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.


Innovation leadership: a hard path to follow

December 11, 2008

survivors

Innovation leadership offers great rewards, but can be a hard path to follow, as the recent case of Project Red Stripe illustrates

Anyone who has become involved in the fascinating and infuriating business of innovation will find something of interest and value in Inside Project Red Stripe, Andrew Carey’s account of a much-trailed innovation project at The Economist newspaper.

The bald facts. The Economist called for and appointed a team of staff members to, well, to create the next big internet thing. The team was backed with £100,000 to do it. Oh, yes and it had to win GO/NO GO approval in six months.

The challenge captures the imagination. In my case, it took me back to other challenges, some recent, some in a pre-internet age. I’ll come back to these a little later.

The project shares the premise held by many organizations, that the next new winning idea is out there somewhere waiting to be discovered or (more mysteriously) to be created. The premise goes with a few other assumptions of what might help the process: find some creative and gifted people, offer them resources judged appropriate, add a dash of team training and development, and set them an energizing challenge.

As Carey puts it

To me it seems that this whale-of-an-idea was sometimes too much for the team. Too much for any team. They tried to bring it back down to size by playing with it: ‘Let’s divert the Thames through Lichfield’, ‘Let’s make the world square’. But still it became the elephant in the room, to mix gargantuan mammal metaphors. And the team found themselves becoming-whale-of-an-idea-in-the-room. Then they had two ideas. Which one should they choose? Had they chosen the right idea? Then the idea was altered. Was it still good enough? Then it was changed altogether. As time ran out there was an awful dread that they had missed their chance. And, from the moment that they decided to look externally for their idea, there was a pervading sense that the idea lived ‘out there’. Which meant, in turn, that the team would not be the authors or creators or owners of the idea.

The Culture of the group

The print version conveyed the culture of the group. For me, it describes a small group bubbling with energy, sometimes manic, with the kind of mood swings often to be found in team innovation projects.

At its inception, efforts were made to arrive at a diversity of experiences within the team. (Another bit of received wisdom for innovation teams). I wondered whether t ‘mission first, team afterwards’ missed a trick in team selection. If the prize is the ‘next big thing’, what might be the selection criteria? For discovery? For excellence? For delivery?

Carey describes the various dilemmas encountered as he struggled to make sense of the experience. Here’s one to add to his list, the Groucho Marx dilemma: how to assemble a team when the sort of person likely to think the unthinkable are often repelled by the ideas of teams. Might even the mighty Economist be too constraining a culture to retain in its ranks a Bill Gates, or a Richard Branson or an Anita Roddick? And how many such creatives might be good for a team? Before someone else mentions it, let me admit that the business tycoons who bothered with getting a business school education rarely shone on the formal courses, and often dropped out (like Bill Gates) to get on with the important business of inventing, designing, and making money. As for Business Schools, read Private professional elites
such as The Economist

Some lessons from history

Going back to my own extended involvement with various innovation groups, the Moby Dick reference triggered a flashback to a team of four set up within a great global organization. We have three strategic business streams. They are like three legs of an elephant. We want you to find the fourth leg of the elephant. The freedom did for us, more than the constraints.

Some years later I met the leader of another invention-seeking group from a company in a different industry. Again, it was a multi-national, again in search of the big new thing, which they believed could be best delivered a team whose only constraint was to stick to blue-sky thinking. The project manager had the self-confidence of the charismatic leader. He also seemed to be in a state of denial about the possibility that the company might just not have the knowhow to boss the world in a completely alien sort of business. It probably didn’t help that the group had acquired the name ‘the blue sky group’ (worse than red stripe, which doesn’t offer such an obvious hostage to fortune).

Both these efforts eventually sunk without trace. I have retained contacts with the organizations which have survived (no mean feat) but have no corporate memory of their innovation teams of earlier years.

These experiences seemed particularly depressing in contrast to the incredible claims made by Tom Peters and his ilk on innovative companies and their buccaneering leaders. Later the innovation frenzy subsided with more careful studies. Among these, of particular note are the analyses of Jim Collins, and the account by Ketchum and Trist of the benefits of autonomous groups at General Foods and elsewhere. These action researchers had re-discovered a systems perspective that went beyond the linear model of innovation having a ‘fuzzy front end’ where all the creativity rattles around, and the residual stages which make up the boring implementation bit. (Incidentally, the linear model highlights a similar fixation that has led Big Pharma into a misplaced search for the next block-buster drug) Ketchum and Trist re-discovered that organizational creativity is multi-leveled, that is to say a creative individual may not have a significant impact on a team, nor a creative team have impact on an organization.

So what happened to Project Red Stripe?
I think the team made a rather good fist of the challenge, and (they won’t thank me for saying it) at least were a class apart from the Alan Sugar playpen version of project leadership.

You may have guessed how the story is turning out, but you should make up your mind after accessing the website, which demonstrates the emergent and dynamic features of the new electronic media and particularly the social networking elements of it.

A courageous (foolhardy) venture? Maybe, but at least it will repay a visit to the website, which is morphing and hyperlinking its creative way into existence.


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.