Summary: Lectures by Dr. Russell Ackoff

I have recently started getting interested in systems thinking. I got started in this field by Donella Meadows’ “Thinking in System” which was great. And a few weeks ago I discovered Dr. Russell Ackoff (Hat tip to Trond Hjorteland for that). His genius for telling stories and correlating these funny stories back to a systemic view of the world is as good as anything I have ever come across.

There are a lot of videos of him explaining systems and management etc on Youtube, but like a lot of old-time proponents of a specific topic, many of them carry similar explanations, examples, and deductions. So I thought I will summarize and condense a few of the most “academic” of these videos to bring out the common and prominent ideas.

I absolutely recommend that you listen to the original lectures because these notes do not convey the richness of thought, expression, and experience that the lectures contain. I only hope to give you a quick boost in terms of ideas before you have to decide to commit ~4 hours of time. I have spent ~20 hours over the last two weeks listening to Russell Ackoff and I do not regret it one bit.

A system is a whole that is defined by its function(s) in a larger system of which it is a part and that consists of at least 2 parts without which it cannot fulfill its defining function


  1. Ways of solving a problem:
    1. Absolution: Ignore the problem and hope it will go away
    2. Resolution: Solving the problem based on prior experience and qualitative judgment. This is “satisficing” – doing enough that is better than nothing. But this can cause further problems which are often more complicated than the original problem.
    3. Dissolution: Redesign the system to remove the problem
  2. A system is a whole that is defined by its function(s) in a larger system of which it is a part and that consists of at least 2 parts without which it cannot fulfill its defining function
  3. The essential parts of a system must satisfy 3 conditions:
    1. Each essential part can affect the behaviour or properties of the whole
    2. No essential part has an independent effect on the whole
    3. Each subset of parts can have an effect on the whole but not an independent effect.
  4. The essential characteristics of a system depend on how its part interact, not on how they act taken separately.
    1. No part of a system taken independently can perform the function of the whole
    2. The performance of a system is not necessarily improved when the performance of its parts taken separately, is.
  5. We understand how the parts of a system interact by the process of design. Through idealized design, we understand how the system ought to behave.
  6. Why leadership courses are useless
    1. Leadership is an art and a talent – can’t be taught
    2. The difference in different roles when leadership is mentioned:
      1. Administration: Direct others in pursuit of goal using some means where goals and means are both selected by a third party
      2. Management: Direct others in pursuit of goal using some means where goals and means are both selected by the manager
      3. Leadership: Guiding and encouraging others in pursuit of goal using some means where goals and means are both selected by them
    3. Leadership requires the ability to bring the will of others into consonance with the will of the leader so that they follow voluntarily. It is inspiration, not persuasion.
    4. The vision is the idealized design produced by the leader.
      1. This whole conversation is tinted with the idea of a charismatic leader instead of bottom-up leadership. But it also somewhat aligns with what I wrote about building shared context and maybe that’s best done by some people who are the leaders.
  7. Why transformations fail
    1. Transformation requires the intelligence to identify a problem and the courage to do something about it
    2. Two types of errors:
      1. errors of commission: doing something wring
      2. errors of omission: not doing something that should have been done.
      3. In most systems of accountability, only errors of commission are registered.
      4. Hence, rational people choose to not pursue change.
  8. Panaceas:
    1. The righter one does the wrong thing, the wronger you become!
    2. Some of the deficiencies of Panaceas:
      1. Management should be directed at what we want instead of what we don’t want.
        1. Focus on quality of output instead of the quality of work-life for workers
      2. Ignorance of consumer wants
        1. Wants have to be discovered by the process of design – software architects need to know this
      3. Continuous improvement cannot keep up with step jumps
      4. Process Re-engineering
        1. Focusing on a different kind of slice of the system rather than the whole system – hence anti-systemic and ineffective
      5. Downsizing
        1. The purpose of an organization is to create and distribute wealth. Hence downsizing is an immoral act
        2. De-bureaucratize and de-monopolize internal loss-making units
      6. Benchmarking of parts: anti-systemic. Benchmarking of the whole is what competition is.
        1. Benchmarking against competition -> continuous improvements -> we give up the opportunity to ideally design what we want.
        2. We also set the competition as the gold standard.
  9. Creativity
    1. Every creative process has three steps:
      1. Identify an assumption that is limiting the choices that can be explored
      2. Remove the assumption
      3. Examine and utilize the new landscape of choice now revealed
    2. Principles of creativity (These are more tricks to solving problems creatively in a corporate environment)
      1. Deny the “facts of the case” and find them out for yourself
      2. Remove externally imposed constraints
      3. Influence those who cannot be controlled
      4. Enlarge the system
      5. Role reversal by using the source of the problem as the solution
  10. Other thoughts about organizations
    1. Eliminate job descriptions:
      1. They are limiting
      2. Get in good people, put them in an area/department, and ask them to do what they think needs to be done.
      3. Provide guidance and keep discussing what and how they are going to do.
    2. Salary shouldn’t be limited to status
      1. Don’t create managers for status, increase compensation as needed
      2. Pay what the employee is worth, status/role is incidental
    3. Fun
      1. Fun = self determination
      2. Let people find out what they want to do
    4. Management is not a profession, it is a form of employment.
      1. Professions have standards to which professionals owe their highest obligation. E.g. Hippocratic oath for doctors
      2. Employees owe their highest obligation to the good of the organization
    5. The mission statement of a team/organization has to be a deliberately designed expression. If the inverse of the statement is not logically viable, then the mission statement is unlikely to be instructive
      1. e.g. “we want to provide superior returns to our shareholders” is meaningless because the inverse of this doesn’t make sense as a goal. Hence this statement does not inform action.

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