Configuring systems to be viable in a crisis: The role of intuitive decision-making

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Decision-making in complex systems becomes even more challenging when the environment creates volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous conditions that disrupt operations. In these settings, the viable system model (VSM) advocates that delegated autonomy, appropriately calibrated, can help decision-makers deal with disruptions quickly to preserve system viability and performance. However, the delegated authority to act also requires the confidence and knowledge to make effective decisions and, in this vein, we explore the role of intuition as an enabler of autonomy in emergency response systems. Intuition allows decision-makers who confront a novel situation to translate their experience, knowledge, and protocols in creative ways – innovations permitted by their delegated authority. This study contributes to VSM literature by a) demonstrating how VSM’s structure and complexity management principles can support the analysis of viability in multi-agency emergency systems and b) using VSM to design a systems model to explain the role of autonomy and intuition in supporting decision-making and complexity management in viable systems. Methodologically, the study uses a multi-stage discovery-oriented approach (DOA) to develop theory, with each stage combining literature, data analysis, and model/theory development and identifying further questions to inform the subsequent stage. Through the DOA, we synthesise literature (e.g. on VSM, complexity management) with seven months of field-based insights (from interviews, workshops, and observation of a live disaster exercise) to develop VSM models. This research makes two contributions to soft operational research (OR) literature: taking a black-box approach to theory development in soft OR to uncover the role of autonomy and intuition in managing complexity and demonstrating DOA as a methodology that can provide fresh insights for behavioural soft OR studies.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages32
JournalEuropean Journal of Operational Research
Early online date28 Mar 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 28 Mar 2024


  • Problem structuring
  • Viable system model
  • Complexity management
  • Autonomy
  • Intuition


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