« The change of the location of the Memorial Service for Dr. Russell Ackoff | Main | Video from Russell Ackoff Memorial Service »

February 25, 2010

A Tribute to Russ Ackoff by Peter Senge

Russ was an inspiration and mentor to many of us, as one of the true pioneers of the systems perspective in management.  He probably understood the systems perspective in its historical evolution as well or better than anyone, and saw this age as the one where many forces might converge in helping to shift the tragically reductionistic and fragmented thinking that dominates modern institutions, from business to government to schools.

I entered the systems field from engineering and then the engineering-oriented system dynamics approach at MIT with its emphasis on better models and modeling. The premise underlying this approach was that so long as people think in fragmented ways they will act similarly. The emphasis was on helping managers develop better policies based on explicit analysis of the consequences of existing policies seen from a larger systemic perspective.  While this approach was radical methodologically, it tended to be conservative institutionally. The initial premise was that those in senior positions had the vested interest to act in accord with the longer term well being of the institution and would, with proper guidance from the system dynamics analysts,  do so.  Russ had, I think, a more realistic view of the deep structural flaws with the modern corporation that made it unlikely that many 'philosopher kings' would manage to overcome the relentless pressures for choosing short term benefit over longer term health. (Later, Jay Forrester, the founder of system dynamics, came to a similar view and their thinking converged on the need for radical redesign of the corporation itself - but this view remained more an add-on to the methodological orientation of system dynamics; many people are working today in the continue effort to integrate the two in my judgment.)

For me Russ was an incisive, lifelong critic of the modern organizational form. He saw its limitations and argued for radical redesign.  He  advocated for major re-visioning and processes of change that started with helping people see what they truly valued and where they truly wanted to get - and then working backwards to see what it would take to get there. Anything less would simply lead to naive incrementalism, where 90% of what had been would be preserved while people tinkered around the edges with change that would never amount to "too much change." Russ was not worried about too much change.

I think Russ gave us all courage to be bold, while also appreciating that the overall undertaking is still in its infancy. The inherited traditions over generations toward patriarchy, authoritarian views of leadership, and rigid systems of institutional power will not change in a generation.   The  physicist David Bohm believed that the root source of our deepest problems stemmed from "fragmentation" of thought, which he felt had its origins in the agricultural revolution and the perceived separation of human and nature. Obviously the "systems revolution" that Russ foresaw and helped to launch will unfold over generations not years. How long will it take before we can give up the cultural myth of domination over nature, that nature exists to serve our needs?  How long before we shed the perceptual habit of objectification, "seeing" the other as a separate object as opposed to a distinct being that inter-depends with our own being?  How long will we preserve the belief that power comes from institutional position versus connection to the creative flow of the universe?  It is easy to feel daunted by such questions - but I think that too comes from a shallow appreciation of the systems perspective. The forces for change come from "life's longing for itself," not from ego-based human striving. I believe Russ sensed this and for this reason encouraged us all to simply do what we can, knowing that there is a much large river into which our efforts flow.

Peter Senge
MIT and SoL
February 3, 2010.

Posted by ACASA on February 25, 2010 at 11:21 AM in Announcements | Permalink


Post a comment