July 2010

This one’ll upset some folks since Russell Ackoff will be very well known to them.

But I justify my inclusion of him as a lesser known hero on the basis of that modern litmus test (forget academic citations) of the number of Google hits on his name.

A search today threw up:

  • Deming – 2,780,000 hits
  • Ackoff – 121,000.

So on that facile basis he’s about 4% as well known as W Edwards Deming.

I suppose my other – entirely subjective – criterion is that Ackoff was unknown to me until a year or so ago.  When I discovered him I was bowled over by the sheer humanity of the man.

I first came across Ackoff through an archived webcast of a talk he’d given back in 2000 on systems thinking and youth justice to a workshop associated with the improbably-named Girls Link group at the Kent College of Law in Chicago.  The video’s not brilliant technically.  But it’s worth viewing.  It covers many of the ideas he developed over a lifetime (he sadly passed away in 2009 aged 90).

Ackoff began his working life as an architect and said that architects were – had to be – systems thinkers.  They don’t design, say, houses by starting with individual rooms, designing each perfectly and then finding a way to join them together.  They start with the building and then find out how to fit the rooms into the overall space and shape.  They use (my words) an iterative process to get the best fit of the different elements.

That’s systems thinking – and systems design. 

He was interesting on the difference between errors of commission and omission – how the former were easy to know (and assign causes to or, too often, blame for) whereas the latter were unknowable and therefore unmeasurable.  In typical organisations managers avoid being blamed by avoiding errors of commission.

 And the easiest way not to make errors?  Do nothing.  Yet we only learn by our mistakes.  So how can such organisations learn?

He also said there are five types of “content” – data, information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.  The first four are all concerned with increasing efficiency, only the last is concerned with effectiveness.

Efficiency is about doing things right.  Wisdom is about doing the right thing.  “The righter you do the wrong thing the wronger it becomes.  It’s better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right.”

One of Ackoff’s major insights for me was his use of systems thinking to throw light on social issues wider than how any single organisation works. 

He said that almost every major social problem is the consequence of doing the wrong things righter, in his own country (the USA) citing the health (sickness) care system and education – “teaching is a major obstruction to learning”.  These are major social systems “pursuing objectives contrary to their intention”.

He wrote extensively about his idea of idealised design – that in improving a system you should start from first principles, work out what your idealised design would be and then take steps towards it.

Much of this, plus a sense of what the man was like can also be seen in a brief video on YouTube (you can find many more talks by or about him on the web)

Video by PhyllisHaynes on YouTube

As always with these pen portraits, there’s a lot more that could be written and I’d love those who understand Ackoff better than me to add their own thoughts.

The other thing I’ve discovered is the love and affection Russell (“Russ”) Ackoff inspired amongst his many colleagues, students and clients.  That doesn’t happen by chance.  I wish I’d had an opportunity to know him.

My thanks to Susan Ciccantelli for commenting on a draft of this post.  Her kindness reflects that of Dr Ackoff.  The conclusions are of course mine.

Some names are irresistible.

I promised some off the wall stuff when I started this blog and with summer coming on I feel the urge again.

Once upon a time there were haulage companies.  Then there was Eddie Stobart.  Then we took the kids for a camping holiday in France and there was Norbert Dentressangle…

…for every Eddie we clocked on the journey to the tunnel there were 2, 3 even more Norberts on the autoroutes with their unmistakable red livery and ND logo.

It was the name that alerted us.  What a cracker.

Norbert.  NorBERT not Norrbearr.  Dentressangle.  DEN-TRESS-ANGLE not Dongtrayssongl.

It was important to anglicise the beasts to maintain some sort of illusory control over them.

We got the kids to count them. For a while the competition took the pressure off more labour-intensive forms of distraction.

A moment of nirvana was reached when we passed a Norbert depot somewhere south of Dieppe and there was a rush to tot up the serried ranks of red Renault trucks inside.

Alas, time has devalued the exotic sport.

Several years later I spotted my first Norbert on a British motorway and now they’re ten-a-penny all over the UK.  They’ve even spawned Stobart-like devotion amongst fans like the Wrinkled Weasel from Edinburgh (a Google search throws up another 87,799 hits).

Norbert’s company even has a web site with an English language option.

Love his mission statement

Bringing people closer to their dreams

Not many public agencies can beat that (not sure what it’s got to do with delivering groceries though).

PS – Norbert spotting was eventually replaced with caravan name spotting and if Norbert’s worth a para. or two, caravan names are worth a PhD thesis – in psychology.

What a wide and wonderful world is systems thinking even in a relatively small country like Scotland.

The brand new Institute for Socio Technical Complex Systems at Strathclyde Uni hosted an open and exploratory workshop on the subject on Friday 23rd.  Coming up for 30 delegates gave their own take on what systems thinking means to them.

And what a diverse bunch we were. They will forgive me if my list of their interests and projects does scant justice to what was clearly often a lifetime of commitment and understanding. They included

  • our world as a system and what we need to do to make it sustainable
  • radical new financial mechanisms with the potential to make the traditional banking system redundant
  • systems thinking and national regeneration
  • the failure of education and how systems thinking could transform it
  • systems thinking as a means of improving work (my interest)
  • the application of systems thinking to drugs and alcohol policy
  • designing and manufacturing better ships though systems engineering
  • the interface of art and science as a system
  • systems thinking and IT
  • psychology and systems thinking
  • the application of systems thinking to contact centres.

There was a will amongst at least some of those present to continue to talk and meet. Whether that adds value depends on two things

  1. the old question of ensuring communication and discussion is based on a common understanding of the meaning of words (if I had a £, even a $, for every time I’ve seen people rage at each other on the assumption they had different points of view when in fact they were talking about different things…)
  2. agreeing a purpose for those exchanges.

So no difference there between a wide ranging discussion on systems and any other area of life!

Both this week’s Municipal Journal and the polemical Liberal Conspiracy web site have thrown more light on the Treasury’s Spending Challenge– see my various posts on Vote for lean thinking in governmentIf a  web site gives up is it a sign of success?, Bad practice in government, and HMG web site in transition (thinks – am I getting obsessed with the subject?).

I didn’t know whether to tag this entry under lean thinking, off the wall, or two new tags I’ll resist adding – weird and sad.  I think the story could qualify under all four.

This is the essence of it.

The site has been reined in because it has been bombarded with a mixture of ideas, many of which were at the plain nasty end of the spectrum – how to “deal” with immigrants, un-married mothers, benefits “scroungers” etc etc.

Rather more amusingly our fellow citizens seem to have come up with a number of creative ideas to save taxpayers’ money:

  • a windfall tax on people called Steve [or Dave, Nick, Eric…?]
  • sell the unemployed after six months on benefits
  • force cats to spend one hour per day on electrical treadmills [on the basis of our cat’s daily routine that would produce zero energy]
  • MPs’ housing allowances to be replaced by tents.

It does all suggest the creation of the site was a bit of a rushed job (shouldn’t have been since public servants had already had six weeks to contribute to a similar site before this one went public).  Perhaps HM Treasury also need to learn a bit more about moderation of public forums.

Once they get rid of the vicious and weird let’s hope the serious suggestions do emerge in public.  Otherwise the whole exercise will have failed even the most basic test of consultation standards.

In an idle moment I was pondering the question of what’s the best meeting I’ve ever been to.  That led me to thinking about the worst meeting, so here’s my starter list of both.  Why not add your own?  Who knows – thinking about why these were the meetings from heaven and hell might prompt thoughts about what made them that and how we can encourage the one and avoid the other.


…by far was when I met our first daughter at about 3 p.m. on a day in July 1986.  She’ll be cross if she finds I’m blogging her arrival in the world but I can say with some confidence that the profound feelings of love and contentment any new parent knows at the birth of their first child are never going to be replicated for me at work or anywhere else.  So some way behind but still pretty darned good come…

…a speech by Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Commonwealth Local Government Conference in Aberdeen a few years ago (perhaps it stretches the definition of what a meeting is but this is my blog).  He was talking about the role of local government in democracy but the depth of his thinking, his experience, his humanity and his humility (the mark of a great leader) were deeply moving…

…one reported to me with some emotion by a colleague from elsewhere as the best moment in his public service career was the CE of a failing organisation who began its transformation by launching his commitment to 3,000 staff invited to an exhibition centre and saying with great honesty to them “We are failing.  I know it and you know it.  We have to change.  Here’s what I want to do.  Will you help me?”  To reinforce what they had to do everyone was given a small bag of Quality Street (get it?) chocolates when they left.


…the first day of a job many years ago when the head of service called me in to say almost word for word “There’s goods news and bad news.  The good news is we reviewed the post and decided you needed a team to do it.  The bad news I’m afraid is that your first team member is a medically-diagnosed schizophrenic, charming chap when he’s feeling OK but you won’t get much work out of him” (I didn’t)…

…any meeting lasting longer than two hours in a room with no windows.

What are yours?

I’m keen to promote discussion (and my own understanding) so just a brief reminder that comments are always welcome on any aspect of the HelpGov blog.

If you’re on the home page just click on Leave a comment at the top of each post.

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“In transition” is one of the rich lexicon of euphemisms used when hitherto unexceptional employees are made an offer they can’t refuse. It used to be called gardening leave.

The UK government’s Spending Challenge web site seems to be in transition following its earlier problems. But to what?

It no longer sports anything as technically complex as a home page, ownership seems to have half-shifted from the Treasury to the Cabinet Office, none of the suggestions to save money are visible let alone available to score and comment on and, saddest of all

As you may have noticed [I hadn’t], the site has been the subject to a small number of malicious attacks so we have unfortunately had to pause on the interactive features for now, but we’re still keen to hear any further ideas you have, which we may publish at a later date

Well, the government can’t be responsible for the sad souls who find fun in that sort of stuff but it makes it impossible to see how the suggestions are going (I don’t like “which we may publish at a later date”).

With a bit of luck their tecchies (consultants to a man and a woman I’ll wager) are working on the problems even now.

Let’s hope the site’s in transition to restoration of its interactive features.

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