The VSM as a Way of Looking at the World and How to Align Visions in Order to Create a Unifying Meta-Purpose
The discussions about the so called “Organizational Purpose” have reached in recent years a new level – at least in my perception. Of course there always was (and will be) a never ending debate about what the “true” purpose of an organization might be. I am pretty sure, that it is crucial to distinguish between the imagined/visionary purpose and the results an organization “really” achieves. The imagined/visionary purpose is here purely a mental projection or a bet on how the future might look like. There is the definition of Stafford Beer who said that the purpose of an organization is what it does – in short POSIWID. This distinction is important, because people often mix up the Purpose of an Organization and its Vision. In this respect I am a great fan of looking at the Imagined Purpose (aka Vision) and Achieved Purpose (aka Production) separately.
For the Reflective Practitioner, who does not only want to understand how the “thing” works, as an Expert would do, two questions arise: what should one do with the above mentioned distinction in the real world, in a real company with existing constraints? How to deal with the difference of the imagined outcomes and truly achieved goals?
For me and my cognitive biased brain the VSM offers an elegant, plausible and aesthetic way to understand this pseudo-paradox and connect the different functional and systemic (Sub-) Purposes of a System (in the context of the VSM).
Micro Excursion I
Elegance, Plausibility and Aesthetics are not necessarily parameters in a scientific way of thinking. They could promote the distribution of Bullshit and must be treated with greatest skepticism. Nevertheless I use them as indicators, if a solution is simple enough, but not too simple (in order to re-phrase Albert Einstein).
How can the VSM help to connect the different Functional (skill and task related) and the Systemic (VSM-like) Purposes of an Organization?
This question might sound quite academic, but out there in the wild life of business I do see an urging relevance for the topic mentioned in the headline. It needs in economic/social systems an integrated way to connect the Functional Purpose of the different units with the VSM-System-specific responsibilities. It’s about enabling a “Holistic Whole”. The following example might be useful to illustrate the application of the VSM for this matter.
Functional Purpose – the Traditional Way
At first I would like to look at the Functional Purpose of units/departments, which usually resemble the perceived Whole of a company. The following – exemplary – units/departments exist in a firm which operates in the field of Mechanical Engineering and Manufacturing Systems. Let’s call them “Machines Ltd”. This company consists of the following departments in its own Organizational Chart:
Special Construction/Made to order
Engineering & Technical Planning
Office Administration (incl. IT)
Procurement & Purchase
At first an evident fact: The internal supply chain must be understood as a Network of Service Relationships
Without applying the VSM it is obvious, that a system as a Whole has to produce values for the partner in the “next step of the value network”, therefore the internal process requirements and human interactions have to be aligned to create the desired value for a customer. Without a shared (= mutually imagined) “reason to be” it is very hard to maintain the cohesion of the system. If a basic common purpose is not shared, every part of the system will follow its “locally understood” Purpose/Vision which is not paying off in terms of “Everything”.
Micro Excursion II
I would like to state: There is no internal customer – there is just the customer! To formulate it clearly as a General Doctrine: One can only claim to be successful, if the needs of the next process partner are met in order to enhance the outcome of the Whole Organization.
It’s all about understanding the internal and external relationships – being (sometimes) the customer in a process (getting input) and adding value, or being the “user” of an artefact to produce output. The outcome of a process must be understood as a value adding input for the next one in a poly-contextual chain of events. This chain stops at the “end user” of the product/service. Its’ value is determined by the final “Value in Use”.
That said, every unit within “Machine Ltd.” must understand the needs and demands of their process partners and try to optimize the different relationships, while not forgetting the (positive or negative) impact for the Whole. Hello Complexity!
This is the basic reason why I think there is the need for a unifying Vision, in order to specify the different qualities of the relationships and to generate value for our service partners (again: no matter if they are internal or external!). The true challenge consists of a balancing act: Make your direct process partner happy and at the same time don’t lose the Big Picture.
A practical example:
It must be in the deepest interest of a Marketing unit to generate valuable Leads, which could be transformed into Sales Leads, in order to convert them into loyal customers. And it is important to keep on listening to their wishes, demands and needs in order to enhance the Customer Lifetime Value (=Relationship) for the Organization. It’s not only about staying at least one time cycle/tact ahead, but also to have a mental model at hand, that allows you to imagine the connections of Purposes on a large scale – between different recursion levels and functional tasks. If the Marketing Department would not keep the Whole in mind, it could generate more Leads as the Sales Department could handle. Or the Sales Department could sell more, as the Production can build. Each part has to fulfill its functional purpose to serve the Whole.
How to keep on course through meaningful dialectics?
The recursive nature of the VSM is my preferred answer to deal with the above mentioned question.
Let’s have a look at the typical recursion levels of Machine Ltd.:
Recursion 0: Company incl. Support Functions
Recursion 1: Production
Recursion 2: Product Groups
Recursion 3: Product Teams
Recursion 4: Product Specialists
Image: Recursion Levels of Machine Ltd.
Now let’s have a look at the different recursion levels as a VSM of nested VSMs.
Image: Two Recursion Levels in one model – System-in-Focus: The Company and one lower Level
As you can see different Systems 5 are connected through different Levels of the Organization:
Image: Highlighted channel, connecting three Systems 5
Micro Excursion III
For those readers who do not know the VSM by heart: System 5 is the “ultimate boss” in a Viable System. It maintains the identity of the Organization and creates the atmosphere of the Whole. Typical artifacts of the System 5 are Vision(s), Values and the Ethos.
Having these distinctions at hand it is easy to understand, that the term Vision/Purpose needs a leading context in order to make sense. In this example Visions can be specified as follows:
Company Vision + Supporting Functions Vision (The Whole)
Product Group Vision
Product Team Vision
Product Specialist Vision (The Individual)
Therefore I advise in the context of a Vision Development to be very specific, which kind of Vision is in focus, because often people mix up the organizational levels and create confusion or demoralization. Of course all Vision-Levels should be aligned and act in a complementary way to fulfill the overarching Vision of the Whole Organization.
Combination of the Functional and the VSM-like Approach
At the end of this post I would like to propose a little syntax which should help to stay aware of the leading context in which one is creating or maintaining a Vision.
In my <Functional Role> I have for <Recursion Level> the Vision …
Three simple examples for Machine Ltd.:
- In the Role of the Board of Directors we have for the Company the Vision to build self-selling products and services and dissolve the problems of our customers. Impact = Value in Use.
- In my Role as Marketing Unit Leader I have for the Company the Vision to create customers that have never thought of being customers and engage in a long-term relationship.
- In my Role as a Product Manager I have for the Product Segment XYZ the Vision to build modular mechanical solutions, in the time and quality the direct and indirect customer is expecting it.
I hope this syntax might be useful to create Visions with higher impact. Have fun experimenting! 🙂