Systems Thinking & The Wisdom of Ackoff

Posted on March 9, 2011

Dr. Russell Ackoff was not the father of System Thinking, but he was in my opinion its best disciple. A voice of reason in the wilderness.

In the following is one of many you will find on YouTube (I recommend you watch as many as you can), but there are a great number of important points he makes that I’d ask you to carefully ponder:

  • “There are 5 types of content in the human mind: data, information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. It’s a hierarchy.” (See my previous post for details on the Wisdom Hierarchy)
  • Regarding Peter Drucker’s infamous line, “There is a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing.” Dr. Ackoff says: “See, doing the right thing is wisdom, effectiveness. Doing things right is efficiency. The curious thing is that the righter you do the wrong thing, the wronger you become. If you’re doing the wrong thing and you make a mistake and correct it you become wronger. So it’s better to do the right thing wrong, than the wrong thing right.”
  • “So we’re now questioning, that it turns out every major social problem today is trying to do the wrong thing righter.”
  • “So instead of looking at the efficiency with which we are perusing our objectives, we’re beginning to re-examine the objectives.”
  • Dr. Ackoff considers the education system. “Our system is not about learning, […] its about teaching. We don’t recognize that teaching is a major obstruction to learning.”; “Who in the classroom learns the most…. the teacher. See the classroom is upside down.”
  • “You can take each system […] and you can see that they are all perusing objectives that are contrary to their intention.”
  • “You never learn by doing something right, because your already doing it right. You only learn by mistakes.”
  • “There are two kinds of mistakes, the kind you shouldn’t have done. [..] That’s called an error of commission. The other type of error is when you didn’t do something that you should have done. That’s an error of omission.” He goes on to point out that only errors of commission are recorded, and therefore if employees/managers can only get in trouble for doing something they shouldn’t have done, what will they do? Nothing.
  • “It’s our treatment of error that leads to a stability which prevents significant change.”

Once you’ve finished that, I recommend you watch a series of 3 videos from a single talk by Dr. Ackoff on System Thinking.

He really gets into it in Part 2, where he goes through examples of how Analytical Thought is insufficient for modern problems. Modern systems require a new pattern of thought. “‘Why?’ questions, about objects called systems, can not be answered by the use of analysis.” He goes on to explain that analysis produces knowledge but not understanding… it tells us how it works, but not why it works the way it does.

From the second part, “Synthetic thinking consists of 3 steps, which are exactly the opposite of analysis, each one:”

  1. “In the first step of analysis, you take whatever it is you want to understand and you take it apart. The first step of synthesis is you take the thing you want to understand and you say ‘What is this a part of?’ You identify the containing whole of which this is a part. So if I want to understand an automobile I say its part of the transportation system first.”
  2. “In the second step of analysis, I try to identify the properties and behaviors of the parts taken separately. In the second step of synthesis I to explain the behavior of the containing whole. Whats the transportation system?”
  3. “In the third step of [analysis] I try to aggregate the parts into an understanding of the whole. In the third step of synthesis, I dis-aggregate the understanding of the containing whole by identifying the role or function of what I’m trying to explain in that whole.”

Please do go through them, I think you’ll be enlightened. If you are new to Systems Thinking you’ll get an excellent crash course and I think be very pleased with what you find and how it can help adjust your thinking to enable you to better approach day-to-day problems you face.