Ackoff’s Best by Russell Ackoff

Summary

  1. System is more than just a concept. It is an intellectual way of life, a worldview, a concept of the nature of reality and how to investigate it – a weltanschauung 

Key Takeaways

  1. Systems
    1. A system is a set of two or more elements that satisfies the following 3 conditions: 1) the behavior of each element has an effect on the behavior of the whole, 2) the behavior of the elements and their effects on the whole are interdependent, 3) however subgroups of the elements are formed, each has an effect on the behavior of the whole and none an independent effect on it. A system, therefore, is a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts..The essential properties of a system taken as a whole derive from the interactions of its parts, not their actions taken separately. Therefore, when a system is taken apart it loses its essential properties. Because of this – and this is the critical point – a system is a whole that cannot be understood by analysis. 
    2. If each part of a system, considered separately, is made to operate as efficiently as possible, the system as a whole will not operate as effectively as possible. For example, if we took the highest quality parts from various cars and put them all together into a new car, we would not even obtain an automobile because the parts would not fit together. Even if they did, they would not work well together. The performance of a system depends more on how its parts interact than on how they act independently of each other. Understanding proceeds from the whole to its parts, not from the parts to the whole as knowledge does. 
    3. We must always be concerned with 3 levels of purpose: the purposes of the system, of its parts, and of the system of which it is part, the suprasystem 
    4. Systems are either variety-increasing or variety-decreasing relative to the behavior of its parts. A prison is variety-decreasing whereas a library is variety-increasing. The most variety-decreasing type of social system is one we call a bureaucracy. A bureaucracy is an organization whose principal objective is to keep people busy doing nothing. They tend to mechanize procedures, thereby reducing choice 
    5. The best system designer is one who knows how to beat any system that others design. A smart sytem can use knowledge of how it can be beat to redesign itself to reduce or eliminate that kind of beating (use of countermeasure teams helps as well)
    6. No system is as smart as some of the people it serves
  2. Planning
    1. Reactive planning has two major deficiencies. First, it is based on the mistaken assumption that if one gets rid of what one does not want, one gets what one wants. This assumption can be seen as false by anyone who turns on a television set and gets a program he or she does not want. Preactive planners focus on increasing their ability to forecast changes that will occur. Interactive planners focus on increasing their ability to control or influence change or its effects, and to respond rapidly and effectively to changes they cannot control, thereby decreasing their need to forecast. Reactive planning is primarily  concerned with removal of threats; preactive planning is concerned with exploitation of opportunities. Interactive planning is concerned with both equally but it assumes that threats and opportunities are created when an organization does as well as by what is done to it. In planning, breadth is more important than depth, and interactions are more important than actions. Planning cannot be siloed or independent, all levels should be planned for simultaneously and interdpendently. When the principles of coordination and integration are combined the holistic principle is obtained: every part of an organization at every level should plan simultaneously and interdependently. The concept of all-over-at-once planning differs significantly from both reactive bottom-up and preactive top-down planning
    2. With tongue in cheek, we can say that successful long-term planning involves, among other things uncovering the inevitable, determining how to exploit it, and taking credit for having brought it about 
    3. One way to obtain control over the future is to reduce the variations one might expect in the behavior of essential parts of the system or its environment 
  3. Problems
    1. There are 4 ways of treating problems
      1. Absolve – ignore it and hope it will go away or solve itself
      2. Resolve – do something that yields an outcome that is good enough, that satisfies. Try to identify the cause of the problem, remove or suppress it, and thereby return to a previous state (clinical approach)
      3. Solve – do something that yields the best possible outcome, that optimizes. Rely heavily on experimentation and quantitative analysis (research)
      4. Dissolve – elimiante the problem by redesigning the system that has it. Idealize and approximate an ideal system and thereby do better in the future than the best that can be done now
  4. Education
    1. Educators make little or no effort to relate the bits and pieces of information they dispense. Subject matters are kept apart. A course in one subject seldom uses or even refers to the content of another…Such compartmentalization reinforces the concept that knowledge is made up of many unrelated parts. But it is only by grasping the relationship between these parts that information can be transformed into knowledge, knowledge into understanding, and understanding into wisdom…Emphasis on separateness of subjects was characteristic of the Machine Age. Emphasis on relationships and interactions is characteristic of the Systems Age. Machine Age education is disintegrating; that of the Systems Age should be integrating.
    2. Teachers cheat to stay in the system; students, to get out of it
    3. Formal education denies the effectiveness of learning processes that take place out of class or school. Most learning takes place without teaching, but schools are founded on teaching, not learning. Therefore, the Systems Age education should focus on the learning process, not the teaching process. In the Systems Age school children should be motivated to learn whatever they ought to learn but never forced to learn what they do not want to. When students want to learn something or the need for learning it becomes apparent to them, they will learn it
    4. Industrial Age education is variety-decreasing, but individuality should be preserved at all costs. Uniformity and conformity are anathema to progress
    5. It is artificial counterproductive to separate play, formal education, and work
    6. Systems Age education should be organized as a continuing, if not a continuous, process. 
    7. Systems Age education should be carried out by either educational systems that can and do learn and adapt. It should facilitate a student’s learning what he wants and needs to learn, enable him to learn more efficiently, and motivate him to want to learn, particularly those things he needs in order to satisfy his own desires and to be socially useful
    8. Some subjects are best learned by teaching them to oneself, some subjects are best learned by teaching them to others, some skills are best learned through demonstration and instruction by one who already has it
    9. Awareness of questions that have either not been asked or answered and synthesis of those answers that are available are best attained in seminar discussions guided by one steeped in the relevant area
    10. Many students are best motivated to learn and best learn how to do so in attempting to solve real problems under real conditions with the guidance of one who is already so motivated and who knows how to learn
    11. A major deficiency in formal education lies in its formality
    12. Small groups of 3-5 students can be organized into learning cells in which they teach each other different subjects or different parts of the same subject. 
    13. Closed-book examinations – the type most frequently used – are poor tests of knowledge or understanding because they are not like real-life situations in which a person’s knowledge and understanding are tested and evaluated. They are primarily tests of memory. In real life, we are evaluated by how well we get jobs done. 
    14. I believe it is not nearly as important that a student learns any particular subject as it is that he learns how to learn and how to enjoy doing so. Subjects, disciplines, and even professions are convenient ways of labeling and filing knowledge. But the world is not organized in the same way as our knowledge of it is. There are no physical, chemical, biological, psychological, sociological, or other unidisciplinary problems. The disciplines and subjects are not different parts of the world; they are different ways of looking at the world. Hence, any problem can be looked at form the point of view from any discipline. For example, a doctor may see an elderly woman’s lack of good health as a consequence of her weak heart; an architect may see it as deriving from her having to walk up 3 flights of stairs to her inadequate apartment; an economist may see it as due to her lack of income; and a sociologist as a consequence of her family’s indifference. Progress comes from creative reorganization of what we already know as from discovery of new things.  Therefore, we should not imbed our current wants of knowledge in students’ minds as fixed categories. They should be encouraged to oranize their learning in ways that best serve them, not us. Because what one learns is not nearly as important as learning how to leanr, and because questions are at least as important as answers, students should be free to design their own curricula
    15. An ounce of information is worth a pound of data. An ounce of knowledge is worth a pound of information. An ounce of understanding is worth a pound of knowledge
    16. Information is contained in descriptions, answers to questions that begin with such words as who, what, when, where, and how many. Knowledge is conveyed by instructions, answers to how-to questions. Understanding is conveyed by explanations, answers to why questions
    17. Effectiveness is evaluated efficiency. It is efficiency multiplied by value, efficiency for a valued outcome. Intelligence is the ability to increase efficiency; wisdom is the ability to increase effectiveness 
    18. There are as many realities as there are minds contemplating them. Learning how to determine what points of view will produce the best treatment should be, but seldom is, an essential part of education
    19. Academic departments and curricula do not organize knowledge; they organize teachers and disorganize knowledge. It is important for students to realize that the best place to deal with a problem is not necessarily where the problem appears. For example, we don’t try to treat headaches with brain surgery, but by swallowing a pill 
    20. What’s wrong with teaching? Four things are wrong with teaching. 1) More concerned with transmitting than receiving (although talking to others is a good way to find out what we think, it is often a very poor way of learning what they think). 2) it assumes ignorance on the part of the students. 3) it discourages, if not kills, creativity. 4) it normally uses tests and examinations to determine what students have learned, and they do not do so effectively. 
    21. The less we expect from others, the less we are likely to get from them 
  5. Science
    1. It is particularly important for managers to understand that correlation and regression analyses cannot establish causal relationships – only experiments can do that
    2. First, we shall consider science as a process of inquiry; that is, as a procedure for a) answering questions, b) solving problems, and c) developoing more effective procedures for answering questions and solving problems. Science is also frequently taken to be a body of knowledge. We shall concentrate, however, on the process which generates this knowledge rather than on the knowledge itself. 
    3. Scientific progress has been two dimensional. First, the range of questions and problems to which science has been applied has been continuously extended. Second, science has continuously increased the efficiency with which inquiry can be conducted. The products of scientific inquiry then are 1) a body of information and knowledge which enables us better to control the environment in which we live, and 2) a body of procedures which enables us better to add to this body of information and knoweldge. science both informs and instructs. The body of information generated by science and the knowledge of how to use it are two products of science
    4. The phases of research – observation, generalization, experimentation
    5. Research in 6 phases – formulating the problem, constructing the model, testing the model, deriving a solution from the model, testing and controlling the solution, implementing the solution 
  6. Other
    1. As the rate of change increases, the complexity of the problems that face us also increases. 
    2. Analysis focuses on structure; it reveals how things work. Synthesis focuses on function; it reveals why things operate as they do. Therefore, analysis yields knowledge; synthesis yields understanding. The former enables us to describe; the latter, to explain.
    3. There are 3 basic types of systems and models of them: deterministic (neither parts nor the whole are purposeful), animated (the whole is purposeful but the parts are not), social (parts and whole are purposeful). All are contained in ecological systems – some of whose parts are purposeful but not the whole
    4. Henry Ford’s phenomenal success in the creation of a mechanistic mass production system marked the beginning of the production era but contained the seeds of its demise. He failed to appreciate the potentiality of the process he initiated when he said, in effect, “they can have any color they want as long as it is black.” This gave Alfred Sloan of General Motors the opportunity to gain domination of the market. 
      1. Dialectical Materialism
    5. To grow is to increase in size or number. To develop is to increase one’s ability and desire to satisfy one’s own needs and legitimate desires and those of others. A legitimate desire is one that, when satisfied, does not impede the development of anyone else. Development is an increase in capability and competence. Development is better reflected in quality of life than in standard of living. 
    6. To learn is to increase one’s efficiency in the pursuit of a goal under unchanging conditions
    7. The principal objective of a contract should be to ensure terminal satisfaction of both parties
    8. Whatever else creativity implies, it implies production of the unexpected. It is the unexpected that produces the quantum leaps in development and quality of life
    9. Wisdom is the ability to see the long-run consequences of current actions, the willingness to sacrifice short-run gains for larger long-run benefits, and the ability to control what is controllable and not to fret over what is not. Therefore, the essence of wisdom is concern with the future. It is not the type of concern with the future that the fortune teller has; he only tries to predict it. The wise man tries to control it. Planning is the design of a desired future and of effective ways of bringing it about. It is an instrument that is used by the wise, but not by the wise alone. When conducted by lesser men it often becomes an irrelevant ritual that produces short-run peace of mind, but not the future that is longed for. 
    10. Unless the adoption of a mission statement changes the behavior of the firm that makes it, it has no value. It should differentiate it from other companies, a mission statement should define the business that the company wants to be in, not necessarily is in, should be relevant to all the firm’s stakeholders, should be exciting and inspiring, does not have to appear to be feasible, only desirable 
    11. Good management follows the 5 C’s: Competence, Communicativeness, Concern, Courage, Creativity. The greatest of these is creativity – the creative manager makes his own breaks 
      1. Chase, Chance, and Creativity 
    12. Beauty is that property of the works and workings of man and Nature that stimulates new aspirations and commitments to their pursuit. No wonder we say of a solution to a problem that inspires us, “it is beautiful.”
    13. A wrong solution to the right problem is generally better than the right solution to the wrong problem, because one usually gets feedback that enables one to correct wrong solutions, but not wrong problems. Wrong problems are perpetuated by right solutions to them. 
    14. The personality of a child added to a family tends to be formed so as to increase the stability of the family 
    15. Many people fail to realize that there are two kinds of power – power over and power to. Power over is authority and command, whereas power to is the ability to implement 
    16. Most of us who have suffered from an information overload are aware of the fact that when the amount of information exceeds a certain amount, a supersaturation point, both the amount and percentage of it that we try to absorb decreases. We give up hope of being able to keep up and abandon our efforts to do so. The more we get beyond this point the less we use. 
    17. It has long been known in science that the less we understand something, the more variables we require to explain it. Therefore, the manager who is asked what information he needs to control something he does not fully understand usually plays it safe and says he wants as much information as he can get
    18. Style has to do with the satisfaction we derive from what we do rather than what we do it for
    19. Stakeholder view of the firm – one stakeholder group, larger than all the others combined, is almost always ignored, future generations. They may be the ones most seriously affected by what is done today. How can their interests be taken into account when we do not know what their interests will be? We do know one thing about future generations: they will be interested in making their own decisions, not in having had us make their decisions for them. This requires keeping their options open 
    20. The difference between the amount of resources consumed by a corporation and the amount of consumption it makes possible is the amount of wealth it creates
    21. The principal responsibility of managers is to create an environment and conditions under which their subordinates and do their jobs as effectively as their capabilities allow. It is not to supervise them. That is, the principal responsibility of a manager is to manage over and up, not down, to manage the interactions of their units with the rest of the organization and its environment, not to manage the actions of their subordinates. If subordinates require supervision beyond an initial break-in period, they should be replaced by persons who do not require it

What I got out of it

  1. A brilliant thinker who makes the complex simple – especially liked what he had to say about education and solving – resolving – dissolving problems