetics, so they are all about real-time information flowing in loops, multiple feed-back structures, and patterns of relationships.
• Both are recursive “Those organizations are all autonomous but they might choose to form bigger organizations. There is no limit to the number of levels we can link together. The structure works like fractals. We can apply the same rules again and again and through recursion, we could, in theory, build a world organization.” This comes from Sociocracy, but could easily be from a VSM paper.

• Sociocracy is much more accessible and friendly.
• Sociocracy has lots of details about the practicalities of the way things work - like double linking - which the VSM doesn’t get into. VSM is much more about general principles, axioms and laws and doesn’t specify details which are context specific. (You are expected to work it out for yourself)
• VSM is (I believe) a more complete theory and is clearer about some things which are implicit in Sociocracy but not clearly defined.

So, looking at the way they work:

VSM starts with ‘primary activities” the parts which do the stuff which define the identity of the system. So, doctors and nurses in a hospital, teachers in a school, brick-layers, electricians and carpenters (etc) in a building company. Stafford called them Systems 1 or the Operation.
Sociocracy starts with circles which do the same sort of thing. They say “circles which carry out the aim”.

However, all the operational bits of the VSM are always drawn interacting with their environment, and studied in this context.

VSM then says everything else is a service to the Systems 1. Stafford calls this the Meta-system as it’s logically “over and above”, and it’s job is to provide the glue which binds the Systems 1 together into a larger whole.
This seems entirely compatible with the Sociocracy approach. They say the circles need to be connected through double linking to avoid silos.

The VSM has a System 2 which deals with conflicts of interest. We concluded that all the Sociocracy mechanisms for discussion and decision-making fulfil this requirement very well indeed. So while this function isn’t defined it’s clearly alive and kicking in Sociocracy. Note that conflict resolution is Elinor Ostrom’s 6th principle, and identified by Laloux in all his case studies of Teal organisations.

VSM then has a System 3 which looks at the cluster of interacting operational units, and looks for ways of making them interact in a more effective way. So it’s looking for collaboration, mutual support and synergies.
In Sociocracy this function is carried out by the General Circle or CG.

“The GC has three main tasks:

The GC holds the department circles accountable and supports their functioning.
The GC is also the centre of the flow of information between circles that carries out the aim.
The GC sets the aims of the circles and supports clarifications of aims.”

Excerpt From: Ted J. Rau, Jerry Koch-Gonzalez. “Many Voices One Song. Shared power with Sociocracy.”

Again: just like the VSM. Information flows between the Systems 1 and S3. The GC has delegates from all the S1 circles, and discussions are concerned with the whole system: they talk about discussing ways circles can support each other, which sounds just like looking for synergies.

So far the similarities are striking: self-organising, autonomous work groups, working in ways which avoid conflict, and coming together for their mutual benefit in a General Circle which looks exactly like System 3. Information always flows in loops.

The VSM has two further systems: System 4 which scans the outside world, looks for opportunities and threats and then comes up with cunning plans and schemes. (The Baldrick system . . .) And, System 5 which develops and enforces policies, visions and values, which define the identity of the whole system.

Sociocracy combines these two systems into the Mission Circle, originally called the Top Circle. The name was changed – sensibly- as it sounds too much like the Boss.
It’s also been called
“vision-keepers circle
Board of Directors
Board of Trustees
strategic planning circle
root circle
Council of Elders”

So clearly a mixture of what the VSM defines as Systems 4 and 5.

So far, the two are very similar. The jobs needed to hold the autonomous operational parts together, and the way information flows in loops, are almost identical.

So: what can we learn from a synthesis of the two theories ? Here are some initial thoughts off the top of me head:

  1. Sociocracy is so much more accessible – the ideas are clear and well presented and the diagrams are friendlier than the VSM.
  2. The VSM diagrams distinguish between the operational and meta-systemic roles - one is round the other square. This adds clarity to the diagrammatic presentation of the ideas.
  3. The VSM develops the way Systems 3, 4 and 5 interact, and that’s an important part of the theory. Combining Systems 4 and 5 in the Mission Circle makes this difficult. For example: the core of the way decisions are made requires a rich interchange of ideas between Systems 3 and 4, which is monitored by System 5 . I can’t see how this could work if Systems 4 and 5 are the same.
  4. The VSM is always drawn interacting with its environment and all diagnosis and design takes place in this context. (Gregory Bateson : “the basic unit of survival is organism plus environment”). This opens up lots of possibilities for designing organisations which work in balance with their eco-systems.
  5. While both are recursive, Sociocracy diagrams of very large organisations (several levels of recursion) lose some of Mission circles of the lower recursions. VSM is much clearer. Generally this is invaluable in diagnosis when you need to look at a number of viable systems nested one within the other.

I’m not sure where this takes us. It would be great if we could base our models on Sociocracy diagrams and add the extra stuff from the VSM. But it’s likely that the extras would make the diagrams as complex as the VSM.

Davie Philips (Clough Jordan Eco-village and Cultivate ) has redrawn the VSM and it looks a bit like a jelly fish. Stafford tried a circular diagram , but he said when he’d finished the Meta-system looked like a big spider in the middle of a web. Panagiotis in Toronto has lovely 3D diagrams.

But it’s heartening that all these different approaches come to very similar conclusions about what an efficient structure based on individual freedom should look like. Stafford from his quest for the principles of viability in the way the body works, Elinor Ostrom in her studies of thousands of long-enduring Commons, Laloux in his observations of Teal businesses, and Sociocracy in it’s practical application of Kees Boeke’s work in schools by Endenburgh.

What I think is important is that all these approaches are saying the same thing: there is a better way to organise than command and control. I am still amazed that the VSM began life in the very traditional steel industry in Sheffield in the 1950’s and yet concluded that the best way to organise is to give everyone on the front line as much autonomy as possible, and requires them to be creative and innovative.

For cooperatives, this stuff is crucial: if we want large , efficient coops that can flourish, we need organise effectively. And structure becomes necessary : NOT to slot people into boxes and demand obedience, but to provide the framework where unleashed, creative individuals can collaborate for their mutual benefit. Otherwise the Tyranny of Structurelessness takes over. The UK co-op movement voted for hierarchy at the end of the 19th Century, and it’s decline started from that moment.
We need a better way.

All four of the theories mentioned above contribute to this, as do the workings of Mondragon and Emilia Romagna. Complexity theory has wonderful insights, but so far I’ve been unable to find a comprehensive vision of what they think effective organisation should look like. (Please let me know if anyone has found one !)

The battle to un-throne hierarchy is critical, and all of the above (including complexity theory) has much to contribute.


Philip Coulthard Mon 4 Feb 2019 1:11PM

Variety: Hi Jon, In your post, variety was not mentioned, perhaps it was implied? One thing I gleaned from reading "The Heart of Enterprise" was the requirement of variety match. ie operational unit to its environment. The same matching occurs in the metasystem when you have a moment, will you please expand on how that works with Sociocracies "Mission Circle"?


John Atherton Wed 20 Feb 2019 11:11AM

Hi, sorry I forget not everybody is indoctrinated!
https://solidfund.coop/ was set-up by and for worker co-ops to fund worker co-op activity. Membership is £1 a week and members decide what proposals to support. The groups decision making forum is one of the sub-groups on Loomio but only members can join and participate (they are quite robust what they will fund as its there own money so be prepared to put in a good case if you want cash for something).

The Worker Co-op Weekend is hosted by Co-operatives UK who are the membership association for all sorts of different co-ops and provides the usual associations stuff like lobbying, campaigning, providing advice, training and events.

Worker co-ops create their own programme so if there is interest in this forum then I'm sure we could put something on the programme.

A 2 day events also sounds good, but logistically may take some organising.


Pete Burden Sun 20 Jan 2019 10:34PM

Hi @jonwalker that's is a lovely piece of work and very helpful.

As you say it seems like the two approaches are very similar, in many respects.
Providing a framework where unleashed, creative individuals can thrive for their mutual benefit does indeed seem to be a common aim.

And I am sure both approaches have much to contribute to 'un-throne hierarchy'.

I would also like to add something in relation to the debate that has been running about what did (or didn't) happen at Suma. It also strikes me that we may have been talking at cross purposes?

By this I mean that a lot of what you describe seems to be about structure - using Stacey's language, this is an approach which sees an organisation as a "complex adaptive system".

There's an alternative approach - which, again using his language, is about seeing and experiencing 'complex responsive process'.

I think these two ways of seeing are different but probably complementary.

I think they're really about mindset.

In organisational development as you probably know we talk about Diagnostic OD and about Dialogic OD.

Diagnostic OD is a mindset which looks at organisations - often from the outside - as systems, and as systems which can be changed and developed. This attitude often continues into practice - historically OD practitioners have, for example, started their work by analysing and diagnosing organisations. Interventions follow, leading to 'changed' structures, changed behaviour and so on, at least in theory!

Dialogic OD sounds like it is about getting people into dialogue (and in a way it is). But it is also about a mindset. Which experiences organisational life as an on-going, emergent experience, in which the OD consultant is a participant. Not standing outside, 'diagnosing' and then 'intervening'. But taking part in that emergent process. This is how I understand Stacey's 'Complex Responsive Process' - as a theoretical discussion of such an approach.

This is not actually a new idea, of course. Parmenides (late sixth or early fifth century BCE) gave us a world of objects and even 'systems'. Heraclitus (535 - 475 BCE) famously suggested that you can never step in the same river twice.

In the Western world, as I understand it, we have largely built our philosophy, our education systems, and our management theories on the ideas of Parmenides and not Heraclitus. So perhaps it is unsurprising that approaches that are in more tune with a 'Complex Adaptive Systems' way of thinking seem to dominate.

But I think most of us, when we reflect will realise that both ways of thinking have much to offer. I think we can all use both modes of thinking.

And of course, both VSM and Sociocracy can be seen through either lens. Sociocracy, for example, and as you point out, has many ideas about structure.

Introducing Sociocracy (and I suspect VSM) into an organisation is also a 'dialogic process' where people (external and internal) engage in conversations with other people with largely unpredictable and uncontrollable outcomes.

From this approach - which you will recognise as 'emergence' - it is also completely explicable why what seems to be a sensible structure can work in one situation and not work in another. And actually can appear to some people to work and not work to others! Or even at some times it can appear to have worked, and at others not!

Leading to all kinds of debates between individuals - as long as we stay within those distinct frames.

If we step outside the diagnostic frame and experience the debate dialogically, there is always difference to be uncovered and always similarity too.

As Mary Parker Follett, writing nearly a hundred years ago, said “Unity, not uniformity, must be our aim. We attain unity only through variety. Differences must be integrated, not annihilated, nor absorbed.”

Basing our conversations on the principles of respect for each other, empathy and congruence of thought and feeling can really help with this integration, I think. So thank you again for the work to try to integrate the above approaches, and also to stay open integrating different ideas and frames by having this conversation.


Jon Walker Wed 23 Jan 2019 5:08PM

Hi Pete, and many thanks for your very kind comments and extremely interesting responses.

On the question of Diagnostics and Dialogics, we have come to very much the same conclusion. In 2007 Angela and I were invited to introduce the VSM to Cloughjordan Ecovillage in Ireland. It immediately became obvious that if we wanted to do anything useful we'd need to get very involved. So we started to go over every few months: we were learning about the Village and they were learning about the VSM. It was clear that one without the other was not going to work. Happily they already had a "Process Group" who were working with the way the Village was organised, and there was a policy to never work with command-and-control. So the VSM was exactly what they were looking for , and several members of the process group got very good indeed with VSM ideas - in fact, on one or two occasions I found myself being corrected ! (Wonderful!) Over the course of the first year the plan emerged and was put in place, (with the agreement of the whole village - nothing being imposed on anyone ) and then there was the inevitable period when lots of things don't go the way we expected, and the review, re-think, try-again loop started to function. We were involved in the whole thing for a couple of years, and it became obvious that the usual consultancy approach of Parachute-in, Study, Write a report, and Leave was all a bit of a waste of time as the crucial work starts when you take your lovely, elegant theories and try them in the white-heat of reality.

I think this is what Dialogic OD and Complex Responsive Process must be, and is also just what Cybernetics is all about : it's the steersman at the back of the boat, responding to wind and waves and giant-squid and using real-time information to steer a path to where you want to go. She will, of course, be in conversation with the look-out and the people keeping the engine going. All a pattern of relationships.

(Interesting that all the cybernetics I know looks at the way natural systems work and then try and find the invariances with man-made and social systems, and yet lots of people think it's about studying machines and then making groups of people work like machines. I blame Doctor Who . . . .)

I love the quote from Mary Parker Follet, and again it's something which becomes obvious once you make the leap from a hierarchical mind set to a systems approach (Systems for me is always about patterns of relationships.) As Bob rightly says, the hierarchical myth that one person controls dozens always leads to problems of requisite variety and thus to the need to limit the variety of the individual being controlled which usually means some sort of uniformity. If you're taking the VSM/Sociocracy approach of looking for synergies between unleashed people then the opposite is true : the more diversity the more chance of synergies. If everyone is expected to be the same, there's little to learn from each other.

And finally : in the work we do, structure is always a critical element of the dialogue. Ultimately everything is about deciding who's involved in what, who needs to talk to whom, what sort of decisions need to be taken, and where those decisions are made. I guess this is what a structure is. Both Sociocracy and the VSM provide a template to start the debate. But as Stafford used to repeat regularly, there are no right answers, only models which are more or less useful.


Pete Burden Tue 29 Jan 2019 5:53PM

Hi Jon

Yes, it does again sound that there are a lot of similarities in these two approaches.

Your experiences in Cloughjordan - where the plan emerged and was put into place with the agreement of the whole village, with nothing being imposed - sounds great.

In a Dialogic approach, yes, we also use the review, re-think, try-again loop again and again.

We'd probably also draw on Argyris and Schon's work on double-loop learning - to look at 'conditions' as well as 'causes' - and that again sounds to me very like systemic thinking.

I also understand that for you systems are always about patterns of relationships, and there is certainly similarity there.

And we also certainly agree about the value of diversity.

I think there are also some differences. - again referring to Mary Parker Follett - the task is 'integration'. And to do that we need to find the differences in the similarities. I'll have a go!

Structure - as you describe it - is about deciding who is involved in what, who needs to talk to whom etc. I think we also need to recognise the many ways that structure is subverted. That is something I pay a lot of attention to in my work - the 'shadow system'. How does VSM include that?

OD and Dialogic OD in particular also pays a lot of attention to what happens outside of the cognitive realm - emotion, and what happens subconsciously, for example. Again I am curious about how VSM takes these into account?

And finally, I am really not sure about 'the steersman model. Dialogic OD is a 'mindset' - so it is about how the 'consultant' sees the world. But we're not steering. Or only steering in the sense that everyone else is steering too.

For me, a business is not a boat, and there is no single person operating the tiller.

I - like everyone else - am in a series of conversations. We are in a pattern of relationships, a pattern of conversations. And everyone has their own view of the pattern, and none are more correct than others.

My assumption is that we can barely predict the future and we certainly can't control it. This might start to sound hopelessly chaotic! That there is nothing that we can do. It can sound destabilising and even scary.

The way we approach this is by focusing on developing our own awareness. Of our own thoughts, but also our own emotional and intuitive responses. On our awareness of how the group (what we might also call the 'system') is behaving - for example, the norms of behaviour. Of our own responses in relation to that behaviour.

As we become more aware and more skilled it becomes easier to 'muddle through' (1) effectively. Always subject to those constraints of not being able to predict or control the future.

Is that too different? Can we start to integrate that?


(1) Using my friend Chris Rodgers' words.


Philip Coulthard Wed 13 Feb 2019 11:24AM

Hi Pete, I had hoped that Jon would respond but I must assume he is heavily engaged elsewhere. These are very much a students view but here goes:
Taking your point about the 'shadow system': it is my understanding ( open to correction) that The Heart of Enterprise, page 208, Fig 34 shows that well. To explain what that drawing conveys would take too long in words here.
You ask about 'the steersman model". "a business is not a boat, and there is no single person operating the tiller" Surely the synoptic view as an observer ( eg watching the murmurations of starlings) differs from the view of those engaged in the operational units ( eg the starlings)? The steersman states Stafford Beer is the heart of the enterprise. It is that entity which can comprehend all of the complexity in its many forms, which we as external consultants, "perforce rely on the human genius to know how, precisely, to apply itself". Quote Heart of Enterprise, page 518.


Pete Burden Thu 14 Feb 2019 10:06AM

Hi Philip

Thanks for getting back to me, I am also assuming Jon is heavily engaged elsewhere.

On the shadow system, I'll have to look at the reference.

On the steersman model, yes, I think you are right, the view of an observer differs from those engaged in the operational units.

I would also add that every participant has a different view.

It's a nice idea to think that somebody with a big-picture (synoptic) view is at the heart of the enterprise. I guess it is also reassuring to many.

And I think this is precisely where a dialogic approach is different. It asks us to consider if we are ourselves bringing in our own assumptions and beliefs into how we see what is happening.

In systems thinking terms, using the idea of emergence, we might notice that a rainbow is an emergent property including of our eyes. (For example, when we move, so does the rainbow).

I really don't know very much about Stafford Beer but it sounds as if he believed strongly that the steersman had a special place in the enterprise. Taking a dialogic approach means noticing this belief, and how it might shape our behaviour - what we say and do. And how what we say and do affects what happens.

So I might ask the question - what do we really mean by 'external' in 'external consultant'? This internal/external boundary is one of our own making, I believe.



bob cannell Thu 14 Feb 2019 11:59AM

I cant believe VSM requires an identifiable steersman with an overview. Thats just too simplistic. But I cant square what I read about VSM and what Jon and Angela say about it. The one is pretty hard systems, the other is much softer and more symbolic. Of course no single person has a perfect objective external overview. We're back with the failed, failing, CEO model then.
Have you seen my reply to Angela. I cant find it on this Loomio but somebody did comment on it. I'm finding Loomio difficult to navigate.


Pete Burden Sat 16 Feb 2019 1:11PM

Yes, I saw your reply Bob. But am also finding it hard to navigate Loomio (now we have long posts). Not sure I can get back to your response but will try!


Pete Burden Thu 14 Feb 2019 10:10AM

By the way, here's a nice little talk on complexity theory as it relates to public policy.

It doesn't go as far as I would in trying to identify specific behaviours that we can change. But I really like his enthusiasm and the way he draws our attention to a set of questions that are a really practical and helpful re-framing.



Jon Walker Thu 14 Feb 2019 9:07PM

Hi All - sorry about the absence, our variety has been fully disposed of elsewhere !
So, where to begin ? The Boats and Businesses discussion is crucial, and I think gets to the heart of it. I was reminded of a conversation with Stafford - I was questioning something he'd said and he replied " most people look for the way things are different - I've spent my life looking for the way things are the same " He called these "invariances" and it's just like Bateson's Pattern that Connects. So a worm eating its own tail is not the same as a molecule - but the image inspired the guy who discovered the benzene ring. There was a pattern that connects.

This goes right thorough systems ideas and it's about the search for ideas which can be understood at a meta-level regardless of the context. The "steersman" pattern can be seen everywhere: using feedback to adjust the things we do in the light of an environment which may be changing rapidly and unpredictably, using real-time information to make progress towards some goal or another. Continuous, dynamic loops running around and around and around. It's as much to do with the way I drink a cuppa tea as the way a government steers the ship of state. (Pythagoras, I think . . .) And of course totally different from the usual approach of make a 5 year plan, decide what to do and just get on with it.
So there are steersmen (& women . . .) everywhere - no-one is suggesting a single steersman for any system - it's inherent in every loop and every interaction.

Next : models and reality. I spent more time with Stafford talking about the Bhagavad Gita than the VSM. He had no illusions that models were anything other than abstractions , and was delighted to find a Hindu creation myth called Srysti which mapped onto the VSM with extraordinary similarities, and that he was about 5,000 years behind. But I'm not sure why this is such a big deal : when I cross a busy road I have a model of vehicles and speeds and my ability to run etc etc and use this to make a decision. If the model is a good one I get across unscathed. I never bother to stop and consider the reality of it all. But if I made a bad decision and got knocked down , I would certainly try and find out what was wrong with my models. Most of us VSM users regularly go to talks by people like Stacey and Dave Snowden, but the VSM continues to be the most useful model. Doesn't mean it's right - it just works.

Philip - I don't remember Sociocracy talking about requisite variety , although I would guess that if it has cybernetics in its origins it must be in there somewhere. Maybe they found the concept turned too many people off and worked around it. They are very clear about recursion.

Bob - yes, well put ! But the 5 systems are supposed to be sufficient - and in hundreds of real-life applications I've yet to find something which is necessary and not included. Have you found something ?

Internal/External. I guess the issue is : does the consultant study and then write a big report and leave, or does she sick around and see how it works ? The first I think of as an "intervention" and the second as a sort of dance between the consultant and the system-in-focus.

More soon : what have I missed ?


Pete Burden Sat 16 Feb 2019 4:54PM

Hi again @jonwalker

Good to have back - your variety is, of course, fully welcome!

Reflecting on the conversation so far, including the other thread in which @angelaespinosa and @bobcan responded so fully, I thought it might be useful to review where we have got to, and what our aims are - so we can determine some next steps.

The more we talk the more I see how much similarity there is between VSM and Sociocracy. As you pointed out so clearly, they seem to have much in common, including very many background assumptions.

It also sounds like we all have a lot of common in terms of what we are trying to achieve, specifically in terms of helping people organise themselves better.

You said earlier, talking about complexity theorists, that 'so far I’ve been unable to find a comprehensive vision of what they think effective organisation should look like. (Please let me know if anyone has found one !)'.

For me, an effective organisation is one in which people thrive while contributing to social and environmental sustainability. I don't believe this is ever fully attainable - instead it is something we need to continue to work together on.

And, for me, we get there by developing and growing our ability to organise.

This means learning to be more honest, learning to be in conflict and thus learning to cooperate and innovate. My belief is that as we get better at this we will get closer to that goal of an effective, sustainable organisation.

Personally, I don't need anything more complicated or comprehensive than that, in terms of vision. Because that already tells me what to do: that we need to learn to be more honest about what is going on, learn to work with conflict, and learn to truly cooperate and innovate! Oh and that we need to learn to learn!

I think people have inherent abilities to do all these things. So, for me, a lot of the work is dropping assumptions about how things 'should' be done. Many of these assumptions come from the dominant explanations in society about how things, including managing and being managed, 'should' be done.

So, for me, both VSM and Sociocracy are very useful in that they are part of an alternative explanation (including, for example, supporting 'power with' instead of 'power over').

There are also methods and tools that can help - Sociocracy offers some, such as consent-based decision-making, rounds, and circles. I imagine VSM does too.

And I think the best way to find out if these explanations, methods and tools work is to try them out.

Personally, I also think methods and tools that appeal to ordinary people who perhaps aren't as keen as us to understand all the technical details behind the results, generally work better. Maybe I am just lazy but I tend to choose things that I can easily explain and that people pick up quickly!

That's also because I know my own battle is to avoid over-complicating things and becoming too abstract in how I think and talk. I find that the more I can address people in ways they understand, and help them do practical things to meet their needs, the better things go!

So, where does that leave us in terms of the conversation about 'Synergy between Sociocracy and the VSM?' that @philipcoulthard started?

It strikes me that, for one thing, VSM has a real contribution to make as a perhaps more complete and comprehensive theory than that behind Sociocracy. It could also help clarify some things that are implicit in Sociocracy but not clearly defined.

I am not claiming to be an expert in Sociocracy as a theory (or at all!) by the way - I am much more interested in how conversations take place, whether they are using Sociocracy or not. So I am not the right person to have that conversation with. But my guess is that there will probably be people in the Sociocracy community that will value that contribution.

So, in terms of next steps, that's one that comes to mind: for people from the VSM community to meet and talk to people engaged in the details of Sociocratic theory?

Of course, I think we all have to make up our own minds about how we spend our time (autonomy!). So I'd be interested to know if that is a next step that appeals to you? Perhaps you are already doing it? Or maybe there are other things to do that you think might be more useful?



Philip Coulthard Mon 18 Feb 2019 10:12AM

Hello @peteburden , ( apologies for any wrong application of the @peterburden Peter, I assume the @ bit ensures the message comes to your attention?) I have read the paper you suggested on another long train journey and thank you for the link:
" https://www.roffeypark.com/wp-content/uploads2/Andy-Smith-Chapter.pdf. "
I did not find anything in the document which was at odds with the VSM and I thought they complimented each other well. Andy Smith made the recommendation "Finally, I do not want to persuade practitioners to give up all their traditional models and ways of thinking about change" "useful purpose in that it supports a conversation for people involved in change".
So having reviewed the VSM, reading
1..Stafford Beers the Heart of Enterprise and Jon Walker Angela Espinosa's book A Compelxity Approach to Sustainability,
2..Your recommended reading for "Working with chaos and complexity." 3..Sociocracy 3.0 A Practical Guide:
4..The insights from the participants in this thread
I am a very much better informed but I struggle with the lack on evidence to support either recursion or use of variety equations which are the basis for the VSM within Sociocracy's user documentation. SB was at pains to point out that any abstractions ( beyond those examples he took great effort to provide) in the use of the VSM should go back to the cybernetic principles, which again are not explained in the Sociocracy docuementation. So if any one is reading this post and is an advocate of Sociocracy please help.Where is the peer reviewed evidence supporting what is otherwise surely, no more than a belief system?


Poll Created Wed 20 Feb 2019 9:47AM

Open Meeting to Grow Understanding and Promote Synergy between the VSM and Sociocracy Closed Wed 20 Mar 2019 9:01AM

by Philip Coulthard Wed 20 Mar 2019 10:10AM

Thanks to all who took the time to vote and shared your reasons. I value all of the comments provided. A common thread in the responses has been the time commitment for a two day meeting. Stafford Beer was commonly asked what reference material he based the VSM upon and his answer was that it extended into two thousand volumes. I fail to see how justice can be done to such an important subject in less time.

Another common thread is a feeling of being comfortable with Sociocracy and I have to agree that much of what is taught is in the right direction. If people are to be forced to make a choice then we would loose many, in the search for synergy, as they slide down that slippery slope of self justification into one camp or the other.

Another common thread has been one of relevance of the VSM today. There seems to be a misunderstanding of the VSM as some sort of "systems analysis tool". The deeper I get into his work I realise this is not a "tool" , its a vocation.

Where from here:

Although we have agreement the turn out was weak compared to votes on other proposals. I see no justification to invest SolidFund resources in a meeting at this time. It is also noted that there are no disagreements or blocks which is encouraging but given the existential threat of Climate Change I am puzzled why the turn out is so low. Could it be as Bob reminds us that the subject is too " complicated ". Like the man searching for the ring at night under the lamp post, when asked by the bobby, where was it lost, 10 yards away in the bushes, then why look here asks the bobby, the man replied this is where the light is?

Some things are hard and seem beyond our imagination but necessary, otherwise we run the risk that the devil gets the best songs.

Rather than invest resources further at this time I would like to make a proposal . That we ask those using Sociocracy to tell us all now what their thought are. Lets do the rounds!

We could discuss the merits of the VSM and Sociocracy infinitum but there are hurdles which stand in our way. Dissonance, ego, anxiety, understanding and those with the most impact being too busy elsewhere. One way to make progress would be for this group to sponsor those people who have a major influence from both parties to attend. I propose a 2 day meeting in the UK with webinar support for those who cannot attend.
There is no personal gain in proposing this meeting, what is driving the urgency for me is Climate Change. We have according to those who know more than I, 10 years to turn this around. We have a narrow window to put in place the best organizational systems to meet that challenge, so don't support this proposal for me, do it for the kids.


Results Option % of points Voters
Agree 33.3% 4 JD JA JR KW
Abstain 66.7% 8 BC CMI IS PB KWO JAK TC ST
Disagree 0.0% 0  
Block 0.0% 0  

12 of 232 people have voted (5%)


John Atherton
Wed 20 Feb 2019 10:17AM

Happy to support but if you want to apply for Soldfund to help fund that in it needs to be put in that sub-group with a proper discussion and budget etc

Would there be any value in a 1 or 2 hr session at the worker co-ops weekend in May?



James Alexander Kerr
Wed 20 Feb 2019 11:28PM

I don't know anything about either of these concepts... could someone point me in the direction of some good printed literature resources to read up on them?


bob cannell
Tue 19 Mar 2019 8:17AM

If others want to do this fair enough but I dont think I would be very constructive.


Kayleigh Walsh Outlandish
Tue 19 Mar 2019 10:23AM

I don't know enough about VSM but know that we will continue to use Sociocracy at Outlandis, so I won't be around for this.


Josef Davies-Coates
Tue 19 Mar 2019 1:50PM

I think the more people who are familiar with both the better (hence agreeing), but am not really clear exactly what is being proposed(?)/ what I'm voting for! :P This is a great resource about VSM: https://www.esrad.org.uk/resources/vsmg_3/screen.php?page=home


Pete Burden
Tue 19 Mar 2019 9:09PM

I am always up for increasing understanding, Philip, and I'm completely with you on climate change, and the need for better ways of organising. So I have no objection. But I think two days is too much for me personally (particularly as I am already going to a session on VSM in May). And I like the sound of John's suggestion of a much shorter session at the worker co-ops weekend.


Agree with @peteburden that two days is too long. I do like the idea of folks learning about both and I think a half-day training/discussion session would be generally useful. VSM and sociocracy are apples and oranges - one is a governance methodology, the other is a systems analysis tool. Both useful and, AFAIC, complementary - exploring synergy seems like a good plan. But just generally spreading both about seems like a better use of resources.


Philip Coulthard Wed 20 Feb 2019 10:50AM

@johnatherton a bit lost how to respond John. Your comment came by magic under the thread heading "Synergy between Sociocracy and the VSM" which is an existing thread. I thought perhaps Loomio generated a new thread to support a proposal? No matter...the session idea would be a start but it took me best part of a month to get through "The Heart of Enterprise". It was a bit like Cool Hand Luke and those 50 eggs. 2 days would be an attempt to scratch the surface and open peoples minds to the possibilities of change in perception. may I ask please John, how do I change the proposal to make it particular to Solidfund?


John Atherton Wed 20 Feb 2019 11:12AM

Hi, sorry I forget not everybody is indoctrinated!
https://solidfund.coop/ was set-up by and for worker co-ops to fund worker co-op activity. Membership is £1 a week and members decide what proposals to support. The groups decision making forum is one of the sub-groups on Loomio but only members can join and participate (they are quite robust what they will fund as its there own money so be prepared to put in a good case if you want cash for something).

The Worker Co-op Weekend is hosted by Co-operatives UK who are the membership association for all sorts of different co-ops and provides the usual associations stuff like lobbying, campaigning, providing advice, training and events.

Worker co-ops create their own programme so if there is interest in this forum then I'm sure we could put something on the programme.

A 2 day events also sounds good, but logistically may take some organising.


James Alexander Kerr Wed 20 Feb 2019 11:30PM

I don't know anything about either of these concepts... could someone point me in the direction of some good printed literature resources to read up on them? Thanks.


Philip Coulthard Thu 21 Feb 2019 9:04AM

There is practical guide to Sociocracy 3.0 a downloadable resource
A overview of the VSM by Jon Walker
"The Heart of Enterprise" by Stafford Beer original source text that I found fascinating but be prepared to have your mind bent.
"A Complexity Approach to Sustainability" by Angela Espinosa and Jon Walker which contains many practical examples of the VSM in action especially regarding sustainability.
I would be happy to add to the list a source text for Sociocracy but I would be best to leave this matter to an advocate.
Hope that helps James.


Philip Coulthard Wed 6 Mar 2019 12:35PM

I have been watching the video's on "Sociocracy for All" web site. No one as yet has suggested a book to guide James or me along the Sociocracy path. Many Voices One Song might be that book. Has anyone else some other recommended choice?


Pete Burden Wed 6 Mar 2019 4:19PM

I was with Jerry and Ted on Saturday so it would be poor of me not to mention their book. I confess I haven't read it cover to cover but it does look great at a skim level and I am sure will be excellent.

The other one I like is by John Buck/Sharon Villines - "We the people".


bob cannell Mon 11 Mar 2019 6:25PM

This is a critique of sociocracy (and holacracy and Laloux) by a colleague of Ralph Stacey from a Complex Responsive Processes perspective.
It pretty well covers my criticisms of Laloux (fantasies) and holacracy (hidden hierarchy). And it makes interesting points about sociocracy (.,... well read it and see if you agree.
I like this CRP approach because it is pragmatic and non-prescriptive. I think if its insights (novelty and change are the result of conflict and authority for example) were used alongside sociocratic principles it would be a good way to work together.
p.s. the aversion to making prescriptions in CRP is also the most frustrating feature to people steeped in systems thinking.



Pete Burden Mon 11 Mar 2019 7:17PM

Thanks @bobcan - overall it's a helpful piece by Chris Mowles I think.

There's already some discussion in the comments from Sociocracy For All. As Chris says in one reply to them "I’m afraid I have never been in an organisation which is attempting to practice sociocracy - which reveals the limitations of writing about something theoretically rather than doing so based on experience." He's acknowledging the gap between writing about something as an academic and experiencing it!

And I know from spending time with Jerry and Ted from Sociocracy for All at the recent conference in Nottingham (also with @abbiekempson, @kayleighwalsh and others) that they well appreciate many of the subtleties that Chris points to. (They are definitely NOT naive about power, for example.)

I do too, and I also think we have to work with the situations we have in front of us. I am sometimes not sure how useful academia is if it critiques instead of experiencing or practising!

Sociocracy is not perfect, it's not a panacea but it does offer us something to play with. And as Chris points out, Sociocracy is perhaps "more gradualist and methodologically experimental" than the other approaches.

I think a theoretical approach like complex responsive process is helpful for some people to frame what is happening. It makes it OK to pay attention to aspects of our experience which we might otherwise discard.

And Sociocracy offers some useful practices, which CRP does not. So both together is good combination.

I'd also like to just say there are also other approaches that also work, as I see it, within the complex responsive process frame. For example, Agazarian's SCT (Systems Centred Training). Despite having Systems in the name it is, I believe, much more aligned with Stacey than other approaches - it's a process-oriented approach. (Not process in the sense of a series of steps, but process in the sense of group process!).


bob cannell Mon 11 Mar 2019 10:44PM

absolutely Pete, I agree. and I'm sure Chris Mowles would say that if conversational communication between participants flows then whatever theory or method they think they are using will change.

I have seen coops try to use all manner of techniques which I would have said were not suitable. But they chew them up and change them to fit or spit them out. This is possible in an egalitarian coop when it isnt in an authority hierarchy. ( Chris would say even there, a process of sabotage and non-engagement undermines distasteful techniques).

I like sociocracy because it prioritises inter personal communication and the process of change is more possible.

Academics are useful however for revealing our assumptions in our thinking. Which reveal themselves as repetitive patterns in our communications eg the assumption that human organisations are analogous to biological systems. And many others which Stacey and latterly Mowles show us in their writing.

Laloux similarly makes all sorts of assumptions in his Reinventing Organisations. But Ive heard people who should know better saying 'now this is how we should organise' follow the prescription.
The big lesson you learn in worker coops is there is no hidden boss to force you to jump over the cracks in an inappropriate theory of governance or management.

Undoubtedly we are using assumptions in sociocracy. But hopefully these will be worked through in practice, unlike perhaps holacracy where the framework and therefore its underlying assumptions are not questionable.

As Chris makes clear, nothing is sacred if we can talk about it.




Pete Burden Tue 12 Mar 2019 7:06AM

Yes, and you're right about academics pointing to errors in our thinking. That is useful.

And just to say there were also some great academics at the recent conference - academics who are trying to critique their own practice, and to do that are diving head on in to the practice.

That combination - of critical thinking, and experience of actual practice - is especially useful I think.


bob cannell Tue 12 Mar 2019 8:28PM

sorry I didnt make it to Nottingham. wasnt well but getting better 😊


Philip Coulthard Thu 7 Mar 2019 10:23AM

Thank you for the references Pete @peteburden . It might help others form a view, if those that abstain would be kind enough to provide their reasons. One of the values Loomio brings, is the possibility to give feedback as to why something isn't working for one or more observers of the system. It may be a time constraint, or that there is extensive support for one model compared to another, so why should we consider such a meeting. We cannot know what is in the minds of each other but we have been provided with a place to make our decisions clear, please help our mutual understanding.


Philip Coulthard Fri 8 Mar 2019 8:40AM

The concept of "rounds" in meetings has proved useful in bringing into the outcome by which I mean minutes, greater variety of views, in our local Transition meeting. I have also suggested, and it has been generally accepted to change the format to "open meetings". The idea of open meetings were also mentioned in Chapter one of "The Heart of Enterprise" by Stafford Beer from back in 1972. Stafford took the example of a "National Rail network" and "meetings" as systems, to look at the nature of both and asked that before we try to " manage " either we need to understand a systems nature, so that we can then consider the systems boundaries and purpose.
I am happy to say that it was the "Sociocracy for All" videos which prompted me to try rounds at the local Transition meeting. My hope is that when others not present at the meeting reflect on the minutes the variety will stimulate further thought as to the nature of Transition.
That brings me to Loomio which is advocated by many and I am searching for the "consent" button which again was suggested by Stafford Beer in Chapter one. He considered back then, the dissonance of the ambivalent member forced to make a decision using consensus in conventional meetings. "Abstain" is a form of consent but boundaries are not set as to when "abstention" would for one member become "Disagree" or "Block". Surely this is why we need those who abstain to do that bit more and like the "round" offer an opinion as to why they feel as they do. Their help could go a long way to improve a proposal. :slight_smile:


Philip Coulthard Mon 18 Mar 2019 6:25PM

So far the interest in a two day meeting has proved low. To flesh out the proposal further I would like to suggest that a level of interest of at least 10% should be set, otherwise we could be using funds which have been agreed but is supporting a failed meeting from the outset.
I have some interest from people personally involved with Stafford Beer and from a historical interest perspective alone, their contribution would surely be valued? I think at this time I should add to the proposal that funding for the event would be needed to cover the learned guests needed from both Sociocracy and the VSM. I also propose a meeting in the Midlands.

BTW, I am aware that I used misguided thinking in my own planned implementation of the VSM in assuming that system 2 could compensate for system 3. After re-reading "The Heart of Enterprise" I now realize this was wrong. SB stated "beware of abstractions" and mine was a heavy price to pay. Use of a strengthened system 2 in place of 3 cannot meet the variety demanded by the VSM "principles of organization". Again this is a issue of education and surely emphasizes a growing need for science based understanding and teaching aimed at the cooperative sector.


Philip Coulthard Tue 19 Mar 2019 9:46AM

I learned with some dismay of Bob's abstain vote. This is his right and he is correct to state his position. I implore others to think again. It takes some effort to overcome my own dissonance, for me to climb down from the VSM horse and actively engage in Sociocracy. I did this by carefully reading Sociocracy 3.0 and taking part in the "An Introduction to Sociocracy" webinar. Hosted by Abbie, Pete and Kirsty. I love the rounds idea, consent and double linking but seeing what I could of Abbie's chart of the organization my heart goes out to her. That for me was a BIG WTF moment. I may be wrong but I could see no use made of recursion or where variety plays its part. I attach no blame to Abbie, perhaps like me, openly admitting a huge failure in delivering a successful enterprise because of a poor interpretation of the VSM, there is a need for better understanding / resourced coop education.
I have a colleague in his eighties now who was behind a patent for pulsed Doppler. His father was a stone mason and if he had no tool for the job he made his own. His son took up the same idea and if a maths solution could not be found he devised his own maths. This is a heuristic approach and yes, better mathematical solutions will come along with time. The point was that by implementing the heuristic step, it enabled him to view the problem from a new perspective, otherwise hidden from him. This for me is what the modelling process provides, a way to look at things otherwise beyond our gaze. I now know that unless the science based 3 principles identified by Stafford Beer, are met, then a subsystem which is designed for instability, cannot be used to bring about a cohesive viable system. There may be other ways of achieving that goal but that would mean returning to the underlying cybernetics and develop that model from the fundamentals. Otherwise the risk, as I ran, is one of belief in abstractions.


Pete Burden Wed 20 Mar 2019 8:58AM

Hi @philipcoulthard. Glad that you have been learning about Sociocracy and loved the idea of rounds, double linking etc.

It also seems to me that you may be talking about a lack of recursion and diversity in the apparent 'structure'. That is, in the organisational 'design'.

As I am sure you appreciate recursion and diversity can also be embodied in group 'process and practice' - and this is something that I think Sociocracy can help with. As @bobcan pointed out elsewhere in this thread, Sociocracy is both a structure and a process/practice of communication.

For example, Sociocracy encourages certain behaviours eg rounds - which as you will appreciate have the potential to increase diversity 'of voice'.

In this way - adding 'process and practice' of Sociocracy to the 'structure and diagnosis' of VSM - the two approaches seem to be quite complementary.

And they also seem to be looking at things in quite different ways. In fact, I would say their points of view are at right angles to each other, at least when considering the process/practice aspect of Sociocracy.


Philip Coulthard Wed 20 Mar 2019 5:31PM

Hi @peteburden , thank you for your reply and correcting my poor choice of words for the organizational design. I am still waiting for the recording of the webinar and "recursion" may then be evident. As for diversity, is this what I am hearing you referring to, as "variety", which throughout this discussion I have referred to ?
Please understand I am no salesman for the VSM, belief in it from an abstraction, has cost me heavily financially and in terms of lost time. That being said, time and again, I come back to it because the system thinking from the VSM model seems intuitively to provide the answer. Variety is the basis of the VSM , yet other than using "just noticeable difference" I could understand Sociocracy steering well away from its use. After all, how on Earth is one to measure differences between organizations based up variety as a measure? For example, lets say that a corporation asks for you as a consultant to compare 3 potential take overs and based upon variety arguments alone, which of those 3 would prove to be the most viable for their investors? Perhaps if we were all masters in combinatorial mathematics and statistics, might we stand a chance? BTW, how would sociocracy approach such a question?


Pete Burden Wed 20 Mar 2019 7:50PM

Yes, sorry to confuse matters - it was slip of the keyboard. I did mean 'variety' not diversity (although in the sense I am using them, the process sense, I see them as the same thing).


Philip Coulthard Fri 22 Mar 2019 9:30AM

Hi @peteburden, I dont think we can let you get away with that slip if it leads to confusion between diversity and variety. Laws must be stated clearly otherwise they become diluted and loose meaninging. The laws of gravity are clear and I am sure Newton would be unhappy with any attempt to describe gravity as a form of stickiness. Ashby's law is clear "Only variety can absorb variety".


Pete Burden Fri 22 Mar 2019 9:53AM

Hi Philip. Again we are at cross purposes. From my worldview words and definitions don't matter that much. Meaning does.

It sounds like for you the definition and the label are important.

Earlier in this thread @douglasracionzer drew our attention to Garfinkel. Personally I like the work of Kenneth Gergen (it is very accessible). There are many such people - people who allow that we construct our experience socially. Including the models and definitions we use. I am looking at the world that way.

I understand Ashby's law but that is not what I am talking about!


Pete Burden Thu 21 Mar 2019 8:48PM

@philcoulth I am still struggling to find a way to express that my understanding of Sociocracy and yours of the VSM are at right angles (orthogonal if you prefer a fancier word).

I don't know how to proceed but perhaps answering your question will shed light: "lets say that a corporation asks for you as a consultant to compare 3 potential take overs ... which of those 3 would prove to be the most viable for their investors?"

I think that's a question that makes sense diagnostically. But, to me it is nonsensical from a Sociocratic point of view. Sociocracy is not used to compare systems or anything else diagnostically. It is used to allow people to work together effectively. So a group that was performing an analysis of the three options could work sociocratically - that is it could use rounds, to ensure that all the variety of opinions was surfaced. A sub group could be created to explore different aspects of the take-overs. The results could be integrated through double-links back in to the conversational flow. And consent-based decision-making could be used to develop and improve a proposal for how to communicate back to the corporation that has asked this question.

So, to say it again, Sociocracy would help the team carrying out the diagnostic. It wouldn't be used to make a diagnostic judgement about the question - which as I said is nonsensical (in a complex world, in which the future can hardly be predicted and certainly not controlled!).


Philip Coulthard Fri 22 Mar 2019 10:06AM

Thank you Hi @peteburden for taking the time to look at the practical problem suggested. My reason for posing the question of the 3 choices was my own frustration with variety, in that as yet its measure is not well defined and this is something Stafford Beer discussed. Value is measured and has been around for thousands of years and accountants continue to devise all forms of conventions about its meaning. "Variety" as its Laws describe it, is relatively new and has few conventions for its interpretations. The Sociocratic group you describe have no concept of variety as it should now be understood. Any decision taken would be interpreted in terms of value or other conventional measures of viability unaware of its true nature.


but this is not a problem - sociocracy is not a diagnostic tool, it is not a way of analysing things. The sociocratic group described would be using sociocratic means of communicating with each other and delegating tasks and arranging workflow. They wouldn't be using sociocracy to compare options - it's just not a possible thing. It's like trying to use command and control methods to analyse whether a Ricoh printer is better than a Xerox. Does not compute.

VSM is a set of diagnostic/analytic tools/principles, which you can use to look at existing organisations and work out whether they're viable. I don't think it makes sense to compare VSM and Sociocracy in this way, they're complementary and they are used to achieve different things.

Sociocracy = a way of working
VSM = an analytic framework and set of design principles


bob cannell Thu 21 Mar 2019 11:55PM

VSM talks about variety. Systems have greater or lesser comparative variety. And you the external observer are supposed to be able to measure this variety by counting the number of possible different states and thereby designing a controller which has requisite variety. But the description of those states is not objective. It is a political choice. Just as the examples of value are in Porter's Value Chains. Another cybernetic based modelling method. There were lots of them in the mid late 20th century. Beer was not alone. The objective basis of all such modelling methods evaporates when you get down to the nitty gritty of choosing what to measure. All such KPIs are not objective truth. A simple number, eg number of widgets produced per hour can be treated as a target, a challenge, a joke, a threat, a lie, an insult and many other things inside one business, depending on who is doing the thinking. In practice the variety is so mind boggling huge it is not a practical concept. It is huge because human thinking is effectively infinite in its variety, and then multiply that by all the other minds' thinking communicating and responding with each other. You begin to see how indequate cybernetic methods, even second, third or whatever order cybernetic methods are in describing human interaction.
In practice in my experience this is the heart sinking moment when you try to apply such methods with an open mind and you realise they are just not up to the job. (Most practitioners do not have an open mind because they are under orders or have a financial interest in the method). It is at this point they run into the sand.
But theres evidence of success you say. No there isnt. There are anecdotal accounts which may well be exaggerating or minimising from a self interest perspective.
Sociocracy on the other hand uses the most complex assembly in the known universe, the human mind in open communication with other minds to control the process (to use systems terminology). Even in systems terms it makes more sense. It fulfills Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety.
When you use a post-systems perspective it makes even more sense.
Sorry VSM is literally so last century. Thinking about human organisation and inter action has moved through three major schools of systems thinking since VSM and is now entering a post-systems paradigm. Sociocracy is in that arena.


Philip Coulthard Fri 22 Mar 2019 12:14PM

Hi @bobcan again thank you for taking time to contribute to this discussion and I have to say the flow of your contribution is really quite wonderful. I am just one guy stuck with this burden, with little by the way of support and the easiest route is to throw up my hands in despair and walk away. However, analysis of your contributions content reveals some cracks and maybe here we can let some light in.
You state that "VSM talks about variety." It is my understanding the very basis for the VSM are the Laws of variety as stated by Ross Ashby, have you science based evidence of these laws being disputed?
You discuss in the opening paragraph, counting the possible states and the lack of objectivity and it being a political choice, will you please expand on these statements as I am unclear what you mean?
Surely you would not argue that controlling instability in an operation is a "Political Choice"? We now understand gravity, and no one would argue that apples tend to fall downwards and it is possible to determine the force of that clout. I agree that the "measure" of variety is difficult to determine but surely its presence as a factor in that instability should not be in dispute?
You say "All such KPIs are not objective truth" but surely any law is to discover the objectivity and not rely upon subjectivity? To describe the laws of variety as some sort of KPI is to misunderstand the nature of variety if my understanding of the laws is correct. A KPI would be a target set as an output of some process. The part played in variety engineering is to manipulate the variety of an operational system so as to bring about the desired target and keep it stable.
You go on the state ", a challenge, a joke, a threat, a lie, an insult and many other things inside one business" which I agree are all part of what is going on inside the business but the treatment using cybernetics is to look at the "invariant" output and not get caught up in the time variant workings inside of the muddy box.
I agree with you that variety is mind bogglingly huge, fortunately much of the variety is absorbed within the black box by the system itself. Stafford Beer gives the example of the variety in the number of bricks needed in a building project, yet due to bricklayers, no brick is mislaid.
You then launch into some diatribe about the inadequacy of cybernetic methods which does little to improve the search for synergy or acknowledges the importance of the VSM in making us aware of the laws of variety. Surely any work going forward to improve synergy, should be around how variety and its new understanding is introduced into Sociocractic thinking?
You then come back to the subject of practicality and let us put aside the personal attacks ( perhaps Pete offers courses in NVC?) on VSM practitioners. I agree the challenge is how NOT to run into the sand. Before Newton we had other ways of measurement for what we now refer to as gravity which by passed its underlying nature. Did those measurements die out over night? I suspect not. The search surely should not be, to ignore the nature as we now understand it but to find ways to bring it into our working practices.
You state "Sociocracy on the other hand uses the most complex assembly in the known universe, the human mind" We need a framework upon which to make sense of complexity and its use in organisations. Ross Ashby gave a measure to complexity and that is variety. The VSM although open to change, is such a framework. The VSM I would agree needs better presentation but please, it should not be consigned to the dustbin of history because of our inadequacy as "variety engineers" .


bob cannell Fri 22 Mar 2019 6:36PM

Hi @bobcan again thank you for taking time to contribute to this discussion and I have to say the flow of your contribution is really quite wonderful. I am just one guy stuck with this burden, with little by the way of support and the easiest route is to throw up my hands in despair and walk away. However, analysis of your contributions content reveals some cracks and maybe here we can let some light in.
You state that “VSM talks about variety.” It is my understanding the very basis for the VSM are the Laws of variety as stated by Ross Ashby, have you science based evidence of these laws being disputed?

There is no dispute about Law of Requisite variety with cybernetically controlled systems, mechanical systems which have low levels of variety (eg on or off) or simple linear spectrum of variety (eg slow, medium, fast or logarithmic progression). The problem is with complex systems (eg collective human thinking, which is what all organisations are) where the amount of variety is essentially infinite (the human mind has a limitless possible states probably). Hence using Ashby's Law that says the controller of a system must have at least an equal number of possible states as the system it controls, the only thing you can use, by this adage, to control human minds are other human minds unfettered by rules. Rules (permitting one way of thinking and doing, but not another) reduce the variety. <<

You discuss in the opening paragraph, counting the possible states and the lack of objectivity and it being a political choice, will you please expand on these statements as I am unclear what you mean?
Surely you would not argue that controlling instability in an operation is a “Political Choice”? We now understand gravity, and no one would argue that apples tend to fall downwards and it is possible to determine the force of that clout. I agree that the “measure” of variety is difficult to determine but surely its presence as a factor in that instability should not be in dispute?

Because the total number of possible states is too big to count in a human system (see above), in VSM and all cybernetics based thinking, there has to be a choice to select only some specific states. You cant count them all. This is a political choice because one person will choose a different set from another, eg a neo-con thinker will choose mostly financial factors but a socialist would probably choose more people based factors.
In contrast to objective choice where fundamental rules determine the choice and everyone agrees regardless of their political assumptions. The natural sciences tend to be like that. Social sciences do not.<<

You say “All such KPIs are not objective truth” but surely any law is to discover the objectivity and not rely upon subjectivity? To describe the laws of variety as some sort of KPI is to misunderstand the nature of variety if my understanding of the laws is correct. A KPI would be a target set as an output of some process. The part played in variety engineering is to manipulate the variety of an operational system so as to bring about the desired target and keep it stable.
You go on the state “, a challenge, a joke, a threat, a lie, an insult and many other things inside one business” which I agree are all part of what is going on inside the business but the treatment using cybernetics is to look at the “invariant” output and not get caught up in the time variant workings inside of the muddy box.

KPIs are social objects. they have no concrete existence. You cannot put a KPI on the floor and walk round it. You can have a physical representation of a social object eg money but that is pieces of metal, paper, plastic or symbols on a screen It isnt the thing itself. Which is an agreement,. Think of it as a pattern in the web of social interactions between the people. This pattern we call money and to remind us we have these bits of metal. KPIs are therefore whatever the person perceiving them believes they are. There is no simple, single output from a KPI. Again that is a political choice by someone with power to say that only that interpretation will be acknowledged as valid.<<

I agree with you that variety is mind bogglingly huge, fortunately much of the variety is absorbed within the black box by the system itself. Stafford Beer gives the example of the variety in the number of bricks needed in a building project, yet due to bricklayers, no brick is mislaid.

The concept of the black box and only being concerned with inputs and outputs is a cop out. Its like drawing dragons in the white spaces on maps. It is also dependant on an assumption of linear causality inside the box (which is a key assumption of cybernetic theory), negative feedback and a tendency towards equilibrium (absorption of variety). Whereas in reality, systems (and I exclude human 'systems' from this) often display non-linear causality (there is no steady progression), positive feedback and a tendency towards dis-equilibrium. It is these observations which led to the founding of systems dynamics (1970s) as a replacement for cybernetics in understanding complicated systems. Cybernetics cannot explain the behaviour of the weather or biological systems for example. So why should it be suitable for complex human assemblages (not systems).<<

You then launch into some diatribe about the inadequacy of cybernetic methods which does little to improve the search for synergy or acknowledges the importance of the VSM in making us aware of the laws of variety. Surely any work going forward to improve synergy, should be around how variety and its new understanding is introduced into Sociocractic thinking?

Cybernetic methods have been proved to be inadequate by decades of thinking about human organisations. They belong to the 1950s ways of thinking. We can have an awareness of variety without constructing a theory of management based on such old fashioned reasoning. I have said that the sub systems ideas in VSM are useful as a guide to patterning conversation in organisations. But the information management rules that come out of that are a distraction from practical management. On a personal basis, my experience in trying to use cybernetic methods is that they don't work unless the variety in an organisation has been brutally suppressed by management eg Sports Direct or Amazon warehouses. A lot of management theory does this and then assumes the achieved state, a workforce of meat robots, is natural. <<

You then come back to the subject of practicality and let us put aside the personal attacks ( perhaps Pete offers courses in NVC?) on VSM practitioners. I agree the challenge is how NOT to run into the sand. Before Newton we had other ways of measurement for what we now refer to as gravity which by passed its underlying nature. Did those measurements die out over night? I suspect not. The search surely should not be, to ignore the nature as we now understand it but to find ways to bring it into our working practices.

I had to reread to find what you meant. Everybody is biased. Practitioners who are under management control have to use the methods they are told to use and its not in their interests to say this tool (VSM or PRINCE2 or Value Chain Analysis or Balanced Score Card or Learning Organisation theory or whatever their boss likes) hasnt worked. BigPharma routinely lose the results of drug trials which dont go the way they want. There are many examples of management experts continuing to promote ideas which they have come to realise are wrong. Even Michael Porter, the arch guru of corporate capitalism, wrote an 'I was wrong' apologia in retirement after decades of taking millions in consultancy fees from the likes of Coca Cola. Ansoff , the father of strategic management, described his life's work as causing 'paralysis by analysis'. (Incidentally, both were cyberneticists)
I have not seen a reliable evidence base for the effectiveness of VSM. As a responsible manager I would not 'bet the house' on it.
The ideas in cybernetics that are still of value eg the recognition of variety, are being used and fed into subsequent ways of thinking about organisations. Almost everything I am saying above can be interpreted as 'how do we cope with this attribute called variety', I am saying VSM is probably not the best way. If there is evidence of benefit in the sort of organisations that we wish to promote (ie not Sports Direct) I want to see it.<<

You state “Sociocracy on the other hand uses the most complex assembly in the known universe, the human mind” We need a framework upon which to make sense of complexity and its use in organisations. Ross Ashby gave a measure to complexity and that is variety. The VSM although open to change, is such a framework. The VSM I would agree needs better presentation but please, it should not be consigned to the dustbin of history because of our inadequacy as “variety engineers” .

Sorry, I think you will find that what Ashby (1950) called complexity is what is now called complicated. You can count the different states in a complicated system, you cant in a complex system. I remember in the late 70s trying to do systems dynamics simulations on university computers which weren't capable of coping with the variety of different states we were generating (simple numbers). Today my phone could run those models instantly. Complexity is a constantly changing concept.

As our awareness grows of the true vastness of complexity in human organisation we no longer call simple cybernetic systems complex. It's like astronomers moving their vision out from the earth into the solar system and then realising what they thought were simple stars are billions of other galaxies. An Oh Sh*t! moment of revelation. Newtonian mechanics suddenly become inadequate. For Newton read Cybernetics. But new theories arise, relativity and quantum theory and so on. Newtonian theories are still used in strictly limited circumstances. The problem is that our new awareness of the vastness of human complexity is more of a challenge than astronomers faced in the natural world. I really don't think cybernetics is up to that challenge. <<

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Philip Coulthard Fri 29 Mar 2019 3:51PM

Hi @bobcan
Thanks for your patience. Your comments extracted below, do not allow for the cybernetic model which includes the adjustment organizer, (please see attached). My understanding from the "Heart of Enterprise" is that the self learning organizer is a synoptic tool where the use of epigenesis is suggested, removing any notion of limitation by causality. In the interest of synergy, I propose an example and would be grateful for any comments in fully grasping your concerns:
A social enterprise, where concerned members have been allowed the time off operational work, to read the VSM as part of self education and well being. This activity will help to build that epigenetic landscape. They could then play their part in the management team in the next recursion higher, grasping the synoptic view and help build any new constraints or removing constraints which are impeding the required variety.
Your comments:
"The concept of the black box and only being concerned with inputs and outputs is a cop out. It is also dependant on an assumption of linear causality inside the box"


Pete Burden Fri 22 Mar 2019 9:46AM

Thanks @bobcan . You say it much better than I can.

I am completely on board with the idea of a post systems paradigm. While also knowing that the systems paradigm is very much still the dominant narrative (see some of the more negative comments on my post here https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/systems-thinking-root-all-evil-pete-burden/ .

I also want to add that, for me, diagnostic methods, which is increasingly how I see VSM, do (still) have some value. VSM seems to be a particularly complex one compared to say the Boston Consulting Matrix with its four squares! But however complicated they are such diagnostics do have some value, I think, in allowing us to 'remember' things we might otherwise forget. Maybe for some people VSM helps them remember in that way?


Jon Walker Fri 22 Mar 2019 6:10PM

Dear All - Gosh what a fascinating debate.

I just read Pete's paper on Systems as the Root of All Evil, and (not surprisingly) see things a little differently. I was reminded of Page 1 of Chapter 1 in Heart of Enterprise where Stafford introduces Systems and mentions that systems have a purpose and then writes
"the trouble is, WHO SAYS SO ?". And goes on to argue that the observer is always part of the system. And that's only Page 1 ! So the idea that Systems Thinking tends to encourage you to see yourself as separate and outside the things you are looking at certainly has no place in Stafford's thinking, and in my experience this is the case for most systems thinkers. And this is why our work has always involved us becoming part of the System in Focus, as detailed in previous posts.

Next : I now think of systems thinking as being summed up nicely as "Patterns of Relationships". And the VSM is certainly a pattern of relationships. So I don't see machines and thermostats and computers but a pattern of loops which are almost always people interacting with other people. There are a few extras like metrics and schedules which help the flow of words and ideas, but every VSM I draw is almost all people. (So I'm bemused when critics ask " So where are the people") This answers Bob's question of Requisite Variety as you're always checking that the people in the loops have enough variety to deal with the other people in the loop to ensure things get done. Again , there are always other factors , such as: does the bike mechanic with her spanners have enough variety to deal with the customers who come in with a buckled wheel ? Maybe she doesn't and needs to increase her variety with new tools and a training course. But variety balancing discussions always involve people on both sides of the equation. And you never ever consider working out the numbers - it's about making informed guesses about the variety on both sides.

VSM in the waste basket of history ! ?? Angela says that there are now more VSM papers being written than ever before, and the VSM Linkedin group has over 1000 members, and we're getting more interest than ever. I think the reason is very simple - once you've got the hang of it, it works amazingly well. You re-think the way things work in VSM terms, map the organisation on a big sheet of paper with lots of arrows and colours and then say "OK , if Stafford was right what does this tell us ?" .
The complexity approaches do a great job in mapping and finding out what's going on, but then they seem to hit a brick wall. I asked Dave Snowden what happens after the mapping stage and he said something about generating new narratives. It's a bit like going to the doctor and getting a very comprehensive diagnosis and then being told they don't really know what you should do. (Check Angela's comment on Stacey saying he never suggests what needs to be done )
VSM on the other hand offers a series of guidelines based on its understanding about the way the body works and what this means for viability. So you need THESE bits of a system interacting LIKE THIS. The vision is (yet again) a pattern of relationships. I'm always reminded of an architect saying "Yes, but the walls have to be built like THIS otherwise the whole thing will fall down"

And finally : Kath's comments were great. Although Sociocracy does require certain parts interacting in a particular way - so I guess it has some diagnostic use. What would happen if you didn't have a General Circle ? Surely you'd have to invent one.


Philip Coulthard Mon 25 Mar 2019 9:16AM

Thank you Jon for taking some of the steam out of this discussion. I must take time out to improve my own NVC! I am currently doing a Permaculture design course although in all practical sense I would not know a spade from a shovel.
I have been moved by the love radiating out of these people. They are often on the lowest of income but their commitment is steadfast. As a frustrated member of our local Transition group I wanted to learn how Permaculture approached some of the organizational issues we faced. So again, I find myself widening the search for synergy between systems to Permaculture . Often during the course, I find the VSM offers a different approach but the goal at this time is to look at the effectiveness of how it works. So I try to sit on my hands in the class and keep quiet.


Jon Walker Mon 25 Mar 2019 10:42AM

Hi Phil - hope it helps - for me all of this is a golden opportunity to expose many of the arguments from Stacey et al as all just a bit silly. They have very little grasp of Ashby’s Laws, as you can see from Bob’s comments. And the association of scientific objectivism with Systems Thinking is just bizarre. I may have another go on this with Pete Burden who seems to have a much more open mind.
Lots of academics have established their reputation by rubbishing the VSM - Mike Jackson used to be a critic but after employing Angela has changed his tune and now openly sings its praises.
Checkland started the Hard Systems - Soft Systems argument with the VSM as a Hard System. Which never made any sense to me. But it almost wiped the VSM out at the OU.
And all the first order / second order stuff which Stafford didn’t agree with. As argued in my last post, the observer was always at the heart of the VSM.

But the Complexity people are completely dismissive of all Systems work . . which is incredible - I read book of Stacey’s and he covered cybernetics in one paragraph saying something like “Interesting work with feedback in the 1950’s - didn’t go anywhere” .

All this makes perfect sense if you’re trying to establish yourself as the New Wave which should get all the research money and prestige.

Capra is much more considered and sees Complexity Theory as a branch of the Systems Sciences. (Me too !)

Enjoy the Permaculture Course - It is (as I’m sure you recognise) exactly the same approach : Study Nature using Systems Theory / Make a model / apply to society. I think I mentioned that Andy Goldring employed me to do a review of the organisation in Permaculture HQ in Leeds. Holmgren’s book Principles and Pathways - covers the theory in detail. It’s a very different approach but deeply systemic.
There is Social Permaculture - but I don’t know how far that has got.

Did we discuss Elinor Ostroms principles of organisation ? If not, I’ll send you my paper - again looking for synergies.

Keep up the good work !



Pete Burden Tue 26 Mar 2019 10:41PM

Hi @jonwalker. I accept that many people who use systems thinking approaches understand that they are part of the system. I should have been clearer - my post stimulated a lot of comments, including ones saying that.

I think the post (and the comments that go with it) is rather clumsily trying to draw attention to something different - that some people seem to believe very strongly in systems thinking. And that this intensity of belief can get in the way of keeping an open mind.

That has been my frustration in this conversation. That I (and I think @bobcan, and maybe @cathcornerstone) have been trying to point to something different - at right angles to what you and @philcoulth believe.

And I still don't believe that different thing has been heard.

I also do think that VSM certainly has value - for you and other people who believe in it - including those people who are implementing it. The same would be true for people who believe in the diagnostic elements of Sociocracy.

I can understand @bobcan 's desire to help people avoid wasting their time. But I also think people have every right to believe what they want to believe, and to use their time in the way they wish.

And if a set of ideas help people orient themselves then, in my opinion, that is useful. If they help diagnose, then that can be useful too.

But that is not what I am talking about. It's not what Stacey is talking about. We're not talking about diagnosis.

We're talking about a mindset - a mindset that believes that meaning is constructed. A meaning that emerges as we speak together, as I type words - and as you are reading them. That we each see the world differently - and that there is no 'right' way to do things.

I think that is a different mindset from one that believes that there is a normative way to set things up.

So yes if there is no no general circle in Sociocracy, you might invent one. But again you might not. And you might agree that using consent! It's a social process!



Philip Coulthard Wed 27 Mar 2019 10:06AM

Hi @peteburden please understand my position. I was burned by applying an abstraction of the VSM, so I am not searching to reinforce a "belief system". The need is for strong evidence based thinking and supporting successful organizational applications, based upon a systems inherent objective properties.
I became receptive to the idea of the VSM in a search some years ago to support a coop view of business. This search led to my misuse of an abstraction of the VSM as I now understand it from that explained in the "The Heart of Enterprise".
It is explicated throughout "The Heart of Enterprise" the model progressively developed throughout the chapters is based upon Ashby's Laws of variety, which I am taking as the science based evidence.
Stafford Beer uses logic to form views in a heuristic way beyond what is possible to perceive without such a modelling process, such as "Freedom is in principle a computable function of systemic purpose as perceived" which in effect links science to heart. Perhaps that statement poses interesting questions over "mindset" ?
I do not expect progress to have stopped back in 1972 . I accept Sociocracies contribution, albeit much of its substance was already set out in the "The Heart of Enterprise". I have thanked you for your links to free content on the progress in complexity thinking which I have read and understood within the limits of my own wit. I believe there is merit in what therein is written and I try to keep an open mind fully aware of the power of dissonance to pull me down that infernal slope of self justification.


Philip Coulthard Wed 27 Mar 2019 10:16AM

I have proposed a two day meeting which led to a luke warm response. The danger of continued discussion on Loomio is one of growing dissonance. Perhaps a way forward would be to make an experiment and observe / evaluate what we find. A organization could be formed, transparent from the outset, with the aim to test the hypothesis put forward. Surely what we need are the best structures out there for all worker coops, so that new or even existing businesses can learn from its mistakes and successes? A coop version of "The Dragons Den" and "The Apprentice" rolled into one.


Philip Coulthard Fri 29 Mar 2019 12:34PM

Stafford Beers "Heart of Enterprise" pg 252 describes Fig 43 ( attached):
The metasystem as shown is schizoid, torn between present and future preoccupations. Would you agree that this best describes the situation Parliament and the country find itself in facing Brexit?


Jon Walker Fri 29 Mar 2019 5:25PM

Hi Philip

The diagram is part of Stafford's gradual build-up of the VSM from first principles. He's developed the case for systems 1 2 and 3 and at this point in the book brings in System 4 - so it's not a complete VSM. As you point out it looks like systems 3 and 4 (which have different jobs to do ) could well be antagonistic. As the plot thickens he draws the big arrows connecting 3 and 4 - representing a continuous conversation, and introduces the role of system 5 (which is meta-systemic to 3 and 4 in that its job is to make them cohere) which ensures they interact with a sort of dynamic tension, resolving their different perspectives as system 4 argues for new, exciting, blue-sky ideas and system 3 says Yes , but you have to make sure it works, and it's going to be my job to put all this stuff into practice. So S5 is designed to balance the visionaries with the practicalities - and check everything is within policy constants ( e.g. the new developments don't damage the environment / or exploit children / or make you sick. )

I've just noticed that the caption says the Meta-system is variety inadequate - which is because there's no System 5 to ensure 3 and 4 work together.

Interestingly, the 3 4 5 pattern of relationships is one of the best things about the VSM and opens up all sorts of interesting conversations about how management works , and why problems arise. So you frequently find that a privately owned business hires a System 4 person , but then the owner , who is doing Systems 3 and 5 , has complete power and just dismisses the suggestions from System 4. In VSM terms this is dysfunctional - as the S3 S4 conversations cannot function. Also note Sociocracy lumps systems 4 and 5 together so these conversations can't happen.

As to Brexit . . . . .. I shudder to think. Maybe the job of the debate should be to provide some sort of meta-system. But that's a much longer story . . .


Philip Coulthard Fri 29 Mar 2019 1:26PM

Hi @bobcan thank you again for taking the time to respond.
You wrote:
"There is no dispute about Law of Requisite variety with cybernetically controlled systems, mechanical systems which have low levels of variety (eg on or off) or simple linear spectrum of variety (eg slow, medium, fast or logarithmic progression).
Well I am please to see an acknowledgement of Ross Ashby's contribution even if only in a small way. The attached figure, taken from "The Heart of Enterprise", shows how even a simple system can create huge variety ( only a few orders of magnitude less than Sir Arthur Eddington's estimation of the total number of particles in the known universe).
You go on to comment:
"The problem is with complex systems (eg collective human thinking, which is what all organisations are) where the amount of variety is essentially infinite (the human mind has a limitless possible states probably).
I have no issue with the immense variety generation of the human mind or the application of Ashby's Law that only other human minds could possibly absorb that variety. But surely that is not the point? The business application I am trying to apply using the variety laws is one of modelling the system. Would you agree, how that model is then communicated within a group, in the name of cohesion and synergy is the challenge we then must face.


bob cannell Sat 30 Mar 2019 11:09AM

Im withdrawing from this thread (if I can). This must be the fourth time ive been drawn into a vsm wrangle. Every time is the last I say to myself. My views as an experienced practitioner are clear.
Ive just reread Jons guide to the VSM. It hasnt changed my mind. Of the three case studies one was clearly not a VSM because it failed shortly after, the second, I was responsible for rescuingfrom the anarchy that it was experiencing 6 years after its VSM conversion. It was heading for collapse. Relations between people were destructive of the group.
The third Mondragon a 'perfect VSM' which had never heard of VSM reminds me of what happened when Jesuit missionaries reached Japan in 16th century delighted to find a network of monasteries, contemplative monks and abbots. They believed they had found proof of the basis of organised christianity. It looked like it. Problem was Zen Buddhism has no god. The structures had developed for entirely different reasons and causes from the Jesuits organisations. Something else which they couldnt see, blinded by their faith in the Catholic church, was going on. It questioned their reliance on divine control and their founding beliefs, they left and stayed away for 200 years.
Academics have tendency to ascribe causality to appearance and not dig down to try to find out why a human organisation works. They classify types and say because this organisation has or lacks these specific visible characteristics it will behave in certain ways.
I know from experience this is not so. As the Jesuits found all those years ago.
Actually the major coop in Mondragon went bust for people reasons despite being and being part of a VSM. And the whole group is experiencing serious recruitment problems as their young people are leaving the valley rejecting the soft oppression of the Mondragon model. The acceptable ways that people relate to each other is changing.
Eroski has always had that issue, mostly operating out of the valley. Without the social control of the valley communities, they struggle to use anything other than management hierarchy to run the supermarkets. And of course half of their businesses are not coops. Mondragon coops seem to work in the Mondragon valley. The key issues again seem to be living actual relating between the human participants.
Far more useful, it seems to me, than data handling theories is a focus on relating between the human participants in all their glorious messiness.
bye bye have fun


Philip Coulthard Mon 1 Apr 2019 9:06AM

I am really sorry to hear that you will leave this discussion Bob @bobcan . You have been a major protagonist in presenting much needed alternative views. Many students such as myself need help in formulating a view in finding the best path forward for a coop organization. Let me please say again, I am not SOLD on the VSM. Systems one to three seem well formulated, with sound reasoning and the support of "natural laws". Systems four is built upon a sequence of logical arguments to which Stafford Beer himself honestly raised the question, can this be right? Yet surely his own study of variety in sequences, must then question its validity as being the only argument?
In a previous post I pointed to the impressionistic "schizoid" view of the current Brexit process not because I did not understand there was a system 5 but because intuitively it resembled in my my mind the situation we find ourselves today, at this moment, please help us to see how Complexity or Sociocracy would find a better way. System five from Stafford Beer's discussion in rereading the chapters, introduces the idea of the decerebrated cat. How would Sociocracy or complexity theory move the Brexit situation forward? It is easy to walk away but don't you owe it to others? I ask that of all of you watching this discussion please help me to find a way which brings synergy to the struggle to find the best organisational model. Many of the ideas behind Permaculture are systemic but from the design course may help in progressing what we mean by system five. This is just intuitive at this time as I read on.


Simon Carter Mon 1 Apr 2019 11:03AM

Speaking for 'others' or maybe just me, can you please both walk away. This thread is within the 'Worker Cooperatives group, & has been going on for four months. Is it any wonder coops are often crushed by for profit organisations. I'm not advocating someone making a decision, & enforcing it upon others, but it does provide a certain clarity of purpose whilst cooperatives are busy contemplating their own navel.


Pete Burden Mon 1 Apr 2019 1:07PM

Well said @simoncarter.

To be fair to @philcoulth he has tried to propose some action, but the difficulty of making decisions online (even using Loomio which as I understand it attempts to help with that) has slowed things down.

I also am going to step away @philcoulth just saying that for me if there is to be synergy between VSM and Sociocracy it has to appear first in people that are sufficiently interested in both.

It's a social thing!


TBF, I have found this to be an fascinating and interesting discussion. I think that it has been a great use of my time trawling through it.


Philip Coulthard Tue 2 Apr 2019 10:16AM

I am not sure where you are coming from @simoncarter ? The discussion for "learning and practicing Sociocracy" has been open for 8 months. Are you suggesting that only Sociocracy is the way forward? This discussion is about finding synergy between two organizational models both founded in cybernectics and both potentially serving the interests of worker coops. You say "can you both please walk away" which two are you referring to? I am looking for answers as a student and I am puzzled by the lack of clarity on such fundamental management issues but one could argue this is not a school for cooperative studies and that may be fair. Which "other" do you refer to?
When someone who has not taken part in a discussion suddenly pipes up, the question in my mind is "Why Now"? Isn't it a psychology question, often a matter of dissonance for the individual? Some thing uncomfortable tipped you over the edge and forced you to engage. Will you please share that with the group so that "others " might learn?


Simon Carter Wed 3 Apr 2019 2:07PM

I was responding to your comment that Bob Connell had decided to step away from your discussion, about which apparently you are really sorry, & yes you are right, something uncomfortable did tip me over the edge.
When something from this group drops into my inbox, I keep hoping it might be something useful for my business. I read your comment on my phone whilst out window cleaning between customers, trying to bootstrap my coop business into existence. Not wishing to be rude but reading about synergy between organisational models founded on cybernetics, & 'impressionistic schizoids' is of no help to me whatsoever right now. I'm sure it has its time & it's place, & maybe it is really interesting to some, but I do crave the occasional thread on here that is genuinely useful from a pragmatic perspective.
As a student, maybe an interesting topic for research might be 'do coops ever fail because they agonise about stuff that puts them at a considerable disadvantage to for-profit enterprises with a tyrant in charge?. I'm not endorsing that as a business model, but the fact of the matter is coops must swim with sharks. They must compete & sometimes that means there is no time for deep reflection. I remember Bob telling me that Amazon could put Suma out of business in a month if they turned their attention to it. How can that possibly be? Now that's an interesting subject for both a student and a practitioner.


Philip Coulthard Wed 3 Apr 2019 2:49PM

Thank you Simon for sharing those thoughts. I was under the impression that Loomino updates where once a day and the last thing I want to do is send out nuisance emails. I think its also possible to turn off unwanted emails using the "Muted Threads" link on the LHS of the window?
As for your comment " Amazon could put Suma out of business in a month if they turned their attention to it. How can that possibly be? "
A first stab at that from a VSM point of view could be one of variety matching. The high street shops right now fail to match the needs of web savvy consumers. They are easy pickings with large overheads for the likes of Amazon. Whereas Suma is not on the high street, has a web savvy consumer base and its relative overheads are much lower. Of course Amazon could go direct to the door also but where are they getting the supplies from? Possibly Suma? :slight_smile:


Philip Coulthard Wed 3 Apr 2019 12:59PM

I think useful discussion on this subject is coming to a end. I am coming towards the end of my 2nd reading of "The Heart of Enterprise". I understand the objection that the VSM is complicated. The 2nd reading for me raised more concerns than the first reading. Yet through out the book the outcomes of each chapter held together and from my own experiences ( good and bad ) seemed true.

One way forward in finding synergy would be to offer my services, to look at your business from a VSM perspective and offer a FOC practical view, albeit public travel and some place to crash would be appreciated. With your permission a jointly agreed paper for presentation at a UKSCS meeting would be prepared. Alternatively the view remains confidential to you alone. Perhaps along the way you could help me with the Sociocratic view of your business if you have developed along those lines and where possible synergy could be brought to the UKSCS meeting. Open to suggestions.


Irena P Wed 3 Apr 2019 7:09PM

Hi @simoncarter I'm glad you shared too. I recognise the language of the self-employed who've long driven-through business decisions 'on their own' and, like you, I've been seduced by the gorgeous promises of the co-op movement (!?). Our lone ways are gone and new terms, such as sociocracy and a reformed VSM, seem to invade our DNA that wants to fast-track ahead. I do think your's and my tasks Simon are to find our 'place' in a movement that's keen to make moves too (finds it hard). How we do that without us trying to shoehorn in our old patterns...well, I'm working on it too. I have good mentors at Co-operatives UK who remind me I need them. The movement's task, if it wants to move at all, has to learn where it switches people off which is why @philcoulth @marksimmonds responses to you here, Simon, will always be genuine enquiries. I hope you can hear the co-operative heart which, when bold enough to trial concepts, will still maintain that all responses matter as much as theirs' (and even offer businesses a free systems-look from a different perspective too!) Hope someone takes Phil up. Also @philcoulth if you think your discussion may have 'easier' legs as a panel webinar discussion then email me on irena.pistun@uk.coop. Phew..if what you've all started is a new thread on how co-op workers and former lone-rangers coalesse I'm all for that (can't spell it). Or why Amazon won't take on Suma ...great chats to have. I too hope @bobcan stays in btw! :-)


Pete Burden Wed 3 Apr 2019 7:43PM

Lots of good practical stuff here @simoncarter

(nearly gone!)


VSM and Sociocracy is directly relevant to several of the worker co-operatives I'm working with at the moment and speaks particularly to the potential for distributed governance of platform co-operatives. I'm currently assembling my thoughts on the current implementation of Sociocracy in UK co-ops (with the help of some of the discussion above) to feed into the UK Co-operative Governance Expert Reference Panel, who are drawn from the whole co-op movement and where I'm the only person who knows anything about the growth of these models amongst co-operatives. I'll likely share this in the Platform 6 Loomio group - watch this space. I'm particularly interested in how/if "traditional" Sociocratic models can map onto the underlying legal forms of UK co-ops and particularly where the General Meeting sits in the system. I'd encourage anyone in this thread who finds this conversation irrelevant to them to mute the thread using the drop down menu at the top right of the thread.


Philip Coulthard Fri 12 Apr 2019 10:31AM

Hi @simoncarter , I have been thinking about what you wrote:
"As a student, maybe an interesting topic for research might be 'do coops ever fail because they agonise about stuff that puts them at a considerable disadvantage to for-profit enterprises with a tyrant in charge?. "

On reflection, what is it that makes worker coops so different from main stream organisations? Would you agree it is that desire for freedom? That need for ownership, so what's yours, after all your effort, cant be stripped from you following some differences of opinion with the boss? How many of us are living on a shoe string because of our determination to be able to say “NO”! and live to fight another day? Are main stream organizations in reality, no more than as in Watership Down a "warren of snares” and if so, where do we find “Cowslip"?

I have come to a point in rereading "The Heart of Enterprise " where I interpret the description offered by Stafford Beer (of that "mysterious" system 5 figure, a door with no label), as a CEO type figure. In support for my reasoning, from "The Heart of Enterprise " Stafford Beer points out the capability of humans in recognising patterns and continuous changes in patterns, as well as that sense of calm, whilst being alert to alarm signals, brought about by instability. The hurdle, I see no way to overcome, is that incipient instability within the metasystem. Instability where continuous monitoring is beyond any committee's capability. Simon’s view of the “tyrant in charge” could mean a conventional business model but even in the most Machiavellian of men they are wise and so guided enough to temper short term tyranny with a gentle hand to retain their power. So I cannot assume “Cowslip” hides exclusively within their ranks. I hope others will provide insights to show where my thinking is wrong.

On the bright side, the CEO does not have to be appointed by the Board of Directors and accountable only to shareholders. It could mean that the CEO is elected by members and comes up for re-election. Such a principled CEO type figure could be found for example in a coop with intrinsic values and principles.

But what of this 6th Cooperative Principal, isn’t that all about cohesion? Surely that is part of that mysterious CEO's role? It is here that I find myself stumbling with that word “APEX” organisation. Is this a soft way of saying “Hierarchy” and hasn’t the sciences of organisation at least moved us along to different approaches? In the struggle for the Coop movement, to find greater cohesion, shouldn’t there be many coop funded papers available looking at the systems models back in their hayday at least? Can any one point me to a paper that rejects the VSM on the ground that it lacks the capability to deliver cohesion please? If not, why not? Surely under the 6th coop principle the movement would not leave references to the VSM or its development unsupported? Under the 6th principle, is it enough to advocate for complexity alone, which the Laws of variety adequately deals with within the VSM?

The measure of all managers ( which I suggest to all freedom protecting warriors, or worker coop members, we must become ), is in understanding our organizational models, the need for cohesion and those human qualities discussed above. Most importantly Stafford Beer said the manager "must know himself”.

So in looking for synergy between the VSM and Sociocracy, can someone tell me please how, the continuous detection of alerting signals for incipient instability, is managed within the "General " or "Mission" circle?

I apologise for the length of this post @simoncarter I hope other will contribute with insightful comment.


Simon Carter Fri 12 Apr 2019 7:20PM

I think you ask the wrong question Philip. I would argue that it's not what makes worker coops different that matters so much as what makes them the same. Why is that never discussed?.


Philip Coulthard Tue 16 Apr 2019 10:44AM

In responding to @simoncarter point and whilst hoping for further input from others, I am seeking guidance by reading more carefully the coop principles and governance. Principle 5 is interesting where it states : "Co-operatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers and employees” . Now surely Solid Fund is a coop and as a member is it unreasonable to expect help in formulating ideas which may help others as well as myself? I raised at least 10 questions in my last post, which Simon has responded with another.
It is common practice for elites to shun engagement, especially where they hold power. Surely according to Principle 2 we should be challenging elitist practices where ever they occur, especially where power is held by senior management?
I am not looking for hand outs from SolidFund or arguments for arguments sake. There are flaws in reasoning which need to be challenged. I might not be the brightest button in the world and some of my reasoning may well be flawed, but I at least have the courage to flag it up and simple ask, "why is this so". The questions deserve an answer from true cooperators.


Simon Carter Tue 16 Apr 2019 7:32PM

Is there a facility on Loomio for private conversations?. If so I can't see it. Give me a direct call if you wish Philip or email me 01684 296555 simon@just.coop

I do think I have something to say as I spent thirty years self-employed before discovering the coop model. It's great on many levels, but I have reached one over-arching elephant in the room conclusion. Coops are capitalist enterprises run by people very often trying to escape capitalism. The net result is huge amounts of cognitive dissonance. The Six Principles seem more like a wish list than something that is widely implemented. That's because there is no capitalist return on investment. Sadly, help is far more forthcoming from those who smell a potential pound of flesh.


Philip Coulthard Wed 17 Apr 2019 9:22AM

Thanks for opening up a little more @simoncarter I cannot disagree with your comments and thanks for your contact details. I am going to continue with the thread as long as the groups patience allows and try not to be seen as going into any one silo. I said from the start my main interest was CC and how we some how come together to best organise. I am happy to report that Coop Alliance Principles 1 to 3 do not throw up any road blocks from a VSM perspective. The overriding concern from reading so far, which is along the lines you mentioned Simon, was "how am I to compete in a market of thieves wearing a hair vest and mancles"! Stafford Beer warns against constraint, where it impedes variety matches.
Perhaps the coop movement can help worker coop start ups more by lending their collective wisdom to show how the hurdles we have set our selves, ( well intention as the principles are) help compete in the reality of trading. That does not mean I believe the principles to be wrong but they should be insightful in how best to apply them and where.
One insight from working with Permaculture people working cooperatively, is how that sense of community and sharing using their ( more simple and practical principles) ethos, leads to openness and support, expressed in so many wonderful ways. Such as meals, friendship, knowledge and experience of horticulture all shared. Yet that exchange of caring is bounded by a set of beliefs many outside of that community have yet to discover.
The VSM brings to this search for a better way forward, explicitly the power of variety and recursion, otherwise hidden. These concepts seem to provide major insights into how organisations can change. Change which those stuck in their silo's of autopoiesis must some how engage or explain why they cannot.


Philip Coulthard Thu 18 Apr 2019 8:04AM

Given you comment a bit more thought @simoncarter :
"Coops are capitalist enterprises run by people very often trying to escape capitalism. The net result is huge amounts of cognitive dissonance"
On reading, I could not find anything in the Coop values and principles that supports your argument. Surely what you statement relates to is the nature of certain coops who find the coop alliance values and principles difficult to implement?
As for " escaping Capitalism " for me at least this is about Freedom and choosing a path. No one is ever free but I can choose with what constraints I am content or improve my sense of freedom. This is not brought about by some momentry revelation but by searching on a journey of choice. Discovering there is a psychological cage in the first place and that the levers for freedom are within every ones reach is part of that journey.
Perhaps Principle 7 offers some clue of where coops struggling with the principles might flourish. From the VSM, variety matching of the operational units, to the environment ( in this case the local community ), suggests that the best match would be found where the communities interests are best served and not the operational units alone.. So that sharing, support, giving and not expecting gifts in return could be a good place to start. Right now with CC there is a massive opportunity to engage with community and especially young people, lost as to what to do and which path to take. The synergy between Permaculture, Transition, VSM, Sociocracy and Coop principles might meet those needs?
Hope this helps.


Philip Coulthard Wed 1 May 2019 10:12AM

With my current understanding of the VSM ( still much to learn) I have carefully read through the ICA Guidance notes on "Values and Principles" and the "Simply Governance" document below:


From all of 232 pages, the only page which caused real anxiety was Governance page 80. So surely 1 out of 232 isn't bad?

I have attached a Word Doc outlining my concerns with the governance and ask for your help in clarifying how to interpret the guidance given.