Systems Thinking for Curious Managers: Book Review

February 27, 2010

Systems Thinking for Curious Managers with 40 new f-laws, Russell Ackoff with Andrew Carey, Triarchy Press. List price £15, ISBN 9780956263155, publication date, March 2010.

This brief book serves as a memorial to the great systems thinker Russell Ackoff (1919-2009). In style and content it is a marvellously concise insight into Ackoff’s principles of how business systems work.

I only briefly met Russell Ackoff, but for many years his work kept cropping up as I struggled to understand the nature of creativity. Writing in the 1980s, I noted in Stimulating Innovation: A Systems Approach that

“by taking a systems view it is easier for those involved in innovation to avoid getting blocked into a technological ‘mind-set’ or belief system ..or any other partial or biased perspective”.

By that time, I had become introduced to the work of Russell Ackoff by that another polymath, Stafford Beer. Much later, I learned that Beer and Ackoff had been plotting to replace traditional Business School structures at Wharton and Manchester with healthier ones following their emerging ideas of how a viable systems operates. You will find evidence for this in the wonderful Archives of Stafford Beer’s work held at Liverpool University, and on-line.

The Quality of Insight

Systems Thinking for Curious Managers provides a glimpse into Ackoff’s impish and creative genius. In keeping with a systems approach, it manages to avoid the traditional linearity of narrative. Its contents at one level are Ackoff’s epigrammatic business principles or f-laws, each numbered permitting the systems device of cross-referencing and integration. I kept thinking of Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations, a far more ambitious project to capture the universals of his philosophy. Pity Ludwig made no concessions to supplying those explanatory information feedback loops. However favourably Wittgenstein will be judged by history, it will not be for the clarity of his insights. In contrast Ackoff repeatedly finds ways of enabling his readers to find insights, either as experienced systems thinkers, or as Andrew Carey puts it in his introductory chapter here

Most of his f-laws share the qualities of all good insights – they make you say “of course, why didn’t I see that before, it’s obvious!”.

This is an observation that has been made by various people regarding the essence of leadership.

I don’t have to sell this book. It sells itself. You can make up your mind by checking out the web-site. You’ll find at least one of the f-laws worth sharing with others, and maybe the subversive appeal of systems thinking will have helped produce another convert.

Footnote:

OK, here’s an f-law. Were you hoping I would give an example? I decided to select it at random, using the date when I completed this review, which led me to F-law number 27:

27: There’s nothing that a manager wants done that educated subordinates cannot undo.

And if you can see why picking one of the 123 f-laws at random is a rather good way of making a point, you are probably a practicing or potential systems thinker.


Joined up Management and the Ackoff-Beer Contribution

November 26, 2009

Russell Ackoff

Joined up Management is a Very Good Idea in theory. I look forward to finding convincing examples of it working in practice

The concept has been around for some while, and still crops up regularly in business speak, particularly in the public sector. There seems little recognition that mostly this sounds like the mouthing of rhetoric. Its basic idea is that of systems thinking. This provides an explanation of organizational silos, and proposes remedies which permit improved integration of previously sealed-off knowledge packages.

One distinguished systems thinker is Russell Ackoff who is still going strong, and has been talking much sense on the subject over several decades.

Ackoff is regarded as a serious academic who may have been hindered in promoting systems theories by a distaste for the art of the guru. He likes to quote his old friend, the late Peter Drucker noting that the only reason people called him a guru was that they did not know how to spell the word “charlatan”.

Systems theory makes the essential dilemma of joined up thinking clear. You connect up some sub-systems more strongly at the expense of others. That was why matrix management – an early attempt to overcome management silos – failed to deliver what was optimistically expected of it. Turned out that one dimension of the matrix would get privileged over the other. Incidentally, that was why the tripartite system set up by Gordon Brown to improve the UK’s financial system a decade ago was intelligent attempt to replace silos with joined-up thinking. But it was never going to solve a problem, only help expose possible dilemmas and ambiguities of control.

Ackoff worked with Stafford Beer on his trips to the UK, on a plan to remodel business educations along more holistic lines. The first of their experiments was in The Manchester Business School whose first leaders (in the late1960s) introduced a systems-based management system. The system attempted to foster creativity and a healthy operational environment. This was to be a ‘viable self-structuring system’ with appropriately open communication with egalitarian leadership. Come to think of it, the Ackoff-Beer vision was an early attempt to design an organisation based on joined-up management.