• "Environmental pollution is an incurable disease. It can only be prevented."

  • "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

  • "What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.”

  • "I can find God in nature, in animals, in birds and the environment."

  • "We won't have a society if we destroy the environment."

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How to change the system

In praise of the ideas of Russ Ackoff

IT IS hard to imagine a less enticing title for a book than “Introduction to Operations Research”. Yet Russ Ackoff, one of the authors of this tome of 1959, who died on October 29th aged 90, did not just help to define a nascent branch of industrial engineering. He wrote 30 other books, becoming one of the most influential management gurus of the 20th century in the process. His ideas about systemic thinking are vitally important today if the world is to come out of the current economic crisis in better shape than it went into it.

Today’s crisis is the result of a catastrophic failure, primarily in the financial system but also of our economic and political systems. Mr Ackoff spent most of the past half-century as the premier evangelist of systemic thinking, which he contrasted with the reductionist, atomistic thinking that had long dominated humanity’s approach to problem-solving in his view. Time and again, he would point out, decision-makers faced with crises failed to heed Albert Einstein’s warning that “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Put simply, systems thinking—which Mr Ackoff described in books such as “Redesigning the Future: A Systems Approach to Societal Problems” (1974)—focuses on the performance of a system as a whole. This is in contrast to an approach that breaks systems into parts and focuses on the performance of the individual parts, on the assumption that if each individual part is improved then the sum of the parts will also be better. This assumption often proves wrong in practice, said Mr Ackoff, who had plenty of practical experience as a consultant to more than 250 corporations and 50 government agencies. The only profession that he believed had truly embraced systems thinking is architecture, where the design process starts by asking what sort of building is desired, and then works backwards to focus on what individual parts are required. An architect never starts by saying, “Here are the parts, what can I build from them?”

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Idealized Design

Idealized Design

Idealized Design, a segment of Interactive Planning, is an organizational development process developed by Russell L. Ackoff in the 1950's which enables an organization to get beyond the problem solving mode and unleash their innovative potential.


“An idealized design of a system is the design its stakeholders would have right now if they could have any system they wanted. The design is subject to only two constraints: it must be technologically feasible (no science fiction), and it must be operationally viable (capable of surviving in the current environment if it came into existence, with or without modification). The design has one requirement: it must be capable of rapid and effective learning and adaptation, and therefore be able to change. It is called idealized because it is the best ideal-seeking systems its designers could imagine at the time, recognizing that they and others may be able to imagine a better one in the future.” (WHCA, 1996)

Read A Brief Guide to Interactive Planning and Idealized Design, which is the most succinct overview of Interactive Planning and Idealized Design to date.

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