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March 07, 2007

Why few organizations adopt systems thinking

BY: Russell L. Ackoff

I frequently talk to groups of managers on the nature of systems thinking and its radical implications to management. In doing so I use several case studies involving prominent American corporations. At the end of the presentation I am almost alwaysasked, "If this way of thinking is as good as you say it is, why don't more organizations use it?"
It is easy to reply by saying that organizations naturally resist change. This of course is a tautology. I once asked a vice president of marketing why consumers used his product. He answered, "Because they like it." I then asked him how he knew this. He answered, "Because the use it." Our answer to the question about failure of organizations to adopt systems thinking is seldom any better then this.
There be many reasons why any particular organization fails to adopt systems thinking but I believe there are two that are the most important, one general and one specific. By a general reason I mean one that is responsible for organizations failing to adopt any transforming idea, let alone systems thinking. By a specific reason I mean one responsible for the failure to adopt systems thinking in particular.

To read the rest of this article, please download the the pdf file: Download Why_few_aopt_ST.pdf

This article is also published in Systems Research and Behavioral Science. 23, 705-708 (2006).

Posted by ACASA on March 7, 2007 at 11:25 AM in Systems Articles | Permalink


Hi Ralf,

Having come from the business side myself, I often found complexity to be more of a personal problem than a business problem. Too many times I have witnessed manager use "Complexity" as a weapon to prevent, or at least, delay change.

When you mention the use of "difficult language that is certainly not understanbdable to CEOs, CFOs or COOs" as your "biggest obstacle" for your conference, this, in part, was the metaphor I was referring to - "secret passwords and handshakes." Since the beginning of time, "tribes" have separated themselves from the crowd by using unique language and words or as you put it "difficult langauage."

You might want to consider reading Chip and Dan Heath's new book "Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die - MADE TO STICK." In short, they have six principles for "Sticky Ideas." They are: 1) Simplicity, 2) Unexpectedness, 3) Concreteness, 4) Credibility, 5) Emotions and 6) Stories. (Note the acronym.) I'm attempting to apply their principles to interactive planning and use it in my course I teach at Tulane in the Fall.

"Management f-laws" is an excellent example of using very understandable language to deliver 81 "Sticky Ideas."

My best to you,


Posted by: Jim Leemann at Apr 4, 2007 1:14:57 PM

Hi Jim,

you are perfectly right that there is a gap between System Thinkers and businesses. As coming from the business side with certain problems (caused by complexity!) I experienced an interesting System Dynamics Society Conference last summer in Nijmegen, Netherlands, and was quite impressed what could be possible if you could take SD and ST more to the people where the action is (right in the firms).

At the moment I am reviewing articles for this year's conference and for me the biggest obstacle is the difficult language that is certainly not understandable by CEOs, CFOs or COOs. The story has to be crisp, short and have to show a real benefit (in Dollars, Euros, you name it).

If you would like to more about it please leave me a PM.


Ralf (Leipzig, Germany)

PS.: I have stepped over this article on ST while I was cruising through Mark Graban's blog (a really great one:-)))

Posted by: Ralf Lippold at Mar 28, 2007 6:22:42 PM

Mark Graban at http://kanban.blogspot.com/2007/03/why-few-organizations-adopt.html comments on Russ' article that the "general reason" organizations fail to adopt systems thinking is due to fear (easier to do nothing, less risky) and the "specific reason" has to do with systems thinkers only talking and writing to other systems thinkers. Mark draws parallels to LEAN practitioners.

I would agree with Mark on both counts, but state it a little differently. I think the "general reason" has more to do with comfort than fear. The perception is, "if it worked before, why fix it."

As to systems thinkers only talking and writing to other systems thinkers, I couldn't agree more. Of course, this is not unique to the systems thinkers discipline. This is prevalent in all types of disciplines and professions.

Even when systems thinkers come together to talk and share issues surface. Last year I participated in a “systems thinkers” multi-session teleconference discussing Deming’s “New Economics.” The sessions were quite enlightening and enjoyable, but by the time we had reached the midway point the session leader had to do all the talking to keep the sessions alive. Several of us tried to help the leader by injecting comments along the way. I recall posing a question to the group on how they would address the recovery of New Orleans post-Katrina using systems thinking. The response to the question was pin-drop silence. Indeed this is a small sampling and possibly no one was interested in the question, but if a group like this is not interested in talking about a problem like post-Katrina New Orleans, what the hell good are we anyway as systems thinkers! My apologies for the bias, I grew up in the "Big Easy."

As far as publishing, I remember publishing my transformation work at DuPont wherein we used Interactive Planning to change the way we did safety, health and environmental work and eliminated $25MM in annual fixed costs in Systemic Practice and Action Research. Do you have any idea how many safety, health and environmental professionals and managers read Systemic Practice and Action Research or, better yet, know where to find it? I think you get my point.

Systems thinking desperately needs a “Thinking Revolution” not unlike the Renaissance of old. Even though problems or messes of today may be as complex as yesterday, in today's world messes tend to hit us more rapidly than ever before and people continue to use linear thinking and wonder, “Why the hell won’t this work?” I don’t mean to paint systems thinkers with a broad brush, but we sure like to talk and write to each other in our journals so much that it seems we have become a clique with secret passwords and handshakes.

We need to break out of this cloistered behavior and start sharing our approaches to the masses in such a way that everyone is using systems thinking as much as they are currently using linear thinking. If we can’t show the general population how to use systems thinking to solve (dissolve) their everyday problems then we are destined to only draw enjoyment from intellectual discourse and ultimately watch the demise of systems thinking sometime in the not to distant future.

We should take every opportunity to seek out non-systems thinking forums to present are means for dissolving messes. I have found conferences and publications are very interested in systems thinking because it brings something new and different to their listening and reading audiences. Try it, you just might be surprised.

Posted by: Jim Leemann at Mar 27, 2007 3:40:40 PM

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