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Tag Archives: Pourdehnad

Russ Ackoff, Systems Thinking, and Enterprise 2.0

I posted another “tribute” to Russ Ackoff in my blog at the 2.0 Adoption Council’s collaborative site and thought to share it outside the Council as well. Our site is enabled by Jive SBS and is private, so I’d like to share it with others. What follows, then, is the post as I wrote it the other day:

I am of the opinion it takes a certain kind of sensibility to understand how and why Enterprise 2.0 fits into an organization and, more importantly, how it can increase the effectiveness of everyone and everything with respect to how that organization realizes its goals. In my mind that sensibility was understood well (if not best) by people like W. Edwards Deming and the man I’d like to reflect on just a bit in this post, Russell Lincoln Ackoff. I am writing this because Russ just died last October 29 and the resonance of his passing has yet to settle amongst the community of people who knew him – either personally or through his writings and teachings. Just today I received an email from John Pourdehnad, Director of ACASA at UPenn, with a link to another tribute to Russ, which I urge you to read. I have written about his passing also, as Russ affected me profoundly. I was hoping to visit with him once again next month. Alas, that was not to be. You can read my feeble attempt here, and you can read the latest blog I received from Johnnie here. If you aren’t aware of who Russ was just Google his name and you’ll find plenty out there to inform you.

I raise this issue for several reasons. One is my feeling that, much like so many great people, the full impact of Russ’s influence will only be felt now that he is gone. Whle he was alive he was the spokesperson for his thoughts; nobody could convey what he had to say as well as he could and few tried. Absent his presence it now falls to those of us who stood at his feet to now stand upon his shoulders and try our best to carry on his work. Make no mistake about it, Russ was an important figure in contemporary thought. Not merely in business, but also in education and life in general. No less than Peter Drucker held Russ’s work in high esteem. Drucker once wrote a letter to Russell, which he proudly displayed on the wall of his office. In it, Peter had this to say:

“I was then, as you may recall, one of the early ones who applied Operations Research and the new methods of Quantitative Analysis to specific BUSINESS PROBLEMS — rather than, as they had been originally developed for, to military or scientific problems. I had led teams applying the new methodology in two of the world’s largest companies — GE and AT&T. We had successfully solved several major production and technical problems for these companies — and my clients were highly satisfied. But I was not–we had solved TECHNICAL problems but our work had no impact on the organizations and on their mindsets. On the contrary: we had all but convinced the managements of these two big companies that QUANTITATIVE MANIPULATION was a substitute for THINKING. And then your work and your example showed us–or at least, it showed me–that the QUANTITATIVE ANALYSIS comes AFTER the THINKING — it validates the thinking; it shows up intellectual sloppiness and uncritical reliance on precedent, on untested assumptions and on the seemingly “obvious.” But it does not substitute for hard, rigorous, intellectually challenging THINKING. It demands it, though — but does not replace it. This is, of course, what YOU mean BY system. And your work in those far-away days thus saved me — as it saved countless others — from either descending into mindless “model building” — the disease that all but destroyed so many of the Business Schools in the last decades — or from sloppiness parading as ‘insight.’” (I took this from a comment by Steve Brant – a friend – to Michael Trick’s Operations Research Blog. I have personally read the letter as well, in Russ’s office earlier this year)

Another reason I wish to point to Russ’s work is my belief it can – and should – play a significant role in our understanding the implications of Enterprise 2.0. As Andy points out so saliently in his book, and as I would hope most of us have already come to realize, our work is not merely to theorize about the efficacy and implications of adopting E2.0 principles, but rather to apply them to the conduct of our respective organizations such that they improve their day-to-day operations and assist them in achieving their strategic goals. I think that can best be done by also understanding the systemic nature of the organizations within which we operate, and Russ had unique understanding and insight into how this was so.

The intent I had for my personal blog, which I link to above, was to work on reconciling Systems Theory – as taught by Russ and others – to the philosophy of Dialectical Materialism; perhaps a bridge too far given the demands on my time and energy. I do, however, wish to continue understanding how the principles of E2.0 (here‘s a great overview Dion linked to in Twitter) can be best understood from the viewpoint of Systems Theory. To that end I will continue attempting to reconcile what Russ had to teach us with the work we are all engaged in with respect to this council. It is my hope many of you will asssist in this endeavor. I believe it is extremely important to our success. Actually, I believe it is a valuable component of the continuing development of human thought and organization – economically, politically, and socially. I welcome your comments.

Respectfully,

Rick

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We Lost Another of the Absolutely Best Minds in Management This Week

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.

My Last Visit With Russ

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.

Rick


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