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Russ Ackoff, a system is a hole with a W

October 31, 2013

Russ Acoff father of systems thinking

Russ Acoff father of systems thinking

Last night I sent out a tweet

study > we need more CEO’s focused on #transformation not incremental efficiency my take >> ht.ly/qkP3V #Business #innovation

My friend James Rock then sent me a link to the video I have posted below. It is a talk by Russ Ackoff – which is both funny and profound. His quote that a system is a (w)hole, spelt with a W was fantastic – his insight that a system is not a sum of its parts but a sum if the interactions that take place – genius for its clarity. He made the point that to understand this concept write a note with your writing hand, then cut it off and see what happens. He is known as the father of systems thinking.

Yesterday I had also had a long conversation with John Seddon about Vanguards diagnostic methodology called “Check” which helps managers and organisations understand the workings of that organisation, often for the first time, as a system. I have seen the evidence of what can happen once one can clearly see what is going on, and how one then creates interventions based upon the interactions through the entire system rather than focusing on parts of the system.

What is extraordinary, is that Ackoff and Deming’s work goes back decades – yet we still have yet to truly grasp its potential and deploy it. Last week I was privy to two studies in the public sector that demonstrates that systems thinking, and designing for a system improves the overall quality of outcomes because its focus is on effectiveness not efficiency.

The context for the video: This presentation is from a 1994 event hosted by Clare Crawford-Mason and Lloyd Dobyns to capture the Learning and Legacy of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Russ knew Dr. Deming and speaks here about the difference between “continuous improvement” and “discontinuous improvement” as seen through the lens of systems thinking.

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