Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking as taught by Ackoff:
[Via CDOQ-Chander’s Diary of Observations and Questions]

One of my heroes is Dr. Russell Ackoff. I have read a few books he has written and have learned Systems Thinking from him. I am surprised that the field of Systems Thinking is not well understood. Following is my attempt to share what I learned from one of Ackoff’s recent lectures.

Albert Einstein once said, “You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.” According to Dr. Russell Ackoff most managers agree with Einstein’s statement but not many know what it means. It is easy to agree with something whose meaning is vague.

In the Renaissance era, when the science as we know it today was born, a scientific inquiry method called Analysis was developed. Analysis comes naturally to us. Just watch kids breaking new things and being curious about the parts. The understanding of something follows a three step process in analytical thinking:

1. Take it apart
2. Understand (function, role, behavior) what the parts do
3. Assemble the understanding of the parts into understanding of the whole

Thus begins a very nice discussion of what systems thinking is and how it affects business. These approaches will have to be brought to bear on many of the complex problems we now face.

This is because we have pretty much solved all the problems where analysis and reductionism can be used. We are now left with multifunctional, highly linked problems.

For example, many of the drugs we have developed worked against relatively simple diseases. a single drug affects a single receptor that was the major cause for the defect is one example. But things like weight, heart disease, etc, will not have single points of fault and thus are unlikely to have a single cure. Multi-pronged cures may well be necessary and a complete (or nearly complete) understanding of the relevant biological systems will be necessary.

If an organization can not bring synthetic, multidisciplinary approaches to bear, then it will most likely be ineffectual in finding a solution to these types of problems. That is why systems thinking will be important.

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