VSM Quick Guide Nuggets Part 1

Zucker Nuggets

Digging nuggets

I see a lot of new texts since I have a rowing machine in the basement. I plan every morning what movie, text, or podcast I’m going to get into in the next half hour or so. And over the course of time, a lot of things come together.

I will publish at irregular intervals such nuggets that I have come across while rowing.

The other day I stumbled across the “VSM Guide[^1]” by Jon Walker. Jon wrote it to give community organizations a handle on how to organize their work effectively – and gave a practical account of the Viable System Model to do so.

This put a new spin on my understanding of the Viable System Model. From a diagnostic perspective, yes, it provides a lot of tools for uncovering deficiencies and dysfunctionality in organizations. But it also provides practical, very concrete principles for team design. And what amazed me is how close these suggestions are to the ones we use for agile teams and organizations.

My multi-method rant

Why don’t we dig more systematically for such ideas? Practices that we can classify under agile existed long before agile, and we should urgently break out of our filter bubble. There are incredible treasures to be found out there – any pirate would sink all his gold for them.

We’ve worked hard for years to reinvent things – even if the old ones were better researched, better theorized, and more consistent. That’s a shame: it wastes resources, it makes us more controversial, and it limits our ability to connect with people from other contexts who are just as smart as we are.

Designing Autonomy

It is crucial to create the conditions for all operational units to work as autonomously as possible.
For this they need

  • Individual Mission Statements
  • budgets for the resources they need to accomplish their mission.
  • An agreement that they can decide on their own internal development as long as they work within the agreed mission.

It must also be ensured that the units cannot jeopardize the overall viability of the organization to which they belong.


  • They must act responsibly (accountable) and be able to demonstrate that they are working according to the agreed plan.
  • There must be pre-agreed rules of intervention, which means that autonomy is forfeited under certain conditions. The worst-case scenario must be considered in advance.

sounds familiar?

It is not exactly the same as discussing the work process in an agile team – but it is a second view, namely the outside view of a team.

Bonus: the VSM rules can be applied to any level. More about this in the next article.

And: the VSM Guide is from 1991, and at that time the VSM itself was already 20 years old. It was used in a big experiment in Chile in 1971-1973 – back when the Internet was almost invented in Chile – that’s my cliffhanger for today.

[1] on the web at vsmg.lrc.org.uk


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On Key

The VSM Quick Guide: the model

The introduction to the series on Jon Walker’s VSM quick guide. It describes the simplified VSM vocabulary as used in the rest of the steps.