Life Lessons from Russell Ackoff

A recent blog by John Hunter, Ackoff on Systems Thinking and Management, highlights a collection of videos of lectures by Russell Ackoff, recently made available at this site. With fond memories of hosting “call me Russ” Ackoff for a series of annual lectures, and visiting with him regularly at his home in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, my latest blog includes a story he shared with me on several occasions, yet one which is likely not included in this collection of online videos.    As viewers will find when exploring these videos, Russ was a master storyteller, well versed in spinning yarns from his time in the Philippines with the US Navy during World War II, his discovery of “Idealized Design” while consulting for Bell Labs in the 1950s, interacting with the Shah of Iran during the 1970s, and several decades of advising August Busch III and August Busch IV, both CEOs of Anheuser Busch. To those looking to strengthen their appreciation of the Deming System of Profound Knowledge®, the writings and recordings of Ackoff can serve to significantly enhance both your comprehension and explanation of systems thinking.

Speaking of systems thinking, Russ’s collection of so-called “f-Laws” offer reminders of the actions and thinking that often parallel the behaviors in organizations operating under the tyranny of what Dr. Deming labeled the “prevailing style of management.”

You Laugh, It Happens!

In recently paging through my high school yearbook, I was reminded of the quotation I submitted, to be printed beneath my picture, something insightful beyond my teenage years, perhaps to reflect upon when sharing with my children or grandchildren. Long before reading and quoting W. Edwards Deming in presentation after presentation, I was struck by a frequent phrase used by Thomas Clarke, a favorite high school teacher. Mr. Clarke used his wry sense of humor to share stories of seemingly implausible behaviors, both by individuals and organizations. Forty-plus years later, while specific stories escape me, I can well imagine that his examples included stories surrounding the Watergate scandal of the administration of President Richard Nixon.  That said, I will never forget the punchline that followed each narrative, a resounding “You laugh, it happens!”, delivered with a grin that always seemed to transcend our naïve expressions of disbelief.   

Looking back, Mr. Clarke was a pioneer in his efforts to stretch a teenager’s understanding of how the systems that surround us are inclined to operate, subject to both active and passive thinking patterns. Consider, for example, a story shared with me by author, mentor, and systems theorist, Russ Ackoff, on several occasions, once while he served as a “Thought Leader” in a conference call I hosted with 100 worldwide participants. In response to one of the dozens of questions we collected, specifically about corporate decision-making, Russ shared an account of his consulting experiences with a well-known Fortune 50 company, one with about ten operating units. As told, he witnessed the determination of one of the operating unit’s youngest presidents to keep track of highly visible decisions made by each of his more senior peers over a period of several years. The culmination of this effort was when this very president shared his detailed record keeping of his peers’ decision-making in a meeting with all of them, with their boss, the chief executive officer, also in attendance. One at a time, the inquiring president referenced decisions his peers had made for their respective operating units. As shared by Russ, each account ended with the proposition by the presenting president that the referenced solution paths his peers were pursuing were undeniably in the best interest of each operating unit, but not necessarily aligned for the best interest of the entire corporation.  

When I first heard this story, while meeting one-on-one with Russ, I asked how the outspoken president’s peers responded to their highlighted decisions being so openly spotlighted. As he witnessed, when this president ended his peer-to-peer assessment, there was no argument for his conclusion of a distinct pattern of “siloed” decision making. As to the ensuing reaction, Russ recalled that one business unit president simply replied “What’s your point?” to his inquiring colleague, while the meeting moved ahead to the next topic.

Months later, when Russ shared this very account in the aforementioned international conference call, several participants asked him if had access to the specifics of the decisions which were illuminated in the referenced meeting. With each inquiry, Russ replied that he no longer had a record of these 40-year old decisions. As the call ended, a few friends immediately contacted me, asking if I could help them gain access to the details of the decisions. While I could not offer any more than what Russ had already shared of the meeting, I asked each friend if they needed “additional” details to believe this anecdote of siloed corporate decision making. Would they be surprised to learn, I asked, if members of Congress, or Senators, or Members of Parliament, voted in a way that served their respective constituents, if not their re-election, and not the entire nation, both now and into the future? 

While this is not to say that all elected officials act in a siloed manner, is “additional” information needed to believe Russ’s example of siloed corporate decision making?  To quote Mr. Clarke, “You laugh, it happens.”  

Learn More

In honor of the 100th anniversary of Russ’s birth, on February 12, 1919, with his middle name, Lincoln, given to him by the attending physician, and not his parents (another story he shared), to honor his birth on the anniversary of President Lincoln’s birthday, Thomas Jefferson University recently hosted a 100th birthday celebration (“Ackoff 100”) on the weekend of July 26 – 28. Follow this link to view a two-hour panel discussion of Russ’s legacy, moderated by Vince Barabba. Follow this link to view my invited lecture, “Life Lessons from Russell Ackoff.” 

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