The Coordination System – the unfashionable necessity that will make your organisation work

Prefer to watch on video rather than read? Click here – 5 mins, with captions.

Unhappy people, putting out fires and feeling like we’re not getting anywhere.  We often look for so-called ‘bigger’ solutions – to talk about purpose, strategy, systems.  And sometimes that’s spot on.

But more often than not, there’s a more powerful, yet very unfashionable component of every organisation at every level that needs to be working for anything to…well…work!

And that’s Coordination.  I’ll explain…

The Viable System Model

The key role of Coordination is brilliantly shown in Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model.  The core of the model is in his two books The Heart of the Enterprise and Brain of the Firm, but my go-to book is actually The Fractal Organization by Patrick Hoverstadt – easy to read, explains it well. Get it.

Here’s the model, we’re going to build it piece-by-piece.  Note – while I use the five systems of Stafford Beer, I don’t use his exact words.

First ‘viable’ we define as able to maintain a separate existence – it can exist as an entity in its environment.  So, it’s not just organisations, people are viable systems too!

We start with three elements – the Environment that the system interacts with, the actual activities that the organisation does for those it serves which we call the Operations, and then the function that keeps these operations connected to each other both today and into the future…which we call Management.

The First Three Systems

The first system does the actual Primary Activities that interact with the Environment – imaginatively called System One.  We can draw it like this:

To handle the complexity of the work, these Primary Activities get divided, the method for which is all a part of creating structure which is for another time. 

And each is going to have it’s own stuff that it’s doing, so it’s likely to bump into the other ones, which is why we need….System Two – Coordination!  We draw it like this:

We’re are (obviously) going to go into this more shortly.

And finally, because the Primary Activities are designed to ultimately work together to deliver something, there is the necessity to make sure that resources allocated make sense as a whole, and that things are happening as expected…and this is called System Three – Management.  Like this:

(Important side note: while System Three Management is often done by roles literally called Manager, General Manager, Executive etc. this is but one structural choice. It can also be done by those doing the System One Primary Activities.  The point is that this work happens, how we structure to make sure it happens is an organisational design choice.)

Systems Four and Five

Now, if the environment never changed, the first three systems is all we’d need.  Do stuff, coordinate stuff, manage stuff so it works as a whole.  Same thing occurs at every level, like Russian Dolls.  But…because that pesky environment around us does change, we need System Four Development.  Like this:

And you can see how that’s interacting with the environment too.

Finally, we need a reason for all of this.   Whether you say it out loud as an aspirational thing like organisations do (Mission, Vision, Values that old stuff), or whether we have to deduce it by observing, there’s a Purpose to the whole show.  And that’s System Five, which I draw as a little house at the top.  It’s why we want the Primary Activities to be Coordinated and Managed, and it’s what we’re Developing towards.

Why the Viable System Model?

The point of all this is that we can use the VSM to both diagnose when there are issues….and design so they happen less.

Then by having all five systems working, which requires information flow between them in all directions and good decisions, this allows the organisation to handle the variety of the environment it’s in, in order to do it’s purpose…and we have a viable show.  Perhaps even one that thrives. 



So why have we been going through this?  Because the system that is most often the cause of organisation pain is the one that’s most often overlooked, and that’s System Two Coordination.

Think for a second about the pain you feel at work.  The hassles.  The ‘silos’.  Any issue that’s about priority, about which piece of work comes first, about where something goes next…they are all issues of coordination.  Differing expectations about who should be doing what, about who gets to make what call…coordination!

And of course things showing up in the wrong spot, people going to the wrong room.  The classic Stafford Beer example is a lift taking goods to one floor, finding out they aren’t needed, so being sent back, to again find out they’re not needed, up and down all day.  Coordination.

Because these issues are constant, frustrating and have a huge impact, we make the mistake of thinking that something as common as ‘Coordination’ must only apply near the frontline.  That when we are talking about the whole organisation, it must be something more. Something fancy like ‘strategy’ or ‘vision’ or ‘systems’ and the like. 

But that’s not the case. The beauty of the Viable System Model is that it applies, as Patrick Hoverstadt describes it, at different fractal levels.  A fractal is a thing where each part has the same character as the whole.  Which means all five systems are necessary and can be found:

  • Within each person
  • Within each team
  • Within each department
  • Within each division
  • Within each organisation

And so on. Even a whole country, which Stafford got to have a crack at in the 70s. For real!

Getting Practical

What does this mean practically?  If we don’t have time for a full organisational diagnosis of all five systems and their information flows and connections, our best bet is often to focus on Coordination.  Even restructure efforts can be made with a view to minimising the need for Coordination. 

What’s an everyday example?  Stafford Beer uses the school timetable.  The Primary Activities of a school are teaching, the Purpose of the system is educated kids.  Consider what happens without the school timetable – at the end of each class, another negotiation would have to occur to work out who goes where.  People would naturally schedule things when it best suits them…and we have chaos.

Out of this emerges the humble school timetable, which show all the characteristics of a good Coordination device, which are:

  • It’s as rigid as it needs to be – it applies in all normal situations
  • It’s as flexible as it needs to be – if a relief teacher is needed, we can handle it
  • It is not part of accountability and management – it instead allows for the intentions of accountability and management to occur
  • And because of the above…it is seen as a service to those doing the primary activities.

The school timetable allows the Primary Activities to deliver the Purpose of the organisation with minimal waste of effort

And here’s the kicker – without System Two Coordination devices in place – there is only one place where the issues will go – and that’s to System Three Management.  If you feel like what you do all day is put out fires and deal with issues rather than working on making the whole show work…there’s a good chance that some focus on to System Two Coordination can soothe the pain.

Bringing it Home

The key is to respect Coordination, and to see that it is required at all levels of the organisation.  It’s not just a frontline thing; it’s a key element of the whole system being viable. 

Get clear on the Primary Activities and organise them in a way that aligns with the environment and minimises the need for coordination.  Then put in coordination devices that allow the activities to work together without the need to turn to management. 

What this looks like is going to be different for each organisation and at different levels, but what we don’t want to be doing is holding ourselves back with the illusion that it’s a problem of Purpose, Strategy or even Management when a little Coordination will make the show work better for everyone.

Now, over to you.

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