Appreciating Systems

Appreciating Systems for Genuine Efficiency
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Viable Systems Model useful for Change Management

It just occurs to me that Ross Ashby’s law of requisite variety as operationally described in the Viable System Model (Checkland – See my delicious links about VSM here) might be a very good model for what consultants refer to as “Change Management”.

I’m talking here of “big changes”, the kind of which that mandates communication plans, sponsor involvement, a full blown CM toolbox… and of which it is usually expected a high resistance in reaction.

The fact is that most (if not all) organizations are both hierarchical and, well, big. By big, I refer to the capacity of anyone to devise ways of implementing the change in all of the impacted parts of the organization: if no one can hold that in their mind, then it’s “big”.

Now, I can see that most Change Management approaches (try Googling it to see for yourself!) try to deploy heavy guns for big changes. That encompasses talking and listening deeply to impacted people as well as driving out fear, devising very precise and specific agendas for change adapted to the part of the organization undergoing change, etc.

My question is: what’s the point of exhausting (paying) some consultants to imagine (necessarily incomplete and unadapted) actions plans for all impacted parts of the organization, when the very same work can be better done from these parts themselves? And with more engagement since they will be involved in the work and everybody knows that we’re more willing to engage with what we’ve helped design?

Now, when one’s looking at the VSM model (open up some external picture from these links), we can imagine the purpose of the change initiative being System 5 (policy), which informs relations between System 4 (external monitoring of change conditions for instance) and system 3 (management). Then system 3, management, has the role of taking care of relations between Operational Units (Systems 1) through information brought up by System 2 (conflict management).

Using the preceding model, one can envision Management (S3) being informed of the change to be done and then “configuring” dashboards (S2) to follow attainment of the change outcome as defined in S5. The way the outcome needs to be attained is then let up to each and every  OU (all of impacted S1s). As autonomous entities (as per the VSM model), they are the ones to know best what needs to be done and how it could be best done to achieve the expected outcome.

I understand that what I’m describing above is related to “complexity management” and post-modern approaches to change. It’s mentioned in a back issue of the AI Practitioner (Appreciative Inquiry online magazine): see november 2008 introduction. You can buy that issue on the AI Practitioner web site. Now, AI is a way to involve the whole system further than what can probably be done using more traditional “policy deployement” as suggested by the VSM. But that’s another story (I’ll write on this soon).

Do you have some stories to share of “cascading change management” as described here (probably without the VSM reference!) ?

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