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October 30, 2009

Russell L. Ackoff, Management Consultant & Systems Thinker, 1919 -2009

Professor Russell L. Ackoff has been described as a Renaissance Man, architect, city planner, philosopher, behavioral scientist, trailblazer in the field of organizational operations, the pre-eminent authority on organizational systems theory, best-selling author, world traveler—even a humorist.  Recognized internationally as a pragmatic academic, Russ, as he was known to all, devoted most of his professional life to “dissolving” complex societal and organizational problems by engaging all stakeholders in designing solutions.

Born in Philadelphia to Jack and Fannie (Weitz) Ackoff, he completed undergraduate studies in Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1941. From 1942 to 1946 he served in the U.S. Army, stationed in the Philippines. Upon returning from the war, he obtained a doctorate in the Philosophy of Science from Penn, where he met and married Alexandra Makar.http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_IcOPAi6Gm1A/SFRATvUv5CI/AAAAAAAAAFc/fKU_EUYg7Gs/s400/ackoff+2.jpg

From 1947 to 1951 Dr. Ackoff was Assistant Professor in Philosophy and Mathematics at Wayne State University. It was here that he first sought to establish an institute devoted applying philosophical beliefs about the nature of man to the design and improvement of social institutions. In 1951, Ackoff and a group of colleagues were invited to join the Case Institute of Technology School of Engineering, where they were instrumental in establishing one of the world's first Departments of Operations Research, an accomplishment that still identifies Ackoff as the “Father of Operations Research.”

In 1964 the fledgling graduate business program at the Wharton School recruited Ackoff and his colleagues. In 1980, the Social Systems Sciences Department was established at Wharton. This innovative program combined organizational design theory and practice, sought to escape traditional disciplinary bounds, and cultivated students motivated by independent thought and action.  

In 1986 Dr. Ackoff retired from the Wharton School, became Anheuser Busch Professor Emeritus of Management Science, and founded INTERACT, a consulting firm and think tank.

In September 2000, he was honored at Penn by the establishment of the Ackoff Center for Advancement of Systems Approaches (ACASA) in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the result of generous contributions of Ray Stata (chairman of the board, Analog Devices), the Anheuser-Busch Foundation, and the General Motors Foundation.  In 2002 the Russell Ackoff Doctoral Student Fellowship for Research was established in the Wharton School.

In 2003, at age 87, he returned to Penn as Distinguished Affiliated Faculty  in the Organizational Dynamics degree program in the School of Arts and Sciences in order to teach a graduate course in “Systems Thinking Applied to Management” and to advise graduate students.

In 2005, he co-founded Adopt a Neighborhood for Development, Inc., an organization dedicated to encouraging and facilitating self development programs in disadvantaged communities, and continued to lecture in universities around the world.

In 2007, the Ackoff Program, Tomsk University, Tomsk, Russia was established. In 2008 the Russell L. Ackoff Systems Thinking Library and Archive was created in the Organizational Dynamics program in the School of Arts and Sciences.  The Library holds his more than 300 scholarly publications and nearly three dozen books, his private manuscripts and personal library of more than 3000 books on systems, design, philosophy, social science, as well as his awards, fellowships, medals, endowment fund, and his 6 honorary doctorates in science and letters.  His books which include Introduction to Operations Research, The Art of Problem Solving, Creating the Corporate Future, and Management in Small Doses are read around the world and several have been translated into 15 or more languages.

In 2008  the Ackoff Program, New Bulgarian University, Sofia, Bulgaria was established, and in 2009 the Ackoff Center for Design Thinking, Da Vinci Institute, South Africa was created.

Over his years of teaching, traveling and lecturing he acquired a fiercely loyal following of students, colleagues and clients. Resisting always the moniker of “guru” so often applied to him in the popular business press, he once said “I am not a guru...gurus encourage followers who do things their way. I am an educator...I encourage others to go out and adapt these ideas...to do whatever is going to be the most effective solution for them.” Dr. Ackoff continued to teach including in September 2009 in Wharton’s Executive Education programs.  

Dr. Ackoff is survived by his wife of 22 years, Helen Wald Ackoff, three children from his first marriage, Alan Ackoff, Karen Ackoff, and Karla Ackoff Kachbalian; his stepson, Richard Wald. He passed away on October 29, 2009, due to complications following hip replacement surgery.

Link to Short Profile of Russell L. Ackoff:


Posted by ACASA on October 30, 2009 at 09:09 PM in Announcements | Permalink


Russell Ackoff always encouraged students to try to avoid thinking in one dimension. He encouraged students to try two dimensions to achieve a measure of enlightenment. As a humorous way into the subject, he asked students to consider the tendency of people to think of others in one dimension, say, as either “fakes” or “fools” implying a one dimensional view of people. In examining the meaning of the two words, he came up with a 2 dimensional “Knowledge” grid. Imbedded in the definitions of fool and fake is the actual amount of knowledge that a person has and the amount he pretends to have. So the 2 dimensional picture would indicate 4 types-fakes, fools and two other types. Interestingly, there seems to be no common one word noun describing someone who knows something and pretends to know nothing. Also, interestingly, there seems to be no common one word description for someone who knows something and pretends to know something. But we do know well the words “fool” and “fake”.

Posted by: Tom Doughty at Jan 31, 2010 2:29:31 PM

For Dr Russ Ackoff's dedication, research, thinking, teaching and insights to enable others to dissolve problems, before and after they occur, the Nobel Prize?

Thank you Russ.

Posted by: John R. Broomfield at Jan 26, 2010 9:13:27 AM

I met Russ at a conference on the Future of Education during my days at Andersen. I was so inspired by his session that I went back to the same session the next day! Ever since I have been a huge admirer of his incredibly intelligent and insightful ideas and his amazing irreverent sense of humor. I think he can rest in peace knowing that he has inspired so many people and contributed far more than his share to human development.

Posted by: Fraser Hore at Dec 10, 2009 6:01:24 AM

I had the privilege of working closely with Russell Ackoff in South Africa at the early phases of the dangerous and exhilirating time of this country's conversion into a constitutional democracy.He came here on a few occassions sometimes with his prodigy, Jamshid Gharajedaghi and sometimes alone. I was tasked with arranging stakeholder meetings between components of the recently unbanned liberation movements, business etc. Russell presented at these meetings. One of the movements was seriously militant and called the Pan Arican Congress (the PAC). Their slogan was "One bullet one settler" and they created the foreboding of a racial bloodbath. The PAC were "outside" of the negotiation process at that stage, that Russ was engaged. Russell addressed the PAC in a meeting in a sublime manner and put forward the most elegant case for the idealize re-design of South Africa to them. I mentioned this to Mr. Roelf Meyer who became Chief Negotiator for the National Party and indicated that I thought that the PAC would come on board and not be a spoiler on the constitutional negotiations. Roelf was incredulous - he thought that it was most improbable. Well, the rest is history. The PAC came on board, and Russ contributed to that.
Russell was one of the most brilliant teachers that I ever have experienced. He was postively inspiring. My prayers are for his Soul and for his family.
They are also for his prodigy Jamshid.
Geoff Heald: Johannesburg South Africa

Posted by: Geoff Heald at Dec 9, 2009 6:22:37 AM

Thanks to Russ and his enormous generosity I had the unique opportunity to spend more than a year learning by doing at Interact. Russ was one of those human beings that really made a difference and changed the lives of those he touched. He certainly changed my life and that of my family. Thanks Russ for so much wisdom! My most respectful goodbye to a very unique and incredible man.

Posted by: Julio Freyre at Nov 13, 2009 2:00:34 PM

In the early 1970s I was a young "fast tracker," recently out of the Marines and with a young family, working full time and working on my degree in Management Science. I was in an experimental program where we did not attend classes. Instead we studied on our own and took exams. One of the texts was Introduction to Operations Research. I still remember it because it didn't require deciphering. I've always been grateful that my program let me experience the book without the filter of another professor.

Russell Ackoff gave me a way of looking at the world that has served me well for almost forty years. Systems thinking is part of that way, but so is the assumption that the world is a connected system of systems. What I got from that first book prepared me for a world where when you push something down here, you need to look around for what pops up.

The Art of Problem Solving with its logic and common sense and clear description has been on the shelf near various desks since I bought it in the 1970s. Quotes from it pepper my writing.

My father once said that "You live as long as they tell stories about you." That's true, But you also live as long as your ideas bend the way that people think. By that standard, Russell Ackoff will live for a very long time.

Posted by: Wally Bock at Nov 8, 2009 9:09:15 PM

As was the case so for many of us who were lucky enough to really get to know him, my relationship with Russ began as I read "Creating the Corporate Future." His ideas changed the direction of my life, leading me first to the intellectual hotbed that was Social Systems Sciences at Penn in the 80s, and later to INTERACT, where we enjoyed fabulously rich interactions with our clients, a family-friendly workplace - spouses, pets, and children of all ages always welcome and usually doted upon by Russ, no matter how busy he was. Russ' measure of a successful project: the client becomes a friend, and of these he had thousands. While it is true that his passing leaves a huge void in the lives of many of us, it is also an opportunity to move his thinking into ever widening circles.

Posted by: susan ciccantelli at Nov 7, 2009 11:04:42 AM

It is said to here the passing away of Dr.Russ Ackoff. i got to read about his writings and insight especially in the field of systems thinking and problem solving in my masters class through Prof.Dr Roy Marcus(Principal and Chairman) of the Da Vinci Institute in SA. Prof Roy introduced the book Idealized design in his systems thinking lectures... May his soul rest in peace.

Posted by: Mthetho khali at Nov 7, 2009 4:32:14 AM

Dr. Ackoff got me hooked on Operations Research as a student at Penn. (Can it really be 44 years ago?) He changed my thinking in positive ways, and I pursued a career on O.R. that continued long after he turned in other directions. Even after his “break” with the field, he graciously agreed to address our local chapter of ORSA/TIMS several times. Russ never failed to share stimulating insights and ideas in his usual calm and subtly humorous manner. And although he commanded a position of high stature, he made many of us feel like friends and confidants (even if we weren’t exactly performing on his level). Although I hadn’t seen him in years, I often thought of those earlier days. He’ll be missed by many of us former students, no doubt. But his good influences endure.

Posted by: Burnell Brown at Nov 6, 2009 4:38:52 PM

Professor Ackoff was very kind to me at the ICMST05 meeting at Penn. The Wharton School has lost a tremendous educator. People should read (re-read) his Redesigning Society volume.

His ideas are as relevant in 2009 as they were in 1959. His work is as relavent in industry as it was in the University. He truly bridged the theory and practice "dvide".

Posted by: John Guerard at Nov 6, 2009 3:13:32 PM

I "discovered" Dr. Ackoff's work on 20 Oct of this year via a contact in New Zealand (live in VA).

I read several of his essays on that day and ordered a few of his books (I'm half way through Creating the Corporate Future)----and felt compelled to send him and email and thank him for his work. Within ten minutes I received a gracious response encouraging my efforts and his satisfaction that is work "would be of some use to others."

We have lost a great light, a great man and educator.

Rest in Peace Russell L. Ackoff, you will not be forgotten.

Posted by: J. Scott Shipman at Nov 6, 2009 2:32:32 PM

What a loss. He will always be remembered as a pioneer of systems thinking. He helped many of us change the way we see the world.

Posted by: Ahmad Salih at Nov 5, 2009 10:15:03 AM

My mother and sisters always claimed my father and I fought because we were so much alike. I chose to take that as a compliment and I still do. My father taught me how to think for myself and he suffered the consequences. Despite our differences there was a great affection between us. I expected that he would live to be at least 110 and I'm sad that he had to leave so soon. In my early youth I knew my father as an adept painter of watercolor landscapes and as a very enthusiastic harmonica player. Later on he didn't have the time. Nonetheless his love of art and music was his greatest gift to me.

Posted by: Alan Ackoff at Nov 4, 2009 11:50:31 PM

I never really "knew" Dr. Ackoff . I saw him in conversation with Dr. Deming on a Video made by CC-M Productions .
I badly wanted to meet him in person but I think now I would have to wait for a really long time before that happens !!
All I can say is that heaven is going to get more systemic , innovative and idealised !!!!!
My condolences to his near and dear ones .
RIP Dr. Ackoff .

Posted by: Balaji S. Reddie at Nov 3, 2009 10:09:03 PM

I was saddened to hear that the bright star of Russ in no longer with us. Russ challenged me to think bigger and step out of the norm. I was always grateful for his frank and spot on advice. Russ is sadly missed. My thoughts are with his family and friends.

Posted by: Carolyn Robinson at Nov 3, 2009 7:06:55 PM

Every year I begin the Critical Systems Thinking and Practice subject with the article he wrote with his colleague Pourdehnad' On Misdirected Systems'. I did not meet Russ Ackoff, but his work has influenced my thinking. His contribution to the West Churchman series vol 1 is greatly appreciated. I will post the link to this site to my students.
Warm regards to his family. May his ideas be applied widely AND SOON.

Posted by: Assoc Prof Janet McIntyre at Nov 3, 2009 6:16:09 PM

I first learned of Russ from Dr. Deming's work. I followed Deming's advice and looked to Russ for more appreciation of systems. I was fortunate to have Russ as a professor in my masters program and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of his teaching. He really helped me and provoked fun and curiosity about possibilities. I believe his work on idealized design points us to a way forward. I remember him speaking at a Deming Institute Gathering in Tacoma where he drew sketches of hypercars and walkable cities - a true glimpse into a more sustainable system. I will do my best to carry forward aspirations he helped ignite in me. The best way to celebrate his work is to carry it forward in ours. We are fortunate to stand on the shoulders of good friends who have gone before like Russ Ackoff.
Terry Begnoche

Posted by: Terry Begnoche at Nov 3, 2009 3:50:27 PM

Russ Ackoff was the best educator I ever had. I met him late in my life while I was President of Armco´s Latin American Division with responsibilities for more than 20 plants operating in 8 countries. He helped me recognize the weaknesses of our strategy as we tried to optimize the performance of each business unit. Under his guidance, we redesigned our Division and managed it as a system rather than as a collection of individual units. As a result, the Latin American Division became a resounding success. After my retirement, he encouraged me to become a consultant and I did work for several international companies. Recently, and following Russ’ principles, I developed and patented a very effective systemic process to transform forestry and industrial wood residues that pollute the environment, into a source of high quality renewable energy.
He helped me think, see the world, plan, organize and live in a different way. We became very good friends and he followed our lives with personal dedication. He helped our children as well with their careers. My wife, Mercedes, and I decided to adopt him as our “grandpa”. The family became a system and we found happiness at home. And happiness, for me, is the best description of success. One of our greatest pleasures was to visit Russ and Helen when we traveled to the USA. It was such a treat. We always came back home filled with enthusiasm and new ideas. Thanks to you Helen for being such a wonderful spouse and for being so gracious and kind to us.
We are very grateful to Russ for so many good things but most of all for his big and generous heart. We love you and we’ll miss you very, very much. "Muchas gracias, mi querido amigo".
Julio Bartol

Posted by: Julio R. Bartol at Nov 3, 2009 7:57:53 AM

Why is it I never get the chance to meet true polymaths?... The U.S. of A has lost another intellectual powerhouse.

Posted by: Yours Truly at Nov 3, 2009 2:27:08 AM

Has just heard the news that Russell Ackoff died. I am truly saddened. As far as I am concerned Ackoff on the same league as Newton or Einstein. A truly brilliant man and a giant of systems thinking.

Posted by: Howard Clark at Nov 2, 2009 1:50:55 PM

Remembering Russell Askoff.
Dear Helen, Johnie, and friends, I knew this would eventually happen, yet it hurts awfully to understand that Russell Ackoff,
- A Remarkable Man, Teacher, Mentor and a Great friend of the World’s Systems Thinkers is no more among us. I am so saddened by the loss, that tears are dropping from my eys! We lost "OUR" Russ and his presence, unique thoughts and fantastic deep understanding and reflections is absolutely irreplaceable. I have always been struck by our teacher’s no- nonsense language…he enlightened us to face the basic business issues that we so often are inclined to bury under some modish fads… Yet being ages ahead of his time, he was able to make us think in a miraculous way straight into the future, about solutions before these issues were to become tomorrow’s basic business crises. Russ basically invented modern systems and design thinking. And both his personal work and theories are already surviving his death, for ages to come. His enormous heritage is yet to be assembled and studied thoroughly. He could have easily written conventionalist methodologies, handbooks and encyclopedias but he never allowed himself the liberty to restrict over people’s ideas in fields that he considered open to further developments. His honesty, tolerance, loyalty to his friends and human generosity were practically limitless. He was a living "SAGE", something rarely known now days. For this very reason I would like to devote chapter -81, to Russ, from Lao Tzu’s self portrait in The book of the Way and its Power:

"True words aren’t eloquent;
Eloquent words aren’t true.
Wise men don’t prove their point;
Men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.

The Master has no possessions.(These no- possessions may include a house, a car, a computer, a roomful of books, and an electric toothbrush).
The more he does for others,
The happier he is. (Because he is doing it for himself).
The more he gives to others,
The wealthier he is.(The less he holds on to, the more he can give himself to others.When he can give himself completely, his wealth is infinite).

The Way of Heaven nourishes by not forcing.
By not dominating, The Master leads."

Posted by: Michael Yanakiev at Nov 1, 2009 10:45:25 AM

Russ Ackoff was a pillar in the systems sciences community. His stature as a researcher and thinker sometimes overshadows his organizational contribution to forming the program of "social systems science" that has yet to be replicated by any collection of reflective practitioners in the 21st century.

Russ leaves behind a great legacy. We will all be challenged to rise to the high standard that he has set.

Posted by: David Ing at Nov 1, 2009 10:19:09 AM

One great thing I learned from Russ' life and from his friendship with his PhD mentor and colleague West Churchman is how intellectual integrity can be maintained a whole life through mutual respect. I remember West telling me how he admired Russ for being able to act and be more practical thanks to his strong convictions while West himself was more prone to doubting. I also heard a sharp exchange during a conference in Vienna with Russ claiming to leave or even open up options during the aging process, while West believed that aging is a process closing down the range of options. Now "all options are closed"...In summary, a beautiful example of how both were able to maintain friendship, avoiding the intellectual and emotional tragedy of a clash of the type "Freud vs. Jung"!

Posted by: Kristo Ivanov at Nov 1, 2009 5:59:13 AM

Russ knew that the true solution to a problem can only be found by examining the design of the larger system in which the problem exists and then correcting that design to eliminate the flaws that generate the problem in the first place. This "start with the whole and work back down to the broken part so you know *why* the part is broken (not just *that* the part is broken)" continues to be a breathtakingly powerful insight.

Posted by: Steve Brant at Oct 31, 2009 1:23:57 AM

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