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.
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.
November 10th, 2009 at 11:22 pm
Thoughtful and gracious tribute, Rick.
November 10th, 2009 at 7:49 am
Very interesting to learn about him and his ideas!
November 1st, 2009 at 4:29 pm
Here is the official version of Russ’ obit:
Russell L. Ackoff, Management Consultant & Systems Thinker, 90
Recognized internationally as a pragmatic academic, Russell Ackoff devoted most of his professional life to “dissolving” complex societal and organizational problems by engaging all stakeholders in the design of an “idealized” solution. Born in Philadelphia to Jack and Fannie (Weitz) Ackoff, he completed undergraduate studies in Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1941. From 1942 to 1946 he served in the U.S. Army, stationed in the Philippines. Upon returning from the war, he obtained a doctorate in the Philosophy of Science from Penn, where he met and married Alexandra Makar.
From 1947 to 1951 Dr. Ackoff was Assistant Professor in Philosophy and Mathematics at Wayne State University. It was here that he first sought to establish an institute devoted applying philosophical beliefs about the nature of man to the design and improvement of social institutions. In 1951, Ackoff and a group of colleagues were invited to join the Case Institute of Technology School of Engineering, where they were instrumental in establishing one of the world’s first Departments of Operations Research, an accomplishment that still identifies Ackoff as the “Father of Operations Research.”
In 1964, the then fledgling graduate business program at the Wharton School recruited Ackoff and his colleagues. The innovative program he started at Penn in the 1970s – Social Systems Sciences – combined organizational design theory and practice, and sought to escape traditional disciplinary bounds. In 1986 Dr. Ackoff left academia and founded INTERACT, a consulting firm and think tank.
Dr. Ackoff remained intellectually and professionally active until shortly before his death. As a Professor Emeritus of the Wharton School and Visiting Professor of Marketing at Washington University in St. Louis, he continued to be a sought after speaker and lecturer to corporations and governments. In recent years, he co-founded Adopt-A-Neighborhood for Development, Inc., an organization dedicated to encouraging and facilitating self development programs in disadvantaged communities. He maintained a rigorous lecture schedule in executive education programs around the world. A prolific writer throughout his lifetime, he produced a long list of books and publications, including Introduction to Operations Research, The Art of Problem Solving, Creating the Corporate Future, and Management in Small Doses. His books are read around the world and several have been translated into 15 or more languages.
Over his years of teaching, traveling and lecturing he acquired a fiercely loyal following of students, colleagues and clients. Resisting always the moniker of “guru” so often applied to him in the popular business press, he once said “I am not a guru…gurus encourage followers who do things their way. I am an educator…I encourage others to go out and adapt these ideas…to do whatever is going to be the most effective solution for them.”
Dr. Ackoff is survived by his wife of 22 years, Helen Wald Ackoff, three children from his first marriage, Alan Ackoff, Karen Ackoff, and Karla Ackoff Kachbalian; his stepson, Richard Wald, and grand-dogs Zabi, Tickle, and Weema. He passed away on October 29, 2009, due to complications following hip replacement surgery.
In lieu of flowers donations can be sent to the American Heart Association.
November 1st, 2009 at 9:18 am
One of them, Steven Brandt, has composed a marvelous article in the Huffington Post today (November 1, 2009). It’s entitled “Russell Ackoff – ‘The Einstein of Problem Solving’ – Has Died.” You can read it here (assuming this URL translates properly) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-g-brant/russell-ackoff—the-eins_b_341349.html.
My intent is to write more about him here and to tweet what I think are his most important contributions on a regular basis. Thanks for your comment, Ken.
November 1st, 2009 at 7:54 am
With luck, his disciples (you and I included) will continue promoting his writings and philosophies.