There are two Management thinkers who have influenced my life, and the lives of many of my colleagues – even as we struggle to have their ideas embraced where I work (a titanic, long-standing struggle indeed). One of them, W. Edwards Deming, has been gone for some time now, but the other – Russell Ackoff – just died this past Thursday. Russ was a giant in the field of Systems Thinking. Russ proposed what I’ve seen referred to as the spectrum of learning. He believed the content of our minds could be classified into five basic catergories: Data; Information; Knowledge; Understanding, and; Wisdom.
Russ had been in the habit of visiting us here on the west coast to share his wisdom and wit at the beginning of every year. He would spend an entire day with, usually, a large group of interested people, sharing stories of his experiences over the years. One of those I remember the best is his experience with Bell Labs. He quite accidentally was involved in the design of a lot of today’s telephone system. From that experience he later would go on to develop his concept of idealized design – a method whereby one throws out everything that’s known about a product or system and attempts to design it based on what would be ideal, then work backward to where you currently are.
Another thing I loved to hear Russ say, which he would do frequently was his admonition that it was much harder for a large organization to stop something once it had started than to agree to supporting any activity that was outside their comfort zone. In other words, “It’s better to seek forgiveness than ask for permission”. Russ also pointed out that doing the wrong thing better only made what was being done “wronger”. Russ was so full of wisdom one could easily spend days listening to his stories and the knowledge he gained from his experiences, which were many and varied. Russ spent a large part of his life helping Anheuser-Busch truly dominate their market . . . and become the “King of Beers.”
For the past two years Russ had decided no longer to travel out here to speak to us. He was having back and hip problems and dealing with the incessant screening and the long lines and waits in the airport had become too much for him. My colleague, Bill Bellows, who had for years organized monthly telecons with some of the best speakers and writers in the field of systems thinking and management, asked me each year to accompany him to Philadelphia to visit with Russ and our friend Johnny Pourdehnad, a professor of Organizational Dynamics at UPenn. I was fortunate enough to spend many hours with both Johnny and Russell. One of my last memories of Russ is spending a lovely evening with him and his wife, Helen when Bill and I took them out to dinner for Russ’s 90th birthday. At the time Russ was suffering greatly from the pain he was experiencing associated with what he called “a shredded hip”. It was late January and there was lots of ice on the ground. We had to walk to the restaurant from where we parked and Russ was using a walker. I hovered over him like a brooding hen, scared silly he would slip and fall. He didn’t, thankfully (I had caught him once in his home office), and we had a great meal followed by a birthday dessert. I snapped a picture with my BlackBerry and now wish to share it with whoever may find themselves here.
Russell Ackoff Celebrates His 90th
There are numerous posts and websites where you can learn more about Russ and his work. You found your way here; you know how to search. However, I would like to give mention to one that has been writing about Russell for some time. Ironically, because of one word in the name of this blog, my company’s web filter blocks access to it from inside our firewall. I am referring to “The Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog“, where I got the title for this post.
Russell will be sorely missed by many people. I am hopeful his ideas, his wisdom, his tremendous intellect, and his enthusiasm for understanding and application of systems thinking will find even greater voice now that he is no longer with us. It seems a sad irony of life that so many people only become truly influential after their deaths. Doesn’t say much for us . . . but that’s the way it’s been. I hope Russ’s life will be instructive to many so that we can slowly evolve away from the mundane things that seem to attract us and pay a little more attention to things that matter.