Ackoff on Systems Thinking and Management

Guest post by John Hunter, author of Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.

This video shows a Russell Ackoff presentation from 2003.

Ackoff starts with a very good explanation of analytic thinking. Then he discusses the importance of understanding systems and why that requires a different type of thinking (synthesis).

When you analyze a system you learn something but you don’t get understanding.

The result of analysis of a system is knowledge. And for the first time, in the 1950s, science distinguished between knowledge and understanding, and recognized that all the work of science has produced is knowledge – but not understanding. Understanding requires a different method of thought.

Ackoff goes on to explain why understanding systems thinking is so important for management.

A system is never the sum of its parts; it’s the product of their interaction.

The performance of a system doesn’t depend on how the parts perform taken separately, it depends on how they perform together – how they interact, not on how they act, taken separately. Therefore, when you improve the performance of a part of a system taken separately, you can destroy the system.

These ideas are extremely important. Improvement must take place with an understanding of the overall system and guided by what needs to improve. That process will likely end up requiring specific improvements in parts of the system, but with an understanding of how those improvements will interact with the rest of the system (and planned improvement in other parts of the system).

The video closes with some great insights on problem solving, which should not surprise those familiar with Ackoff. His book, The Art of Problem Solving, is excellent.

It is a joy and education to listen to Russell Ackoff’s presentations. I will be adding more blog posts on presentations by him.

The video embedded above is part 1 of 4. You can watch part 2 here.

Related: The Degree of InterdependenceDr. Russell Ackoff Webcast on Systems ThinkingA Theory of a System for Educators and Managers (Dr. Deming and Dr. Ackoff)Ackoff, Idealized Design and Bell Labs

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