Russell Ackoff (1919 – 2009)

ackoffSo, clearly, there are lots of genuine giants.

For me personally: Deming is the modern* father and Seddon is a current prodigy…but if I had to pick my favourite giant, it would be Russ Ackoff.

(*there were obviously many giants before him…and before them…etc)

Ackoff was a Professor at Wharton Business School in America and is credited with being a pioneer of operational research, systems thinking and management science.

He combined staggering intelligence and a rare ability to look at things differently with razor sharp humour wrapped up in humility. During his long career he consulted to/ educated (and hugely influenced) hundreds of organisations in his native USA and abroad. He authored or co-authored dozens of books and published hundreds of articles in a variety of journals.

Peter Drucker (the famous management consultant) was heavily influenced by Ackoff, writing in a letter to him your work…saved me…from sloppiness parading as ‘insight’.”

Ackoff cared deeply about educating people, holding strong views against ‘management gurus’ – which I wrote about in this earlier post. He was highly sceptical about the supposed ‘next big thing’ being preached from the never ending publishing of bestselling management books.

Systems thinking

Explaining the hugely important idea of systems thinking to people for the first time is no easy feat, which is why I use a brilliant Russ Ackoff youtube – he is funny, yet crisp and clear in his dialogue. It is truly worthwhile viewing (often).

His decades of research on systems thinking delved into deep stuff (way over my head) but the foundational basics are extraordinarily important if organisations actually want to deliver against their stated purposes.

Management f-Laws

He took his humour seriously :).

He developed the term ‘management f-Law’ to describe an observation of bad leadership and/ or misplaced wisdom that often surrounds management in organisations.

In 2006 he published a collection of over 80 management f-Laws that “are truths about organisations that we might wish to deny or ignore.”…and of course he wrote about them in the best way possible – humorously.

Here are a few taster f-Laws:

  • An organisation’s planning horizon is the same as it’s CEO’s retirement horizon;  
  • The only thing more difficult than starting something new in an organisation is stopping something old;  
  • The less important an issue is, the more time managers spend discussing it;  
  • It is very difficult for those inside a box to think outside of it;  
  • Business schools are as difficult to change as cemeteries, and for the same reasons.


Here’s Ackoff’s classic logic on ‘doing the wrong things right’*

“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. Most of our current problems are the result of policy makers and managers busting a gut to do the wrong thing right.

Getting the right thing wrong is better than putting the wrong thing right.”

(* I used this idea in my earlier post on incentives).


…and finally, a great Ackoff ‘systems thinking’ quote:

“Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other; but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes…Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.”

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