Redrawing the Viable System Model diagram

I’ve been arguing repeatedly that trying to get the Viable System Model from overviews, introductions and writings based on or about it, can put the curious mind in a state of confusion or simply lead to wrong interpretations. The absolute minimum is reading at least once each of the three books explaining the model. But better twice. Why? There are at least two good reasons. The obvious one is to better understand some points and pay attention to others that have been probably missed during the first run. But there is also another reason. Books are of linear nature, and when tackling non-linear subjects, a second reading gives the chance to better interpret each part of the text when having in memory other parts which relate to it.

Still, one of the things that are expected to be most helpful is in fact, what brings about either confusion, aversion or misuse: the VSM diagrams. They clearly favour expected ease of understanding over rigour, and yet often they fail in both. Here is my short list of issues, followed by a description of each:

  • Representation of the channels
  • Confusion about operations and their direct management
  • Notation and labelling of systems
  • They show something between generic and example model
  • Hierarchical implication

Representation of the channels

Stafford Beer admitted several times in his books the “diagrammatic limitations” of the VSM representations. Some of the choices had to do with the limitation of the 2D representation and others, I guess, aimed to avoid clutter. Figure 26 of “The Heart of Enterprise” is a good example of both. It shows eleven loops but implies twenty-one: 3 between environment, operations and management, multiplied by 3 for the choice of showing three operations, then another 9 = 3×3 for loops between same-type elements and finally 3 more between operation management and the meta-system.

Confusion about operations and their direct management

Depending on the context, System One refers either to operations or to their direct management. In some diagrams, S1 is the label of the circles, and in others – of the squares linked to them. Referring to one or the other in the text, depending on which channels are described, only adds to the confusion. That is related to the general problem of

Notation and labelling of systems

All diagrams representing the VSM in the original writings and all interpretations I’ve seen so far suggest that circles represent System One, and triangles pointing up and down, represent System Two and Three* respectively. Additionally, most VSM overviews state exactly that in the textual description. My assertion is almost the opposite:

What is labelled as S1 and what is shown as circles are both not representing S1.

That might come as a shock to many, and yet, now citing Beer, System One is not the “circles” but:

The collection of operating elements (that is, including their horizontal and vertical connexions)

The Heart of Enterprise, page 132

Strictly speaking, a system is a system because it shows emergent properties so it is more than the collection of its parts1that is by itself a popular but problematic statement. but even referring to it as a collection reveals the serious misinterpretation of taking only one of its parts to represent the whole system.

They show something between generic and example model

Communicating such matters to managers trained in business schools wasn’t an easy task. And it is even more challenging nowadays. There is a lot to learn and even more to unlearn. It is not surprising then that even in the generic models typically three operations are illustrated (same for System 2).  Yet, I was always missing a true generic representation, or what would many prefer to call “meta-model”.

Hierarchical implication

It can’t be repeated enough that the VSM is not a hierarchical model, and yet it is often perceived and used as such or not used especially because of that perception. It seems that recursivity is a challenging concept, while anything slightly resembling hierarchy is quickly taken to represent one. And sadly, the VSM diagram only amplifies that perception, although the orthogonality of the channels serves an entirely different purpose. Stafford Beer rarely missed an opportunity to remind us about that. Nevertheless, whatever is positioned higher implies seniority and the examples of mapping to actual roles and functions only help in confirming this misinterpretation.


There are other issues as well but my point was to outline the motivation for trying alternative approaches for modelling the VSM, without alternating the essence of the governing principles. Here is one humble attempt to propose a different representation (there is a less humble one which I’m working on, but it’s still too early to talk about it). The following diagram favours circular, instead of orthogonal representation which I hope achieves at least destroying the hierarchical perception. Yet, from a network point of view, the higher positioning of S3 is chosen on purpose as the network clearly shows that this node is a hub.


System One is represented by red colouring, keeping the conventional notation for the operations (S1.o) and their direct management (S1.m). As mentioned above, apart from solving this, the intention is to have it as a generic model. If that poses a problem for those used to the hybrid representation, here’s how it would look if two S1s are shown:


Circular Netwrok View Of The Viable System Model-2operations

I hope this proposal solves fully or partially the five issues explained earlier and brings a new perspective that can be insightful on its own. In any case, the aim is to be useful in some way. If not as it is now, then by triggering feedback that might bring it to a better state. Or, it can be useful by just provoking other, more successful attempts.


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    that is by itself a popular but problematic statement.

5 thoughts on “Redrawing the Viable System Model diagram

  1. Hi Ivo:

    It’s interesting you are devoting effort on modeling according to the VSM, taking into consideration that VSM models are very abstract to understand (and how you brilliant pointed its necessary to read and retread Beer’s books to know how to do it). I personally find very useful to apply VSM principles under a system thinking perspective.

    For example, when designing a process it is important to consider the following principles (I am only referring to some in not to become overwhelming )

    It must have a proper environment. What part of the external environmental that the process interacts?

    It must have defined borders
    a. Horizontal Dimension: Who are the stakeholders in the process?
    b . Vertical Dimension : Who are the processes with which there should be interaction?

    It must have feedback mechanisms , regulation and control . What is the algedonic Channel?

    How these principles are modelled (and particularly in VSM) I found very stressful, hence what is puzzling me, why is important?


  2. Alberto,

    I’m not sure that the VSM is more abstract than process- or software architecture models. It may seem so as in many other business models there are representations of things that actually have substance, for example agents and goods. The fundamental difference, however, is that VSM is based on sub-system differentiation and not on whole-part differentiation.

    Now, regarding process modelling, that could be a good approach to understand or design the interaction with the environment, part of some S2 and operation dependencies (those traditionally shown as squiggly lines). Your comment gives another perspective and I’m interested to learn more about the principles you mentioned. I see VSM as lenses, as a set of thinking habits and in general as a mental tool that can be used without actual modelling and as such it can bring results way faster than any modelling technique. And that’s another unique thing about it, especially if you compare it with the popular architecture frameworks and notations. I still believe that additional benefits can be drawn by actual modelling but here the intention was more to address issues with the interpretations of VSM.

  3. I suppose a diagram that does not graphically communicate insights is not a huge success. But I alos think that VSM has more insights that are important to convey than the average library of diagrams.

    I like this one but maybe the graphical impact of a set of diagrams each emphasising some aspect but being isomorphic is teh way to go?

  4. Hi Ivo,

    I am on my way to understanding the whole VSM model. However, in my search on the internet, I have not yet found an answer to my question about what the symbolism of the triangle shape for system 2 and 3* and why the square shape is used for S2, 4 and 5. Is there an explanation for this?

    Thank you very much for your answer.

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