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.