Constitutive rules for guiding the use of the Viable System Model: Reflections on practice

David Lowe, Angela Espinosa, Mike Yearworth*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)
88 Downloads (Pure)


The Viable System Model (VSM) provides a well-established framework to aid the design and diagnosis of organisations to survive and thrive in complex operating environments. However, the cognitive accessibility of the VSM presents a significant barrier to its application with non-expert stakeholders. In the face of such difficulties, VSM practitioners will often take steps to adapt the classic presentation of VSM to suit the needs of their particular operational context. We propose a set of constitutive rules, including an explicit epistemology, that can both account for the variety of VSM practice reported in the literature and also be used to guide practitioners in their application of the VSM and thus make rigorous use of VSM theory. The epistemology is expressed as a performative model, expressed as a Hierarchical Process Model (HPM), of the practitioner’s use of the VSM in an engagement. We use this model to describe, reflect upon, and learn about VSM practice by the cross-case analysis of three recent VSM interventions. The combination of variability in problem structuring and specificity to the VSM afforded by the constitutive rules and the performative epistemology in combination has provided insight into the social ontology of VSM practice and the boundaries of what should be considered acceptable practice from a competence perspective. Our approach is intended to encourage wider and better application of VSM theory in preparing organisations to maintain performance in uncertain futures.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages22
JournalEuropean Journal of Operational Research
Early online date27 May 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 27 May 2020


  • Viable System Model
  • Problem Structuring Methods
  • Constitutive Rules
  • Epistemology
  • Hierarchical Process Model


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