Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Russ Ackoff & The Power Of Systems Thinking: My Interview With Phyllis Haynes

America is in a crisis, one which actually extends to the rest of the world. It is not the admittedly huge crisis most people hear about: our Environmental Emergency. It is a crisis of how we attempt to solve every crisis we face. 

Russ Ackoff (master of the art of problem solving, systems thinking pioneer, and my friend and mentor for the last 10 years of his life) taught that we learn in school to use analysis to solve our problems. We break problems up into their component parts... find the part that's broken... fix that part... and then think everything will be fine. It's "find and fix the flat tire" thinking.

But society is not a car with a flat tire. While repairing a flat tire may enable you to continue on your journey, America has a bigger problem: It is "driving a car" in a world where cars themselves are now the problem. Put another way, if you were in a car but suddenly needed to cross the Atlantic from NYC to London, you would die if you drove your car into the ocean. You'd need to get out of that car and into a cruise ship or airplane to get there.

Being aware that being in a car, itself, is the problem does not come from using analytic thinking. It comes from using systems thinking (sometimes called design thinking). It comes from a process of asking "Why are things not working? What is the root cause of the problem (or problems)?" And it comes from understanding the basic concept that when things don't work, they don't work because there is a defect... a flaw... in the design of the larger system those things are a part of.

There are many crises in the world today, not just the Environmental Crisis. The one in the news even more than that crisis is our Political Crisis. But in every crisis, the solutions being offered are "fix the flat tire" type solutions. Or - similar to the case of a car polluting too much - they are "replace the internal combustion engine with battery power" solutions. But this is still not systems thinking. It is "replace one part with a better part" thinking.

Russ loved to quote Peter Drucker, his friend and colleague, who said "We are getting better and better at doing the wrong things. The more of this we do, the wronger we get. We must start doing the right things, even if we do them poorly at first." This is true systems / design thinking. It is thinking that leads to developing solutions that are complete breaks from the past: what is referred to as Discontinuous Change.

I am honored that Phyllis Haynes - who interviewed Russ once, in what is a terrific overview of his thinking in about 10 minutes - interviewed me on July 19th. She did this in part because she knows I will be participating in a gathering of Russ's colleagues July 26-28. The purpose of this event is to celebrate his centennial year and to develop the beginnings of a plan to expand his work out beyond those who currently use it. I have submitted a paper for discussion at this gathering, in which I report on what I've been doing since Russ died and what I think is the most effective way to advance the use of his work. If you'd like to read my paper, please write to me and I'll send it to you.

Phyllis and I discussed many things in this 40 minute interview (below). And it follows two more public breakthroughs I've had this year. Both involved suggesting new approaches to significant problems we face: (1) preventing armed conflict (at a UN event organized by the UNA-USA) and (2) giving the public hope that the business community can contribute to society working better (at an event organized by NYU's Stern Business School's Business and Society Program).
Here are links to those two videos:
At the UN.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Phyllis' and my conversation. Thank you again, Phyllis, for this opportunity!

Here's to thinking differently about the challenges we face... and to my late friend and mentor, Russ Ackoff. I miss him a lot.

My interview with Phyllis Haynes: