Russ Ackoff Lecture on the Age of Systems

Guest post by John Hunter, author of the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog (since 2004).

The embedded video shows a Russ Ackoff lecture, from the late 1970s, on the age of systems. The nearly 2-hour lecture spans the development of science and scientific thinking while exploring topics such as philosophy, psychology, our ways of thinking, religion, history, physics, linguistics, and more.

As usual, Ackoff’s lecture includes many insightful ideas including:

In our effort to relieve man of the necessity of work by getting machines to do it for him, we analyzed work into its elements, that was to facilitate mechanization. But since we could never do it completely, there were always tasks left over that we gave man to do. But they were elementary tasks. And therefore, we reduced man to behaving as though he were a machine; we dehumanized work.

The opportunity to listen to Ackoff, Deming, Scholtes, etc. is so interesting and rewarding. We are so fortunate to have the ability to easily access such wisdom.

In a system, the performance is never the sum of the performance of the parts taken separately. It is not the sum of the actions of the parts, it is the result of their interactions…
We are going to look at the management problems that result out of this…

Those familiar with Ackoff hear this idea quite often. It is extremely important and, quite often, not given the consideration it should in regards to decisions made inside organizations even today.

To manage a system is to control it from within… It turns out that is only one-third of management; the other two-thirds have been completely ignored throughout the emergence of the field…

The second function is how do you broaden the system in such a way as to serve the purposes of the parts more effectively and, in so doing, effectively serve the purposes of the system? That is called the humanization problem, and it is probably the most pervasive problem in the world today…

Thirdly, how do you run this system in such a way as to effectively serve the purposes of the containing system?… And that is called the environmentalism problem…

These are not separate problems; they are three aspects of the same problem… What is an environmentalism problem from the point of view of the individual worker, is a humanization problem from the point of view of the system.

This view is valuable and, nearly 50 years after he gave this lecture, our organizations have failed to bring this thinking into their management system.

What is a headache? It is an ache in the head. In management we do something that the doctor doesn’t do. A doctor doesn’t necessarily try to cure a headache by treating the head. But that is exactly what we do in management. If sales are off, that is a marketing problem, and we try to solve it in marketing. But the chances are, it is more effectively solved outside, somewhere else in the system. Therefore, the first thing that grows out of systems-thinking is marketing is everybody’s problem.

In the lecture, Ackoff provides many more valuable insights. Take the time to watch the whole lecture and think about how you can improve your management thinking by using the ideas he discusses.

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