Dave Snowden

The table napkin test

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bigstock-Idea-On-A-Napkin-2372811-1024x6821.jpg One of the golden rules of sense-making is that any framework or model that can’t be drawn on a table napkin from memory has little utility. The reason for this is pretty clear, if people can use something without the need for prompts or guides then there are more likely to use it and as importantly adapt it. Models with multiple aspects, more than five aspects (its a memory limit guys live with it) or which require esoteric knowledge are inherently dependency models. They are designed to create a dependency on the model creator. One of the things that I like about complexity is that life becomes a lot simpler once you get the dispositional-causal difference. Cynefin evolved within that constraint; I never allowed it to develop to the point where it some form or another it could not be quickly sketched and used to make sense of the world to allow people to act in it. The italicised phrase being what is all about: moving forward through action under conditions of uncertainty. You can never know enough, but you can know enough to act.

Switching tack for the moment, I’ve always liked Stafford Beer but I really wish he had been born around twenty years later when the science would have caught up with some of his intuitions. The Viable Systems Model (VSM) for example is clearly within the cybernetic framework of causality but it is desperately trying to break away from those constraints. It does not pass the table napkin test although it is much loved by reductionist consultants. This may upset a few readers, but when people couple complexity theory with VSM it is one of my warning signs for someone who likes the language of complexity but really has not internalised the meaning. I find VSM valuable for its original insight, but not for current use. Others are far worse, the SAFe one is a classic example of a over complicated and simplistic framework designed for accreditation revenue and consultancy dependency and most of the large consultancy models and frameworks are similar, they are designed to reduce simplicity through complication.

The other advantage of drawing on the back of a table napkin is that the paper restricts you, you do broad stokes not fine detail. I always like teaching with chalk for the same reason; writing with chalk slows you to the natural pace of the class. Drawing also produces variety and sudden insight. Yesterday’s post came from six months of active experimentation on butcher paper, notebooks and yes, table napkins over dinner. Looking back some of my fondest moments with Max Boisot were when we say in cafes with paper table cloths and spend hours sketching, talking and drinking. Well Max was teetotal so he avoided alcohol and took away the artefacts in consequence!

So apply the table napkin test before you take up any new method, model or framework. Also avoid mixed ontologies. Combining VSM with complexity is ontologically incompatible, let alone epistemologically. However we can be inspired by it and a openly confess its influence.

  • Patrick

    Hi Dave
    the last time you and I discussed this (IEA conference 2014), you asserted that VSM was a mechanistic model – which as I pointed out at the time is demonstrably and unambiguously nonsense and about as far from the truth as it is possible to get. I’m guessing that you went away from that event and did a bit of reading so that you could shift your angle of attack.
    So, lets take your latest misdirected salvo. Can you do VSM on the back of a napkin? yes you can and yes people do. You can do it in your head once you know it. In the hands of a skilled practitioner, it is by far (and I mean by orders of magnitude) the fastest approach I’ve seen for diagnosing organisational issues and getting to the heart of the matter. Come to think of it, I think I have actually seen someone doing VSM on the back of a napkin on video.
    On the issue of VSM being loved by reductionist consultants – that is generally speaking not true, Reductionists always struggle with it – for obvious reasons. I have seen a number of reductionists pick it up and de-nature / bastardise it so that they could use it, but as conceived and designed and when used as intended, it is about as far from being reductionist as its possible to get.
    You said you “find VSM valuable for its original insight, but not for current use.” well that may be perfectly true, but its a statement about your choice of use, not about VSM. Of course its not the best approach for lots of things – I don’t use VSM to make coffee for instance, but for understanding large complex organisational systems, there is still nothing to touch it and believe me I have been looking for alternatives.
    Did an exercise a couple of months back with a professor of complexity theory where we sat down and looked at complexity theory and systems theory (& specifically VSM) and did a compare and contrast at three levels: conceptual, methodological and practice. Obviously, there were significant differences at the methodological and practice levels. We couldn’t find ANY difference at the conceptual level – not one. There was an argument that there was a difference in emphasis, but there was nothing at the conceptual level that CT had that ST didn’t have. I suspect you’ll reiterate what you said at IEA that the rest of the CT community don’t understand complexity, but if you really do believe that there are conceptual differences – what are they?

    And why the need to attack everyone else’s approach Dave? If you believe your approach has any value and stands up, why not let it stand on its own merits rather than having to puff it by launching these sorts of specious attacks on every other approach?

    • Dave Snowden

      Patrick, my apologies but I don’t remember the conference or the conversation with you. However I am 100% sure that the way you characterised the conversation is shall we say one sided. I know for certain I did not go away from any event in 2014 and do reading, neither did I “attack”. I generally find that people who use language such as “attack” when you comment on, or criticise something are often shall we say “true believers” who find criticism difficult.

      Your understanding of the back of the table napkin test is limited. I am sure that anyone who is an expert in a subject can draw the most complicated model in any medium with any instrument from memory. The issue for SENSEMAKING (and that is the context of my statement it was not a universal) is that it has to be possible for people who are not experts – get the point now?

      Yes of course I made a statement about my view of VSM, but if you find it useful carry on using it mate, not a problem. I think VSM makes ontological assumptions which make it inappropriate for complex situations but not for complicated ones. Historically we have done a good job of using models with causal ontologies for complex systems and VSM was one of the best. But, we now have much better science available to us so its time to move on – as Beer would have but his more fanatical followers seem incapable.

      As to your conversations with Professors of Complexity Theory; well for starters I am pretty sure that you have a false memory of the one with me so forgive me if I am cautious in accepting your statement as it stands. However I think Beer had a lot in common with modern complexity thinking so conceptually I can see that there would be links. So what? The point I did make at the IEA was that there was a major divide between causal and dispositional ontologies. So I’m not sure why you are asking me to repeat it – or maybe you don’t understand it? If so say I and I will elaborate.

      Finally your last paragraph is, to be honest, pathetic. I didn’t attack I commented/criticised, its what grown ups do. If you think that was an attack then God help you when someone actually attacks something you like.

  • geoff elliott

    Hi Dave,

    VSM being loved by reductionist consultants. This is absolutely not true. I have been tutoring systems thinking systems practice for 30 years including running executive workshops at IERC Cranfield. The large accountancy practices, IT consultancy and so called systems integrators, six and lean sigma advocates and the followers of Deming simply do not understand VSM and the concepts and ideas which underpin systems thinking. I am not arguing this from an academic stance but also from 30 years of working for international global organisations and consultancies.

    As you know IERC Cranfield was set up to explore complexity and systems thinking in the wider socio technical context/ I am sure Peter Allen Allen and Carmel de Nahlik would diasgree with your views

    • Dave Snowden

      Same logical error Geoff on reductionist consultants Geoff and I would caution against allowing Six Sigma and Lean to be coupled (although its all to common). I’d also be less likely inclined to pass by Deming in such as casual way. Otherwise I know Peter well, we agree and disagree on many things but I suspect he would agree with me that Beer would have created something different if Complexity Science had been available. But I will ask him next time I seem him. Disagreement, commentary etc are all good news I would have thought. Its how a field progresses. Similarly I think it is now important to make some clear divides between ontological types. Now Complexity is sometimes lumped with systems thinking but I am one of a growing body of people who think it is distinct. That debate will continue.

  • Barry Clemson

    Dave, I really don’t think you understand the VSM or second order cybernetics. You make very dismissive statements about “cybernetic causality”, about the VSM trying to break away from the (supposed) constraints of cybernetics causality, reductionist consultants loving the VSM, and the (supposed) incompatibility of the VSM and complexity. All this is absolutely contrary to my experience and my understanding. For instance, in my graduate courses the only students who had real difficulty understanding the VSM were those who were firmly stuck in reductionist thinking. Similarly, in consulting the (largely reductionist) MBAs so beloved of the large accounting / consulting firms were the ones who couldn’t deal with the systems insights of cybernetics.

    Those who truly understand systems and cybernetics also understand that there are a variety of systems methods / approaches that are not only valid but necessary. To dismiss the VSM (or, for example system dynamics or Checkland’s work) is to demonstrate a very shallow and non-systemic understanding. I had hoped for better from you.

    • Dave Snowden

      I refer you to the above comments to Geof. When cybernetics developed we didn’t understand the difference between causal and dispositional systems. Science changes things Barry. Back in 11+ days one of the key tests was called comprehension. You had to read a text then answer questions about it. Given you comments above I think you would fail. I made no comment about Peter Checkland whose work I have used (and with whom I have debated). You’ve also made the same logical error in respect of ‘Reductionist Consultants’. On systems thinking in general go and talk to Ralph Stacy, he is the one who rejects it completely, I see it as having utility. I had hoped for better in reading comments …..

  • geof elliott

    HI Dave,
    You have to note that VSM is underpinned by 20 or so concepts and ideas. Ontology and epistemology applies to these concepts and ideas. So combining VSM with complexity is not ontologically impossible or wrong. To view VSM just as Reductionist model or framework illustrates a total lack of understanding not only of VSM but also systems thinking

    • Dave Snowden

      Combining it is not a problem within the context of Cynefin for sure – It assume causality and I don’t think Beer would have created it if he had the science available. If you read what I said you will see that I said it was beloved of reductionist consultants. That does not involve my viewing VSM as a reductionist model per se. Basic error in logic there Geof, jumping to a conclusion to quickly without checking what was said. Ditto I was arguing you could not COUPLE VSM with Complexity in the sense of overlaying one with another. Ontology applies to both of course, but that is a oxymoron, ontology applies to everything. The point is that the underlying ontological assumptions of complexity theory are not those of VSM. Personally (to repeat myself as this is obviously not coming across) I think had Beer been aware of the science of non-causal system it would have transformed his work. He obvious intuited it.

  • Nick Westbury

    Hi Dave,

    Nice blog, made me think through my understanding of the range of techniques available against their underlying assumptions and their applicability to various problem-situation types (for eg as defined by your Cynefin model).

    With respect to the Viable Systems Model, putting to one side functional-recursion, the logic of an individual viable system is of one of an individual ‘agent’.

    For my reading of your blog (as an aside, it is quite hard to have a discussion with you because you’ve not actually outlined your position in enough detail for me) your difficulty between CAS and VSM is in the vertical construct? This gets at the heart of the recursive nature of VSM as s functionally-fractal design for how individual semi-autonomous agents (both vertically and horizontally) are held together in a viable larger organisation. Obviously CAS embraces self-organisation and co-evolved non-deterministic emergent patterns of nonlinear relationships and dependencies across all levels of abstraction.

    The difficulty here is, what is the relationship between emergent levels of vertical structure in a CAS of human and organisational agents, and functional recursion of agents within a larger organisation which at one level of abstraction is itself an agent?

    I guess your arguing against fractals in CAS as a strategy?

    Nick Westbury

    • Dave Snowden

      Thanks Nick. Remember I just used VSM as one example here and did so in the context of indirectly dealing with an idiot who combines models without insight knowledge or understanding (although I did not name a name). I have no probable with factuality, but I don’t think it should be confused with recursion. I have several issues with VSM (and may write directly in the future) but its not fractals, its more the question of agency, or better identity and also causality. Both ontological issues. A side bar on that is like most approaches of its period it focuses primarily on things but then looks at relationships. Now one of the reasons I am always positive about it is that VSM pays more attention to relationships than most – Beer intuiting something for which we now have better science

      • Nick Westbury


        Got it, this Blog is you having a moan, we all do that at some point.

        I have also been looking at various disciplines and theories (eg VSM), taking a look at their underlying assumptions, and using Cynefin and Graves’ SCAN as a handrail to consider where insights from each sits within the various problem-situation types.

        My aim was to take a critical look at organisation design theories as a prelude to my desire to do a PhD. I have used insights from, for example, Beer’s VSM to infer that the recursion notion was useful from a functional-recursion perspective – so a set of recurring ‘rules’ (not a structural perspective, as each level of recursion c/would be structurally different). Taking each level of recursion in a organisation as an agent, the functional ruleset is for each agent in the sense of abilities it must possess for full agency, adaptation (inc form, function and identity) to match its problem-situation type (as defined for example by Cynefin or SCAN). How those are then constituted as a team of teams or individuals for each organisational-agent is another question of organising principle.

        A further issue is in the organising principle behind the horizontal structures of lowest level of recursion of Sub-system 1 ‘Operations’.

        I’d be extremely interested in hearing from you if you have any thoughts on that?

        As a pure aside, I get that fractals and recursion are not the same thing as a mathematician. I’m also versed in how nonlinear deterministic (but not necessarily predeterminable – computationally irreducible) systems are different from nonlinear nondeterministic systems, and how they are different from linear systems.


        • Dave Snowden

          Not a moan, the post was a serious one about the nature of models and I used VSM as one illustration. Yes I had an idiot in mind but no big thing. Otherwise have fun with Tom. When he decided he wasn’t open to criticism I more or less gave up on him so I can’t comment on SCAN and I haven’t seen any refereed articles on it yet which will give you PhD issues.

          Organisational design theories need a critical look and VSM is one of them. But my point earlier was that I think that when we are dealing with complexity the idea of sub-system called ‘operations’ is a dubious starting or end point and I would see fractality as transcending that type of hierarchy. I’d also question recursion in the sense of multiple applications of a routine. But that is for another day and another post.

          • Nick Westbury

            Thanks for the reply. Apologies, I’m not sure of what to make of your discussion points, you would need to provide more information about your concerns for me to follow and debate your train of thought. I would love to actually discuss this with you.

          • Dave Snowden

            Certainly easier that to exchange notes ….
            My physical locations are pretty public so hopefully we will coincide ….

  • Barry Clemson

    RE. your reply to Patrick that your blog was not an attack but rather a comment …

    IMO your original blog was clearly an attack. Furthermore it was a sort of backhanded attack, your simply dismissed the VSM and cybernetics very cavalierly. On top of that, your replies continue in that vein.

    You say that comments and critiques are what adults do. Well, true adults do not couch their comments and critiques in insulting ways as you are doing. If you truly wanted a discussion of various methods you would not have started out in this way.

    This interchange led me to lose respect for you as a person (I continue to hear good things about your work and i respect that work, but the person behind the work is another matter …)

    • davesnowden

      To say that life has moved on and something is limited in consequence is only an attack if you are hypersensitive. In normal circles it’s called debate, criticism or commentary. I also find it slightly hypocritical that you are making a statement (without argument) and then launching a personal attack rather than addressing the substantive issue. Forgive me if I don’t take that sort of response too seriously

    • Dave Snowden

      Interesting, I did a little probing around and I think Patrick must be Patrick Hoverstadt? In a major edit on wikipedia you inserted material (as yet not subject to third party citation) which commented favourably on his work and linked to his web site? Was he a student? Do you have a commercial connection? The link to the web site and promotion of a consultant breaks wikipedia policy by the way and your edits may be subject to guidelines on Conflict of Interest (COI). So you might want to make some changes there. Third party references are key, quoting your own works is not the way wikipedia works, promoting consultants is also one of the no nos. I know it can be frustrating and the difference between COI and Subject Matter Expert is under active debate on wikipedia but if you material there on management cybernetics you need to follow the rules. If you want I can get an experienced editor to take a look at it, but you might want to tidy it up first.

      • Barry Clemson

        Good of you to be so concerned about a potential conflict of interest for me.

        I have not been active as a consultant for almost 20 years. And I have no connection to either Malik or Hoverstadt other than reading their material, so that should remove the major conflict of interest question. With re. to my book, it is still considered a very good intro to management cybernetics …

        With re to promoting consultants, I merely referenced the two most effective VSM practicioners that i am aware of. Given that the VSM is intended as a tool for diagnosing and designing viable organizations, it seems appropriate to mention the leading practicioners of that art.

        I would be happy to have your help in improving the wikipedia entry … but first you have to demonstrate that you have a reasonable understanding of the subject. So far you have convinced me that you do not understand it.

        • Dave Snowden

          Wikipedia can be a nasty place if people think there is a COI and editing your own article is frowned on, other than matters of strict fact. So having lived through bad experiences on both I wouldn’t wish it on any subject matter expert. So I tidied the article up to remove stuff which doesn’t follow wikipedia rules. Content is not expert assessed by an editor but by third party sources. So whether you think I understand the subject or not is not relevant to wikipedia – all editors are equal which can be a real pain. Having worked Philosophy articles on Free Will for over a year before the community finally banned an amateur who would simply not give up I can tell you some stories. Ultimately wikipedia is covered by rules and sources, weight and behaviour, no one adjudicates content. Either way the article is yours and anyone else who engages for expansion, I’ll just keep it on watch and help out as needed. I’d caution about putting in anything which is not referenced and avoid any statements as to who is or is not a leading practitioner. That would not survive any scrutiny.

          Otherwise we are at least even. You’ve pretty much convinced me that you failed to read both my blog post and comments where I made my respect for Beer very clear. Like Patrick you just made some accusations and judgements and didn’t engage with the facts; you reacted rather than reading as far as I can see. I think that might imply that you don’t really understand complexity theory but you haven’t given me evidence of engaging with content, just an ad hominem or two so I would be more cautious on making any judgement there. On the other hand you are convinced I don’t understand your subject. Pity really as we share similar concerns in political and environment issues and we both respect Beer’s work. We should be able to disagree about its modern relevance without the debate getting personal.

  • geoff Elliott

    Hi Dave,

    can I explore some of lack of knowledge.

    Firstly you caution against allowing Six Sigma and Lean to be coupled (although its all to common). You have to note that both six and lean sigma are cut down versions of operations management and industrial engineering. Both have their origins in the work of Taylor and Lilian Gibreth. They can are used in conjunction with each other. In fact a good industrial would not separate.

    Secondly you seem to dismiss systems thinking on the basis that Stacy rejects this completely. You seem not to understand that systems thinking is not a singular entity and covers a broad continuum where on the one hand people dominate and problematic situation and its setting to on the other hand things dominate a problematic situation and its setting. ST in fact cover systems engineering; systems dynamics, CSH etc. Are you saying Stacy rejects systems dynamics, systems engineering , CSH etc ?And perhaps more importantly THINKING. ST is about thinking

    Yo are also say that VSM cannot be linked to complexity. Given that VSM is underpinned by 30 or so concepts and ideas many of which deal with complexity how is your statement true.

    What is my logical error on reductionist consultants? All the major consultancies and IT companies utilise reductionist methods

    When VSM was developed we didn’t understand the difference between causal and dispositional system. This simple not true. Beer was well aware of the work of Lindstone and multiple perspectives analysis and causal cognitive mapping

    ….I think VSM makes ontological assumptions which make it inappropriate for complex situations but not for complicated ones

    Dave what is complicate or complex is not absolute it is relative and dependent upon the observer

    To repeat, VSM is underpinning by 30 or concepts and ideas how can you say SM makes ontological assumptions which deal.

    • davesnowden

      Longer reply later but A couple of quick points. I said that I think Stacy is wrong to dismiss systems thinking I don’t but I do think it’s bounded. Otherwise I am fully aware of multiple different types of systems thinking. If you check back I blogged on that and the problems it created some time ago. The critical issue for me is the causal/dispositional divide. I also think you are lumping scientific management approaches together by the way. But for tonight I have the theatre more tomorrow

    • Dave Snowden

      OK a slightly longer response than was practical on the iPhone last night.

      Firstly, Lean properly understood is about eliminating the waste that things like Six Sigma create in the first place. That is considerable richness in Scientific Management that we ignore at our peril. In the popular forms it never tried to automate human judgement, something the popular forms of systems thinking attempted to do. In the two sessions on Leadership where I had the privilege of teaching with Drucker we agreed that Complexity Theory has that in common with Scientific Management, a recognition of the necessity to create a context in which judgement could develop. It is interesting that the apprentice models that were common in Scientific Management (both formal and de facto) have been lost in many cases since the popularisation of system thinking. In fact I think there is more value at the moment in looking at how Lean linked to Complexity Theory than trying to flex VSM to do the same thing.

      Secondly, as stated you simply have my position wrong. UNLIKE Stacy I see value in the various aspects of systems thinking. All theories are about THINKING, systems thinking does not own that. But the underlying ontological assumptions are causal in most cases and (as I keep saying) the difference between causal and dispositional ontologies is key.

      I said that you cannot couple VSM to complexity in the sense of overlaying one on another or simply juggling the terms to make a model. They can work together, Cynefin for example would see that VSM has value in its ordered domains but less on the unordered ones. Ironically the fact that Beer (in my view) intuited dispositional systems may mean that it is in practice less useful and more important to move on from it. But that is a provisional statement, it is something I plan to look at.

      In respect of Lindstone etc. I think you are confusing unbounded with non-causal and “very very complicated so its difficult to see a path” with the idea of enabling constraints. Basically you seem to be taking a view on ontology which is based on perception, rather than a realist one. Your comment that what is complicated or complex is relative and dependent on the observer seems to confirm this. I am happy to say that a system may be perceived as complex even thought it complicated (or knowable to use earlier Cynefin terms) but that does not mean that whether it is complex or not is perceptual. There are valuable lessons we can learn from things like causal cognitive mapping but in practice I think a lot of those approaches (a bit like VSM) are overly complicated when complexity approaches are far simpler. Switching between enabling and governing constraints and back again would be one example but there are many.

      I really don’t see the significance of saying that VSM has 30 underlying concepts, unless you elaborate which of those are based on, or possible are precursors of CAS.

      Finally on the logical error, to say that something is beloved of reductionist consultants is not to call it reductionist.

  • Alberto Manuel

    Hi Dave
    I think you miss the point about VSM pass the napkin test, taking into consideration that it is easy to explain the concept. The problem lies that cybernetics is difficult to understand, because is utterly related with system theory (also referred under engineering principles as control theory). One of the biggest criticisms I find today is that most architect “frame workers” say they incorporated cyber principles, but unfortunately is like a transformation matrix operations in Algebraic Algebra, meaning that a translation engine between the authors framework (my box corresponds to the Cyber model this way) and the most well know, only and real cybernetic enterprise framework, Stafford Beer’s VSM.

    In my very personal opinion, VSM is valuable as guidance for architecture, rather than a cookbook to follow when conceptualizing or desining a system or an organization. A deep example about it is here in this blog post

    • davesnowden

      I think you make my point to a degree. I don’t see an assertion that anyone other than an expert practitioners could drawn it from memory. Yes if you have expertise you can but for sense-making we need more pervasive frameworks

  • Patrick

    Gosh this has been busy!
    Tempting to engage in some of the “punch & judy” banter, but there is so much of that to go at, I’d be here all day, so I’ll stick to some actual issues.
    On the original “napkin” premise, yes Dave i did get that the whole point was that someone absolutely new to the topic could get something meaningful from it and as before, seen that done with VSM loads of times. Just one example, took someone in a Primary Care Trust (in the days when we had such things) through VSM in 5 mins (not on a napkin, on a side of A4 – close enough?) and mapped PCT commissioning onto it and her comment was “that is the first time I’ve understood what we’re supposed to be doing”. So, she not only got VSM, but got the application to her situation and got what it meant in real terms, and she could do the story of how and why the PCT was failing from that and populate it with examples. Does that pass your test? BTW, not sure what the “test” is a test of or what it proves. Obviously as with anything as complex as VSM its impossible to get anything other than a thin overview across in this way, but in some circumstances that’s enough.

    On causal vs dispositional. Systems approaches vary on this, so system dynamics is clearly causal, VSM is not – it doesn’t map causal relationships. If you want to call that dispositional – that’s up to you, its not a term I’d use personally because its use is somewhat muddied, but whatever you want to call it, its not causal. Obviously, its easy to overlay a map of causality onto a VS Model of a system, but VSM itself is made of other stuff.

    You said lower down that:
    “VSM pays more attention to relationships than most – Beer intuiting something for which we now have better science”
    This wasn’t intuition. Putting focus on relationships rather than entities has always been fundamental in all systems thinking, its one of the cornerstones – if you aren’t doing that, you aren’t doing systems thinking. So not intuition, just following the discipline. VSM looks at complexity balances / equations in complex organisations and you can see VSM as really just the exegesis of Ashby’s Law as applied to the problem of how to maintain system identity in a complex and turbulent world. In many ways, I’d say VSM is the systems approach that is least obviously relationship orientated because a lot of people only see the entities either side of the balances rather than focusing on the balances themselves.

    Most people coming to VSM from outside the discipline get the whole issue of how identity works in VSM and what VSM has to say about the construction, maintenance and morphology of identity, hopelessly back to front, so if at some point you do want to discuss that, might I suggest actually discussing it?

    • Dave Snowden

      Thanks for engaging in the content rather than the earlier assertions and ad hominems , its appreciated and I’ll respond accordingly.

      I have no doubt that you can explain the VSM model on a sheet of A4, a Table Napkin or even the proverbial fag packet, and I don’t doubt that you a good response. I also don’t doubt that every consultant who has presented a framework or model to a client of any type or hue can report a similar experience. The question is not if you think she got it in a one to one conversation, but if She could then draw it from memory a week later and use it to make sense of an issue without you there. That is the Napkin test and its key to sense-making. Now I doubt it is possible based on experience, but also given what we know about how many items can be held in short term memory and other factors. The domain models in Cynefin are three by threes and I wouldn’t claim they pass the test – remember I talked about this being needed for sense-making. I didn’t say that all models and frameworks had to pass it. In that context VSM does not per my original use of it as an example, but there again a lot of mine don’t either.

      I certainly don’t think VSM is dispositional and as I said before I think Beer intuited aspects of complexity theory so I am sure it can be made, in the hands of an experienced consultant, to provide utility in a complex domain. So do many other frameworks, Lean for example and even some variants of BPR if they are focused. We have had to deal with complexity without the theory to support common sense. Now we have that theory its time to move on and I remain firmly of the opinion that Beer would not have produced VSM if he had the basics of complexity science available to him. So sorry I think it is causal in nature or structure, which means its main application (in my language) is for complicated not complex situations. The fact that you see it as an example of Ashby’s Law (which I also use by the way) kinda proves my point as the assumptions of Ashby, like Beer from from information theory which is rooted in material linear cause with the occasional shrinking of theological cause to add spice. Any system which focus on organisations will have a relationship element by the way. That was not my point.

      I’ve previously posted on identity and continue to develop both theory and practice there and I think there are better starting places to continue that work than VSM. I may later in the year post specifically on VSM. In this post I used it as an example only. The reaction has been interested, the debate with Geoff (and now but not before) with you has been interesting so yes we need to find other places to have that discussion.

      • Patrick

        Dave, you may cast aspertions about my memory of a discussion with some complexity theorists and the conclusion that there were no discernable conceptual differnces – well in one direction anyway – we only tested to see if there was anything in CT that wasn’t pre-figured in ST – but whatever your view my memory, that was the conclusion and i was not the only one present, so it is possible to check – if anyone cares that much.

        On a previous engagement a few years ago, that involved another prof of complexity theory, over a series of meetings he kept making statements from a CT perspective and shooting sidelong glances at me to see my reaction – he was obviously waiting for / expecting ne to react with surprise / shock / disagreement. After a few months of this I had to point out to him that I’d been listening REALLY carefully to what he had been saying and there was nothing conceptually different to ST in it – for me there was nothing to disagree with. Methodologically there was stuff that wasn’t in ST – and that’s great – good stuff, love it to bits, absolutely unequivocally I recognise that as a good, useful and worthwhile development, but conceptually there had been nothing, absolutely nothing new. He looked stunned. I believe – and I have heard this from so many sources in the CT community that there is a kind of myth in CT about the basic premises of ST which simply isn’t true. In that particular case, the chap was convinced that the idea of emergent purpose of a system had come from CT and was an alien concept in ST. As a result, he’d assumed that the the whole idea behind agent based modelling – would be alien and that I could only understand a system if its purpose had been pre-set.
        To me this illustrates a kind of airbrushing out of the history – McCulloch and Beer worked on theories of agent based models, but back then the technology simple didn’t exist to support that, but the theory was there, its the same theory of emergent purpose that is built into VSM.

        SO, as per my previous post, IF you say “If Beer had known about complexity theory he’d never have come up with VSM” I ask again, what is it that you think CT has come up with at a conceptual or methodological level that supercedes VSM?
        Contrary to what you may think, I have no religious affiliation to VSM, and never knew Beer. I started using VSM because it was vastly better at dealing with the sorts of problems I was interested in than anything else. If something else came along that was better I’d use it. BUT I have been watching CT for 20 + years hoping it would come up with some that fitted the bill …… and it hasn’t. It has come up with some useful stuff and some interesting stuff, but nothing remotely close to a replacement for VSM that I have seen.

        On the engagement with the stunned prof – another prof who was engaged on the project who was not from either an ST or a CT background, but who was interested in both sidled up to me after a few months and said “they haven’t got anything have they?” (meaning the CT chaps) – I did point out that the agent based stuff would be really useful in some contexts – and I know that it can be.

        • Dave Snowden

          No aspirations per se Patrick, but your memory of the encounter with me was wrong so I’m not taking statements at face value. If you are equating complexity theory with agent based models (which are one tool used by CAS but not exclusive to it) then I can see that you might not see a difference. Neither do I see CAS (properly understood) as replacing VSM. In part because VSM has not gained significant traction (compared with say BPR, Six Sigma, LO and other ST related ideas) but also because CAS bounds VSM to a type of system, so it doesn’t seek to replace but contextualise. You seem to have lots of stories of leaving Professors of Complexity baffled or stunned. It would be useful to have some names for validation. Given I don’t remember our first encounter I hope you are not assuming that I am one of them.

          I’ve made the substantive point on causal v dispositional systems and the insight of CAS that both exist in human systems. It is that both/and which contrasts with your idea of things having to replace other things. The wider contextual understanding of causality, emergence, exaptation (I could go on) are all post ST in terms of natural science development. So I think we have evidence of conceptual differences. I’ll think about writing a CAS and VSM post at some stage. I haven’t included it in the book chapter summaries, in part because of its low adoption. But I will take another look at that.

          • Patrick

            Well on the one hand you say you don’t remember our conversation – so how, on t’other can you know my account is wrong?
            No I don’t equate Agent based models to CAS, but it does seem to be the most widely adopted approach that has come out of CT – certainly more common than anything else I’ve seen.

            BPR, six sigma, lean (LO??) don’t come from ST, and have a very different pedigree. Of those, I think only Lean uses any ST concept and its not clear to me whether that was borrowed or seperately derived, but I believe it was seperately derived.

            No I wasn’t referencing you as one of the two i’ve mentioned. The first one wasn’t baffled or stunned and I don’t think I said that he was. We had a perfectly civilised group discussion, went though a structured comparison based on his list of CT fundamentals, checked what was meant by each – especially the ones where there were multiple possible meanings and ticked them off against their equivalent in ST comparing and contrasting examples where time permitted.

            Emergence is what ST set out to address – whether you think it did it well or not is a different question, but as a concept its certainly predates ST. Causality post dates ST??? really????

          • Dave Snowden

            I know what I say about VSM Patrick and it doesn’t match your memory
            I’d be interested to see your check list of CAS v ST

            I see you are narrowing the definition of ST to exclude the more popular manifestations (LO is Learning Organisation). I’m happy to agree that most of those are not especially authentic to the academic context of ST thinking but I don’t think you can exclude them Regardless of that they are the current dominant methods and VSM has not displaced them.

            The concept of non-causal or disposition systems is pretty recent in CAS so yes it comes after ST. Causality has a longer pedigree.

          • Patrick

            Hi Dave
            I don’t discount them, but the point I was making was that they didn’t come out of ST, six sigma evolved from lean which came out of statistics, not ST. BPR was a transposition of some ideas that had been attached to lean (cellular manufacturing) together with process modelling from lean applied to a different domain – its only real connection to ST was the widespread use in BPR of IDEF0 which I’m told has a link back in antiquity to Ashby (again). So common they may be, but nowt to do with ST in terms of their lineage – despite what John Seddon rebranded lean as.
            LO clearly does trace back to ST, via system dynamics although personally I find Revans stuff more credible and useful.
            On replacing, all of those do a different job to VSM, so for me there isn’t a question of replacement. Never used six sigma, but I’ve used lean and BPR approaches either aside from or in conjunction with VSM and they answer quite different questions, similarly ALS.
            The idea of displacement doesn’t really arise in my mind.

          • Dave Snowden

            Well we are probably agreed on John Seddon’s rebranding and also on Revan v Senge. I think Six Sigma was really a development of BPR with a heavy emphasis on stats. It then gets a Lean overlay – properly understood Lean is about eliminating the waste that things like Six Sigma create. Everything is lean these days :-)

            That said a lot goes back to Ashby and the general work on information theory around in the early part of the last century. Part of the issue here is that Systems Thinking as a term has become meaningless because it is either defined too narrowly or is held to be “thinking systematically” which is too broad.

            Gerald Midgley and I have talked from time to time about writing something about the various histories and about the contrasts between CAS and aspects of ST and I wish we could find time to do that – including a meta model. He knows the history better than I do and we disagree enough for the interaction to be interesting. I offered SenseMaker® to any Doctoral student who wanted to do some work in a blog some time ago as the definitions and aspects need to be teased out.

            I tend to talk about a transition in the 80s from Scientific Management to X (where X is often called Systems Thinking rightly or wrongly but includes all the above) which is characterised by the idea of models. The nature of the models implies a view of casualty that I think is now challenged by CAS. So it may be we need new terms as the old are devalued

          • Patrick

            Well we agree on the whole “debasement” issue.
            Back on the question of causality, IF you think VSM is a causal model, can I ask a) why do you think that? and b) show me?
            Its not credible to argue that because the differnetiation between causal and dipositional came later that it is therefore impossible that anyone could have conceived of types of relationship that were not causal before that. That would be like another complexity guy (not a prof this time!) who claimed that CT came up with the concept of self organised criticality – I quoted an ST text from the 70s describing one perfectly, but he argued that because it hadn’t been called a self organised criticality (because the name hadn’t been developed) it couldn’t be one – a confusion of a neologism with a concept.

          • davesnowden

            Good question but it will be late tomorrow before I can reply. Up until 0100 this morning then out of the house 0700 to make a day of meetings then an overnight flight to Cape Town and thence to Stellenbosch

      • Patrick

        Ah and forgot.
        VSM isn’t based on information theory. Beer specifically rejected that as a basis for VSM because it isn’t able to deal with meaning. Seem to remember he wrote a whole screed on the conceptual difference between Ashby’s Law and Shannon’s 10th.

        On identity I think VSM is immensely useful, but depending on what you are trying to look at. So I don’t use it for say an exercise in defining identity , but I do use it for understanding how identity is maintained and how it can morph. I suppose best example of its use for that was Bowie and walking in his footsteps Madonna (though I very much doubt she ever heard of VSM)