Ackoff and system thinking

“English word does not have the word for system problem, unlike in French we have ‘problem’ and ‘problematique’, in English we only have problem. Therefore we create a better technical definition for system problem which is now called a mess…”

Dr. Russell Ackoff – freely quoted/praphrased from one of his lecture

In addition to Dr. W Edwards Deming, this gentleman is my other hero: Dr. Russell Ackoff.

Read his idea the first time from Senge’s The Fifith Discipline and, thanks to the internet, I learn more throgh wikipedia and especially from his documentary on you tube. One of his lecture is below

As I am working more and more to help improving business performance, it struck me how true what Ackoff have taught (also taught by Deming as part of his System of Profound Knowledge):

In a system, we got to understand the system. We got to understand not only parts of the system but also the interaction among the parts.

Ackoff had long critized the heavy emphasize on “analysis’, breaking a system into parts and then try to isolate the problem in the specific part. While it works for many problems, his argument is it won’t work for a big problem or a dynamically complex problem.

Which is true.

I had experienced a situation when I was one of product leader in a company. In 2007, we were under financial crisis and face a mountain budget cut for year 2008.

Cutting the budget –> reduce our services/features to customers —> reduce our competitiveness in the market –> can be a threat to the company’s survival in the long term.

Not cutting the budget –> endanger the financial position of our company –> threat to the company’s survival in the short term

So, the obvious solution is we cut the budget, right?


or at least I think it’s a wrong way to solve the issue (anyway, the company decided to cut the budget AND it sold to another company).

If I have to face similar situation, the solution is still a mystery to me; but, I think I will use a better understanding of the entire system to find a better solution rather than a simplistic cut budget for solving today’s problem (but not tomorrow’s problem).

I have this thinking also when I had this imagination to solve Jakarta’s traffic problem.

The easiest way is to tightly control the cars sold to Jakarta city, but it will have significant impact to the economy; automotive industry is one significant contributor to Indonesian economy, especially the job market.

How about the mass transportation? It is the best way, but I wonder why it takes 100 years for the city to make it happen. It could be the investment, infrastructure, and especially the traffic management during the construction.

This must be the situation which is called dynamic complexity; or in Ackoff’s word “a mess”.

The solution of this kind of issue, could not simply by analysis but by a system thinking and solution.

And I still wonder why system thinking has not become a common practice in today’s business and organization…

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