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.


Leadership and the Local Peak Syndrome

October 26, 2008

New leadership ideas and actions are particularly valuable when the going gets tough. A new book based on Culture Theory shows how to understand and overcome the local peak syndrome

There is a cartoon often shown during leadership programmes. It shows a mountaineer planting a flag on the summit of a mountain. But the drawing can be expanded to show what the climber had missed. He has reached a local peak, and the real challenge looms ahead. What’s worse, he has to get off the local peak before he can start climbing again. It’s a powerful visual image.

Local Peak Syndrome

Mountaineer and author Michael Thompson knows quite a bit about expeditions to conquer the world’s greatest peaks. He took part in successful yomps up Annapurna and Everest in the 1970s. He is also a pioneer of Culture Theory, and although he doesn’t use the term, he also knows about the local peak syndrome, which he outlines in his latest book Organising and Disorganising: A Dynamic and Non-Linear Theory of Institutional Emergence and its Implications published by Triarchy Press

The title may put some potential readers off. That would be a pity. Readers may be pleasantly surprised at the enjoyment and benefit to be derived by signing up for the expedition.

For one thing, the author is a confident guide, and illustrates the journey by means of lots of interesting maps of other expeditions including investigations into environmental problems of the Napalese region, climbing expeditions, and (in some contrast) the move of Arsenal Football club from Highbury to The Emirates Stadium. The stories illustrate a rich version of cultural theory, and have implications for leaders of all kinds.

The virtues of ‘clumsy’ solutions

For example, the Arsenal story shows that The Emirates Stadium site would have been overlooked in favour of elegant but simplistic solutions favoured by three different groups of stakeholders some of whom would have made for implementation of these ideas difficult. Thompson calls the outcome a necessarily ‘clumsy’ (but effective) resolution as opposed to elegant but unacceptable front-runner proposals.

His point is that many well-intentioned policy initiatives, and strategic plans fail to take the complexities of change into account. This is particularly apt in the current environment of what Alan Greenspan referred to as an economic Tsunami.

Social solidarities

The next point in his argument is that complex systems have what he calls solidarities each favoured by some people involved. These solidarities are recurring patterns of social coherence. They are labelled the hierarchical, the egalitarian, the individualistic, the fatalistic and the autonomous solidarities.

These four terms can be derived from the celebrated work of Mary Douglas, and a more recent ‘two-by-two’ grid of them can be found in an essay by Aaron Wildavsky (try googling Wildavsky and Culture Theory).

Readers may be more familiar with ‘two by two’ management grids (high and low levels of structuring, and high and low levels of groupiness), or maybe the two-by-two of sociological paradigms by Burrell & Morgan.

We need to know a little about cybernetics to see where Thompson has taken such treatments. Essentially he grasps one of the nettles too often ducked. What might be the mechanisms through which people (and groups) move from one ‘box’ to another?.

Burrell and Morgan’s work helped generate a lot of debate about whether such movement was possible, or whether the belief systems of the boxes represented incommensurate paradigms.

Thompson’s solution is to add a fifth element. In doing so he mentions the principle of requisite variety, cherished by cyberneticians since it was developed by Ross Ashby, many years ago.

Ashby worked out the requirements for any configuration of any system to be stable (‘we could see the stable states as ‘solidarities’). These were the viable states of the system, which had the survival property of the appropriate degree of requisite variety

Dr Thompson takes Ashby’s principle a few steps further, invoking a formal proof that requisite variety for systems stability exists in five and only five solidarities bracketed together.

The formulation began to remind me of even more ideas, including one associated with Lawrence and Lorsch, a team of Harvard organizational theorists. They proposed that differing conditions shape organizations into different (sub)systems, with differing integrating mechanisms. This contributed to Harvard’s pioneering reputation for contingency models of organization.
Thompson’s integrating device (the autonomous ‘solidarity’) introduces his fifth component into the established ‘two by twos’.

How real is real?

The author makes it clear that he believes that organizational stability (viability) needs the existence of five solidarities. And not just any old five solidarities interacting in any which way, but mediated through his specified autonomous solidarity. In so doing he believes he gets around many of the difficulties of prevailing theories of social structures.

You will have to read the book to see if this ‘essay in persuasion’ works for you. I was partly already converted into accepting some of the basic ideas presented. Time will tell whether re-reading helps me reach a greater level of persuasion on other suggestions in the book.

I was fortunate to have taken part in discussions some years ago, with cybernetics theorist, Stafford Beer.

Stafford had developed a model of organization which I (and other colleagues) regarded at the time as a powerful metaphor. Stafford was emphatic that his model was more than a metaphor, rather an identity for an organization’s defining features.

I sense a similar conviction to Stafford’s in Michael Thompson’s treatment of his five solidarities. Stafford’s famous model also has five interacting systems. (It even has at its Level 5, a super-ordinate integrating mechanism similar to that of Thompson’s autonomous system) . Broading this further, we might reflect whether Senge’s fifth discipline (learning to learn) might not be a similar integrating mechanism within yet another systems theory of change.

Buy the book

If you find this half as interesting as I did, you must get hold of Organising and Disorganising. And, if you haven’t already, have a go at any of Stafford’s books still in print. Brain of the Firm would be a good one with which to start.


Reg Revans: Action Learning Pioneer

November 8, 2007

reg-revans.jpg

William Reginald Revans (14 May 1907 – 8 January 2003) was arguably one of the most influential of British educationalists of the twentieth century. He pioneered Action Learning, which today is among a handful of educational innovations which has survived and developed as a theory of action, and a theory in action

In the course of a lengthy and illustrious life, a mythology built up around this remarkable man. However, in late 2007, definitive biographic materials remained hard to find. For example, in Wikipedia, there was no entry on Revans. You have to explore wikipedia for Action Learning, his professional legacy.

One excellent but brief biographic account provides a glimpse of a remarkable professional career. There are the early critical incidents: a childhood recollection of attending the memorial service of Florence Nightingale (perhaps the story became replicated through his later distinguished efforts within the National Health Service). A discussion with his father, a maritime surveyor who had become involved in the enquiry into the sinking of the Titanic, provided another critical incident. Revans was introduced to the notion that ‘we must learn to distinguish between cleverness and wisdom’, a principle he retained throughout his life.

Revans was trained as a physicist at London and Emmanuel College Cambridge, later working with Rutherford’s Nobel-winning team at The Cavendish laboratories (1932-1935). Rutherford’s approach and team meetings could be taken as exemplars for action-centred learning. At that time Revans had also gained distinction as a gifted athlete, competing to Olympic level.

The Rise of Action Learning

In the 1930s, Reg Revans began his career as a senior manager, initially as Director of Education at Essex County Council, where he also began a long association with the Health Service. These experiences along with emergency service in the London Blitz of 1940, confirmed his growing philosophy (and practice) of learning by doing.

There followed a decade as an academic at The University of Manchester (1955-1965). He had become the first Professor of Industrial Management and he continued to diffuse his innovative ideas of action learning. But it was after he left his University post, that his ideas were to gain international recognition.

The most impressive, and often repeated claim is that his work, through an extensive cluster of active learning projects in Belgium, directly improved that nation’s industrial productivity over the period 1971-1981.

One article summarised the workings of Action Learning as follows:

People learn most effectively not from books or lectures but from sharing real problems/projects. The [action] learning process may be expressed as:

Learning (L) = Programmed knowledge (P) + the ability to ask “insightful” Questions (Q)
Programmed knowledge (P) is conveyed through books, lectures, and other structured learning mechanisms. Insightful questions (Q) are those questions that are asked at the right time and are based on experiences or an attitude about ongoing work projects.
• The learning context must be a real working/project
• Scheduled input of theory knowledge /lectures should be kept to a minimum and more time for time for workshops, meetings and questions
• Commitment from top management and team members with No hidden agendas
• An independent adviser needs to be present from the life of the team to facilitate, help or guide when needed.
• An atmosphere of and openness to confronting sensitive internal issues.
• Flexibility in terms of scheduling

‘Moral Bankruptcy Assured’

Reg enjoyed creating learning aphorisms. One of his favorites summed up his view of the emerging Business School methods and the MBA degree, which he liked to describe as Moral Bankruptcy Assured.

It was an irony that his penetrating insights into the dominant educational model was directed from a member of a University whose Business School prided itself in its own version of learning by doing, the so-called Manchester Method, and whose academics included several international figures such as Stafford Beer, Enid Mumford, John Morris, and Teddy Chester, who were contributing to a non-traditional educational approach. Professor John Morris was but one who became an active participant in the advancement of Action Learning subsequently.

However, we have the nearby University of Salford to thank for keeping alive Action Learning within a vibrant North-West England group of action researchers. By another irony, leading figures have more recently rejoined the University of Manchester, with plans to develop further the theory-in-practice ideas of Reg Revans.