Russell Ackoff on Learning, Risks and Development

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

This video shows part 3 of a Russell Ackoff presentation from 2003 on Systems Thinking and Management (see our previous post on part 1 and part 2).

An organization that wants to survive in a dynamic environment has to continually educate its members so they can [retain] their effectiveness under changing conditions.

(I substituted “retain” for “contain” in the quote above; I think he misspoke when saying contain.)

Ackoff spends a great deal of time in this presentation on the importance of learning for the long-term success of organizations. He discusses the importance of development versus just growth.

Being taught is one of the worst ways to learn anything.

If the students want to learn, what should they do? Teaching.

Faculty ought to be a resource to students who are teaching to give them the backup and support they require to learn effectively.

This idea is powerful. It relates to one of my favorite ideas; I learned it from David Langford and wrote a post on it on this blog in 2015: A Powerful Tool: The Capacity Matrix. The capacity matrix is all about learning to different levels: awareness, knowledge, know-how and mastery. It echoes Ackoff’s ideas in that basic knowledge is very different from mastery. In my opinion, the capacity matrix could be even more valuable in business and professional organizations than it is for schools.


In this presentation, Ackoff also provides a great explanation of one reason why change is often so difficult in organizations: Errors are punished. But only error of commission are punished, while errors of omission are not. Therefore, taking action to change is risky; the safe course of action is to avoid change. To develop organizations we need to understand this tendency and learn to allow taking risks, and avoid creating the fear of the consequences when things don’t work out.

We also need to learn to appreciate the high costs of errors of omission (to understand that those costs when we fail are aimed at reducing the high costs of errors of omission, if risks are taken sensibly). There are wise and unwise ways to take risks. It isn’t enough to accept taking risks: taking risks must be done wisely, with an understanding of systems thinking.

Related: Profits, Pragmatism, and the Possibilities of Possessing “Other Eyes”Organizations as Social Systems

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