one of the challenges of exploring systems theory is you never know what you still most fail to understand until you bump into it
after 9/11 i spent a lot of time listening to people who at least try to see the world in system terms not just numerical extraction-one of the great missing pieces for my mind at that time was this paper of ackoff reproduced below
of course what it may spring in your mind will be different than what it did to me
it reminded me of my graduate and post graduate work in maths - as hunting out systems- i was but a small player compared with guys like steven hawkins whose supercharged wheelchair was quite a liability in the narrow corridors of cambridge department of applied maths and theoretical physics 1972 but i became fascinated by what tv was doing to the data that all our lives are produced around and whether computers would make human mediation better or worse- systems compound trajectories to one of 2 oposite ends not some halway space between better or worse
ackoff's paper was also a timely reminder to me of einstein bon mots- whenever mans science says there is no more space to innovate men mean they cannot understand more until they go to a more micro level of mapping dynamic interactions- macroeconomists and their associated ruling professions hate eistein when you explain how little they understand about exponential risks
and i had also be re-reading my grandfathers 25 years of shared history with mahatma gandhi up to india's independence and come across einstein correspondence with gandhi- lasting will only be sustainable leaders like mahatma and his attempts to dramatise truth without anger, however urgent and desperate the leadership crisis is to being
systems are also impacted by a curious property of holonic which bteere engineers and architects and some artists understand - by definition a system is both inside bigger systems and contains smaller systems- i have always thought that those whose schooling in maths stopped before calculus and integration are being blocked from seeing all the world has to offer- i now realise in bush's response to the heinous 9/11 much of washington dc looks as if its rush to administrate over people is deprived of calculus and other system mapping views - i hope americans will let youth explore ways out of dc's blindness
a related idea is chaos theory- i have never found the metaphor that a butterfly flapping its wings in the amazon can impact the world's supreme leader- i suggest a more direct exemplar is one mans sneeze somewhere towards the end of 2019 that has become one of nature's final examination questions of every civilisation around the world of the 2020s
May 26, 2004 1
TRANSFORMING THE SYSTEMS MOVEMENT
Russell L. Ackoff
The situation the world is in is a mess. This hardly requires documentation; it's
obvious. Furthermore, as Leslie Gelb observed (1991), the prospects for
improvement are not promising:
...the emerging world requires a new foreign policy agenda, and fresh
faces to execute that agenda. The trouble is, the same old "experts" are
still running foreign policy and most of them only dimly understand the
world they preside over. Indeed, few people today, in or out of
Government, have the background and skills to grasp, let alone direct, the
new agenda. ( p. 50)
Reform will not do it; transformations are required, two kinds. First a
transformation of the way nations and international institutions handle global
affairs and second, a transformation in the way systems thinkers collectively
conduct the systems movement. The second must come first if we hope to have
any effect on the global mess.
Reformations and transformations are not the same thing. Reformations are
concerned with changing the means systems employ to pursue their objectives.
Transformations involve changes in the objectives they pursue. Peter Drucker put
this distinction dramatically when he said there is a difference between doing
things right (the intent of reformations) and doing the right thing (the intent of
The righter we do the wrong thing, the wronger we become. When we make a
mistake doing the wrong thing and correct it, we become wronger. When we
make a mistake doing the right thing and correct it, we become righter.
Therefore, it is better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right. This
is very significant because almost every problem confronting our society is a
result of the fact that our public policy makers are doing the wrong things and are
trying to do them righter. Consider a few examples.
The United States has a higher percentage of its population in prison than any
other country, and simultaneously has the highest crime rate. We have more
people in prison than are attending college and universities, and it cost more per
year to incarcerate them than to educate them. Something is fundamentally
Most who are imprisoned are subsequently released. As criminologists have
shown those released have a higher probability of committing a crime when they
come out than when they went in, and it is likely to be a more serious crime.
Prison is a school for learning criminality, not a correctional institution.
In quality the health care system of the United States is ranked 37th by the World
Health Organization. We are the only developed country without universal
coverage; about 42 million people in our country have no health care assured.
Moreover, study after study has shown that much of the need for the care that is
provided is created by the care that is given; excess surgery, incorrect diagnoses,
wrong drugs prescribed or administered, unnecessary tests. The fact is that the
so-called health care system can survive only as long as there are people who
are sick or disabled. Therefore, whatever the intent of its servers, the system can
only assure its survival by creating and preserving illness and disability. We have
a self-maintaining sickness- and disability-care system, not a health care system.
The objectives that must be changed in transformations are not usually those that
are proclaimed; rather they are the one actually pursued. For example, most
corporation proclaim maximization of shareholder value as their primary objective.
Any objective observer of corporate behavior knows that this is an illusion. As a
study conducted a while back at GE showed, the principal objective of
corporations is to maximize the security, standard of living, and quality of life of
those making the decisions. Recent disclosures at Enron and WorldCom, among
others, made this abundantly clear.
A similar discrepancy between objective proclaimed and objective practiced can
be observed in most organizations. For example, one could mistakenly believe
that the principal objective of universities is to educate students. What a myth!
The principal objective of a university is to provide job security and increase the
standard of living and quality of life of those members of the faculty and
administration who make the critical decisions. Teaching is a price faculty
members must pay to share in the benefits provided. Like any price, they try to
minimize it. Note that the more senior and politically powerful teaching members
of the faculty are, the less teaching they do.
Transformations not only require recognition of the difference between what is
practiced and what is preached — a transformation called for years ago by
Donald Schon (1971) — it also requires a transformation in the way we think.
Einstein put it powerfully and succinctly:
Without changing our patterns of thought we will not be able to solve the
problems we created with our current patterns of thought.
I believe the pattern of thought that is required is systemic. It is difficult if at all
possible to reduce the meaning of "systemic thinking" to a brief definition.
Nevertheless, I try.
Systemic thinking is holistic versus reductionistic thinking, synthetic versus
analytic. Reductionistic and analytic thinking derives properties of wholes from
the properties of their parts. Holistic and synthetic thinking derive properties of
parts from properties of the whole that contains them. The creation of the
department of Homeland Security is a prime example of reductionistic and
analytical thinking; the whole formed by the aggregation of existing parts. In
contrast, when an architect designs a house he first sketches the house as a
whole and then puts rooms into it. The principal criterion he employs in
evaluating a room is what effect it has on the whole. He is even willing to make a
room worse if doing so will make the house better.
In general, those who make public policy and engage in public decision making do
not understand that improvement in the performance of parts of a system taken
separately may not, and usually does not, improve performance of the system as
a whole. In fact, it may make system performance worse or even destroy it.
We have not effectively communicated such thoughts to public policy and
decision makers. What should we be communicating to them that would, if
heeded, transform our global society into one that is just and equitable, one that
would reduce if not eliminate the maldistribution of wealth, quality of life, and
opportunity? In other words: what should we communicate and be doing that
could promote development of the world and its parts by changing the way public
policies and decisions are made?
Up to now, those of us in systems have had little or no effect on the global mess.
Nevertheless, I believe there is a role that we could play in the dissolution of this
mess. What and how might we contribute to its dissolution?
I think we can contribute by making public policy and decision makers aware of
ideas and concepts that would enable them to think more creatively and
effectively about the mess the world is in. Here I discuss only a few systemic
ideas and processes that I wish they understood. There are many others but I
would settle for their grasping this much.
The ideas and concepts I identify here are familiar to most systems thinkers even
if they would express hem differently. I include them here not to inform them but
to call their attention to aspects of systems thinking that I believe they should
communicate to public policy and decision makers.
DEVELOPMENT VERSUS GROWTH
I hope we can help public policy and decision makers realize that development
and growth are not the same thing. Neither presupposes the other. Rubbish
heaps grow but do not develop. Einstein continued to develop long after he
stopped growing. Some nations grow larger without developing. and others
develop without growing.
Growth is an increase in size or number. Development is an increase in
competence, the ability to satisfy ones needs and desires and those of others.
Growth is a matter of earning; development is a matter of learning. Standard of
living is an index of national growth; quality of life is an index of its development.
Development is not a matter of how much one has but how much one can do with
whatever one has. This is why Robinson Crusoe is a better model of
development than J. Pierpont Morgan.
The quality of life that an individual or group can achieve obviously depends on
both their competence and their wealth. Of two societies with the same level of
competence the one with the most wealth can achieve the higher quality of life.
But of two societies with the same resources, the one with the greater
competence can achieve a higher quality of life.
Because development is a matter of learning, one cannot do it for another. The
only kind of development possible is self-development. However, one can
facilitate the development of another by encouraging and supporting their
learning. Nations must stop acting as though they can solve other nations'
problems. Nations, like individuals, learn less from the successes of others than
from their own mistakes.
One never learns from doing things right because, obviously, one already knows
how to do it. What one derives from doing something right is confirmation of what
one already knows. This has value, but it is not learning. One can only learn
from mistakes, by identifying and correcting them. But all through school and in
most places of employment we are taught that making mistakes is a bad thing.
Therefore, we try to hide or deny those we make. To the extent we succeed, we
Furthermore, there are two types of mistakes: errors of commission, doing
something we should not have done; and errors of omission, not doing something
we should have done. Examination of the failures or crises that organizations and
institutions have experienced reveals that errors of omission are the more serious.
For example, In the latter part of the last century IBM got into serious trouble
because it failed to pay attention to the development of small computers, and
Kodak got into its current trouble for failing to focus on the development of digital
photography until others had successfully staked a claim to it.
Our public and private accounting systems record only the less important type of
mistake, errors of commission. Therefore, for executives who want to maximize
their job security in a public or private organization that deprecates mistakes and
ignores errors of omission, the best strategy is to do nothing or as little as
possible. This is the root of the conservatism that permeates the world today.
This nation, I believe, has never had an administration as reluctant to
acknowledge its errors as the one currently in office. Because of this it has
precluded the possibility of its learning.
We need to learn a great deal more about learning. Our schools at all levels are
devoted more to teaching than to learning. For example, it is apparent to anyone
who has taught others that the teacher learns more than the students do.
Teaching is a much better way to learn than being taught. Schools are upside
down. Students ought to be teaching and faculty members should be learning
how to help others learn and how to motivate them to do so.
A student once stopped me in the hall and asked, "Professor, when did you teach
your first class?" That was easy: I answered, "September of 1941." "Wow!" he
said, "You have been teaching for a very long time." I agreed. Then he asked,
"When was the last time you taught a course in a subject that existed when you
were a student?" This question required some thought but finally I got it. and
answered, "September of 1951." He said, "Do mean to say that everything you
have taught for about fifty years you had to learn without having it taught to you?"
I said, "Yes." "Wow,” he said again. "Your must be a pretty good learner." I
modestly agreed. He continued, "What a pity you are not that good a teacher."
He had it right: faculty members know how to learn better than they know how to
teach. Therefore, they should be acting as resources to students who are either
engaged in teaching others, or learning on their own or with others cooperatively.
One of the great gifts I received from West Churchman, whose life we will
remember and celebrate tonight, is that he let me go through graduate school
teaching most of the courses I needed to take for graduation.
Democracy has to be learned. It cannot be imposed on others. It must be
learned by experiencing it. It does not come to us naturally. All of us are brought
up by adults who, even in permissive families, are authorities who control us or
set limits within which we have freedom. In effect, we are raised in autocratic
structures however benevolent they may be. Therefore, in a sense autocracy is
more natural than democracy.
I was once involved in a project in Mexico which taught me how democracy could
be learned. A group of us from several Mexican universities and a government
agency were able to make available to a very remote Indian village in the Sierra
Madras Mountains a substantial sum of money the village could use for its
development. It alone had to make the decisions as to how to use the money but
it had to make these decisions democratically. The only power the team of which
I was a part had was to veto any decisions not made democratically and which did
not involve development. Town meetings were initiated fin the square in the
center of the village, and after a series of tries the village members learned how to
make decisions democratically. They also learned and difference between
development and welfare.
HOW DO WE HAVE TO CHANGE OURSELVES?
... man has been able to grow enthusiastic over his vision of ...
unconvincing enterprises. He has pit himself to work for the sake of an
idea, seeking by magnificent exertions to arrive at the incredible. And in
the end, he has arrived there. Beyond all doubt it is one of the vital
sources of man's power, to be thus able to kindle enthusiasm from the
mere glimmer of something improbable, difficult, remote. (1966,p.1)
Now, what might the systems community do about the deficiencies I have
discussed? Clearly we must learn how through communication to make public
policy and decision makers aware of these deficiencies and what to do about
them. We are not doing so now. Most of our communication is addressed to
each other, not to public policy and decision makers. Our communication is
based on our needs not those of others. With the intent of changing this I have
First, our principal professional organization, the International Federation for
Systems Research, should publish a journal addressed to public policy and
decision makers who can affect the global mess. Through expository articles and
case studies the journal should help them come to understand systems thinking
and its use in their work. It should be distributed to them at no cost. The
Federation should cover the cost, if necessary by voluntary contributions of its
The Journal, possibly called Systems Thinking in Public Affairs, should be
supplemented by at least one conference per year held at a site at which a major
multigovernmental institution is located. Public policy and decision makers should
be invited mostly to discuss their problems and listen to unconventional systemic
approaches to them.
In addition, those of us who think of ourselves as system thinkers should
contribute to those publications that are read by those in public life whom we want
to affect. We should also try to make presentations at conferences they attend.
Our professional societies should make it their responsibility to facilitate such
participation by informing us of relevant opportunities and, where possible, by
arranging jointly sponsored meetings.
Finally, we should engage in assisting development efforts of less developed
countries, regions, communities, and neighborhoods. This does not mean
imposing our solutions on them but assisting them in implementing their proposed
solutions to their problems, even if they are wrong. They can develop more by
making their own mistakes than by imitating our successes.
Systems thinking produces radical and potentially revolutionary visions of public
institutions. Nothing short of such visions can transform the state of world affairs.
I believe we have an obligation to the global society of which we are a part to
make every possible effort to bring about a radical transformation of that society
into one in which our children do not have to contend with the mess we have
created and are exacerbating.
May 26, 2004 11
For an effort to redesign our society and its major institutions, see
Redesign Society by Russell L. Ackoff and Sheldon Rovin, Stanford University
Press, Stanford, California, 2003.
Gelb, Leslie H., "Fresh Faces" in The New York Times, December 8, 1991,pp. 50-
Ortega y Gasset, José, Mission of the University, Norton, New York, 1966.
Schon, Donald A., Beyond the Stable State, Random House, New York, 1971.
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as our 2025 Report (first translated 1984) showed the transition from pure knowledge www to commerce would be crucial- all the dismal errors that had been made with mass media tv might have one last chance of correction-we invite you to check out how well did the world's biggest new market makers eg bezos and ma understand this tipping point - twitter version of 2025 report related ref-download 10 minute audio invitation to make 2020s most loving decade ever from family foundation Norman Macrae- The Economist's Unacknowledged Giant you can select contents for hosting debates on entrepreneurial revolution, youth friendships across borders or download the whole of the 2025 report here
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