In the first chapter of Governance and Social Leadership, I indicate that one aspect of my approach to examining governance and leadership is to be troublesome. Part of my reason for doing so is to challenge readers to think about the concepts and ideas that they and others take for granted, assume to be true, or assume are part of a shared knowledge base. One way I go about being troublesome is to introduce disparate ideas – concepts or phenomena that might not normally appear relevant – into the discussion of various topics. An important one of these disparate ideas is the notion of requisite variety.
The concept of requisite variety was introduced in 1956 by Ross Ashby, a pioneer in the field of cybernetics, a term coined in 1948 by Norbert Wiener, who defined it as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.” Since then, cybernetic principles have become central to developments in several disciplines, such as biology, computer science, engineering, management, and psychology.
Within cybernetics, the idea of variety refers to the number and types of components, or constituent elements, of a system, as well as the possible combinations of these elements employed by that system. The word requisite suggests the objective of determining just how much variety is necessary in a particular system. One of the goals of cybernetic systems, therefore, is to find the minimum, or optimal, amount of variety necessary to sustain a particular operation, organization, or organism. While too little variety poses a threat to existence because the system cannot cope with its day-to-day activity, too much variety is inefficient, because resources of perceived value will be squandered, again posing a significant existential threat.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Strategy and Management (Vol. 11, No. 2, 2018), Rocco Palumbo and Rosalba Manna examine the role of requisite variety in supporting organizational growth. They point out that the key role of requisite variety in an organization is to provide the capacity to respond to environmental uncertainty. This uncertainty can arise from a broad, and often unpredictable, range of sources, including war, natural disaster, political regime change, global financial crises, public attitudes, the introduction of restrictive legislation or policy, shifting demographics, new technologies, changes in ownership, personnel or organizational structure, personal and family matters, and any number of other factors.
The authors indicate that studies of requisite variety in organizations have identified it alternately as a predictor of performance, a tool for responding to shifts in demand, a factor in new product development, an approach for examining business processes, and a way to enhance human communication and organizational learning. Among their conclusions, they suggest that requisite variety is “a by-product of a co-evolutionary relationship between the organization and the environment” (p. 252). This conclusion not only highlights the importance of considering context and process, it also reinforces the idea that the establishment of distinct ontological and epistemological boundaries between organizations and the environment in which they exist is far from easy.
How could an understanding of the concept of requisite variety help us to identify, analyze, and potentially address the viability and sustainability of, for example, a marketing campaign, a community economic development initiative, a new business venture, or our own lives?