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Steven G. Brant

Steven G. Brant

Posted: November 1, 2009 04:58 AM

Russell Ackoff, "Einstein of Problem Solving," Has Died

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The world lost a very great man this past Thursday. So great, in fact, that the only person I can compare him to is Einstein. And that's because this man - Russell L. Ackoff, Professor Emeritus of The Wharton School - transformed the world of problem solving just as Albert Einstein transformed he world of science. Russ was my friend and mentor for the last 10 years and was 90 years old when he passed away from complications resulting from hip replacement surgery. His official obituary is here.

Why I compare Russ Ackoff to Albert Einstein

Before Einstein and his fellow physicists made their discoveries early in the 20th Century, the scientific world assumed that our universe was - essentially - a "giant clock." This mechanical view of the universe was made obsolete by the discovery of Quantum Mechanics, through which the universe was redefined as being an interrelated and interconnected series of waves... of patterns of energy. (I'm using short-hand language here.) The bottom line: computers could not exist without Quantum Mechanics, because its principles make possible how computer chips work.

Mechanical view of the universe... no computers. Quantum Mechanics... computers (and a whole lot more). It's that simple.

Well, before Russell Ackoff and his fellow organizational development theorists made their discoveries in the period following WWII, the management world assumed that solving the problem of how to make organizations work better required using Analysis: breaking the problem (the organization) up into its component parts... fixing those parts (including "those people") that were broken... and putting the organization back together, with the expectation that it would then work. This was also a "giant clock" philosophy.

This mechanical view of problem-solving was made obsolete by the development of Systems Thinking, through which making organizations work better was redefined in recognition of the role played by the design of the entire system. Synthesis - the thinking method involving seeing how different elements in a system interact with each other - replaced Analysis as the method of developing breakthrough operational improvements (otherwise known as Innovation).

Innovation comes from looking at whether an entire system can be transformed, not if certain parts of a system can be improved. You don't get from a car to an airplane by just looking at how the car's engine works.

The work of Russ Ackoff and his colleagues codified what had previously been done by people who were innovators naturally (inventors, for example). Previously, how these people thought was not a formally recognized thinking discipline.

Why All This Matters

If you don't think codifying the thinking used by inventors matters, here's why it does:

You may not get from a car to an airplane without thinking this way. But you won't get from a nation that is failing to solve the many crises it faces to a nation that is healthy and provides an environment in which its citizens can prosper without thinking this way either.

In fact, it is Einstein himself who once said..

"The specific problems we face cannot be solved using the same patterns of thought that were used to create them."

Russ loved that quote.

Currently - in the course of trying to solve its numerous, critical problems - America is tearing itself apart. And that is because - technically speaking - it is using Analytic Thinking in its efforts to do so. American needs to look at the larger system - in this case, the larger sociological culture - in which all of its separate problems exist. That is the only way America is ever going to solve its problems once and for all.

It is possible to solve the many crises America faces. It is possible to not just solve but dissolve our crises in education, health care, job creation, etc. But we won't do so if we keep trying to solve them the way we have... separately. We must solve them in the context of redesigning the larger sociological system in which they all reside.

And this is why I am urging all of you to explore the life's work of Dr. Russell Ackoff - and that of the other systems thinking theorists with whom he worked - on this, the occasion of his death. There is no more critical thing "we, the people" can do for the long-term health of our nation than to reorient how we approach solving our problems.

We must learn to think differently!

Russ Ackoff knew that the true solution to a problem can only be found by examining the design of the larger system in which the problem exists... and then correcting that design to eliminate the flaws that generated the problem in the first place. This "start with the whole and work back down to the broken part so you know *why* the part is broken (not just *that* the part is broken)" is a radical and upside-down way of thinking, but it works!

Analytic view of problem solving... problems persist. Synthetic/Systemic view of problem solving... problems dissolve, never to return! It's that simple!

Problems Dissolved, Never To Return

"Problems dissolved, never to return? What are you talking about? If such a thing were true, how come I haven't heard of it before? If Russell Ackoff - and no disrespect intended... may he rest in peace - helped develop such a miraculous way of solving problems, how come he isn't as famous as Einstein? In fact, how can you compare someone who's unknown to someone as famous as Einstein?"

I'm sure many of you are thinking some variation of the above thoughts.

And let me say for the record that the nearly 60 year history during which a critical mass of the American public - or, at a minimum, of the American public's political/civic leadership - never learned that this body of knowledge exists is one of the greatest cultural developmental failures I have ever known... but one I have come to understand in the following terms:

Only when disaster strikes do cultures make significant changes in how they view what they are doing... in how they organize themselves to create a future that's different from their past. That disaster can be economic (The New Deal grew out of The Great Depression) or military (Japan's non-violent constitution grew out of it losing WWII) or a combination of both (Nazi Germany grew out of Germany's loss in WWI and its economic crisis - linked to the global economic crisis - in the years immediately after). Please note: I didn't say all such changes are for the betterment of the global situation. I only said that disasters produce change.

Einstein and his colleagues benefiting from the fact that they were working within a field - physics - that accepts new knowledge once that knowledge has been sufficiently proven. Plus, when it comes to reaching a critical mass of political leaders, they benefited from their research leading to the development of the Atomic Bomb. In a cruel twist of "public marketing fate", the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people from the use of The Bomb - when combined with its unique visual qualities - made it part of the public's consciousness in a significant way.

So, the world of physics was permanently changed. And Einstein's name became known to people throughout the country... and the world.

Russ Ackoff worked within a field in which no such "replace old theory with new" process exists. Old management processes continue to coexist with the new. As I related in my essay about why President Obama should listen to the late Peter Drucker rather than General McChrystal, most of us grow up in an autocratic management world called "the family", which doesn't help when it comes to creating a critical mass for change.

But this 60 year long "failure to communicate"may be coming to an end. And not, specifically, because Russ Ackoff has passed away (although I am determined that his passing receives the attention from the press that it deserves).

No, the end to Systems Thinking's long period of isolation in an intellectual wilderness may come because the United States appears to be headed for the kind of crisis that has brought about large-scale change in the past.

As I said above, America is tearing itself apart.

As Frank Rich reports in today's New York Times, the Republican Party is progressing steadily down a "road to purity" (led by people such as Sarah Palin and Glen Beck). This will further destroy the already nearly non-existent partnership that exists between the two sides of "the house of America". And as President Lincoln said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." I don't care what the DOW does or what the GDP numbers are in the next quarter. (And please note: BusinessWeek doesn't appear to care about GDP numbers that much anymore either. See "The GDP Mirage" in the latest issue.)

It's the health of our socio-political fabric that determines whether a nation avoids a catastrophic crisis or not. And right now, that health is dropping rapidly.

So, the stage is being set for when America will finally be ready for "a new way". I only hope that the Systems Thinking community (and its cousins - by virtue of the Performance Model of The UN Global Compact - in the corporate social responsibility community) manage to get organized well enough to offer themselves as the "new way" when the time comes. Because if they don't then some "other new way" will take its place. (Yes, I'm talking about, Sarah Palin. I know she sees this crisis coming. But she has a very different take on what the response to the crisis should be. After all, she's an "end of days" person.)

But there's another hurdle that Systems Thinking will have to overcome. And that is that - at its very core - it is a discipline that involves thinking differently. As the name suggests, it involves thinking in systems... frequently and continuously... which is not how many of us have been taught to think.

Ours is a culture of specialists. From doctors, to lawyers, to sports, to politics... most of us specialize in something. Precious few of us are generalists. The saying "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing" is correct when it comes to doing specialized actions, like flying a plane. But "a little knowledge about a lot of things" is actually a very powerful thing... because only by knowing "a little about a lot" can we see the connections between things that don't necessarily appear to have obvious connections.

But there's one person who comes to mind whose 20+ years of talking about "connections" - to the public in a very effective way - may be of use here. I'm referring to the British historian and educator, James Burke.

Starting with The Day the Universe Changed (which I watched on PBS in the late 1980's) and through Connections 1, Connections 2, and Connections 3, James Burke has produced the finest examples I know of educational programming on the interconnectedness between ideas and how those connections throughout history have led to the modern society we have today.

I urge the Systems Thinking community to reach out to James Burke and, in all other ways possible, to encourage the public to learn this history lessons he has to teach as a way of motivating study of Systems Thinking.

Russ Ackoff has left a huge legacy. Nearly 30 books, hundreds of articles, and a global network of students and colleagues he impacted in very significant ways. To get an idea of what I mean, I invite you to read the notices from people at the UPenn Organizational Dynamics Program site. Or just search "Ackoff" on Twitter.

But to me, the real legacy of his work is the knowledge of how our society can heal itself. Russ' work wasn't about management in some objective, dispassionate way. It was humane and deeply philosophical... about people achieving their best, based on their individual, natural gifts. He may have talked tough to people at times, but it was a form of "tough love" based on his wanting us all to reach our full potentials.

As a nation, we are suffering sociologically from a loss of capacity to talk to those who don't think like we think. And we are suffering procedurally from an attempt to fix all the seemingly separate challenges we face without recognizing that they all share a common core connection... and that - by redesigning that connection... that larger system - the solutions to those separate challenges will become self-obvious and much easier to design and put in place.

A great man may have left us... one who knew that it's possible for our nation (and our world) to be a place of prosperity for all. And he may have even known how to get there. But what he had to teach remains. The question I'd like to ask you to ask yourself is:

If our society could get beyond the huge mess that it's in but, to do so, I would have to become a generalist instead of a specialist... to see whole systems instead of parts of systems...would I be willing to learn to think this way?

I look forward to hearing answers from those who want to share them.

And here's a one minute video that may help you think this through....


 
 
 

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