October 27, 2023

Zero-Problem Philanthropy

Moving away from endless problem-solving and toward creating a healthy context.
Smiley face symbols drawn on blue wood blocks which are connected by dotted lines(Illustration by iStock/MicroStockHub)

Social problems are like Hydra heads: cut one off, and more appear. This is the frustrating reality that organizations in the philanthropic sector face every day. They try to solve problems to improve people’s lives, but many problems persist despite much effort and expense. Real progress seems elusive. CNN recently reported that “California has spent billions to fight homelessness. The problem has gotten worse.” Massive investments in climate solutions such as carbon markets, CO2 sequestration, and energy alternatives had no material effect on slowing global warming. The UN recently warned that our efforts are insufficient to avoid catastrophic climate change. NGOs scaled solutions to educational problems in India for decades without sufficient reading or math improvement. This led a Harvard researcher to wonder: “India: Massive Expansion in Schooling, Too Little Learning, Now What?” Current philanthropic work—as a leader of a prominent US-based foundation remarked at a recent Stanford PACS conference—leaves people exhausted. How can we break this cycle of endless problem-solving?

Perhaps we should consider increasing our efforts. One option may be to invest in innovation to create more effective solutions. Another approach is to allocate more resources towards expanding current solutions, which could yield impactful results. However, we must also contemplate the idea that there may be a deeper issue with problem-solving that needs to be addressed.

The Problem With Problem-Solving

Solving problems to improve people’s lives has been philanthropy’s raison d’être. However, some criticisms have arisen regarding the approach philanthropies take in problem-solving. Expecting immediate positive results from complex solutions can lead to risk aversion and short-term thinking. Wealthy philanthropic organizations often view issues through the lens of scientific, technological, and financial superiority. This “we know better” attitude exacerbates power imbalances with local implementers. Impoverished individuals are treated as passive recipients of solutions, with no active role in the process. Additionally, the "fail fast" mantra may leave insufficient time for reflection and learning, which can lead to a lack of accountability and transparency. This, in turn, can increase adverse side effects of well-intended solutions. Solving isolated problems can result in fragmented efforts, duplication, and wasted resources.

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These issues may be resolved, but it's unlikely to make problem-solving more effective. One reason for this is that problem-solving approaches often overlook the dynamics of problem supply, the ongoing creation of problems. This is apparent in daily news reports, which indicate that our societies generate both new and old problems at a faster rate than we can ever hope to solve them. Even solutions that “work” can have negative side-effects that then generate new problems. Climate change as an undesirable side-effect of the fantastic innovation of using fossil fuels for energy is an example. The live-saving invention of antibiotics has created mutated bacteria that now resist treatments. Indebted households, violence against poor women, and alcoholism can be the side-effect of providing innovative microfinance solutions that are well intended. These side effects require additional solutions that are often urgent and costly, leading to a never-ending cycle of problems and solutions.

Unfortunately, our blind faith in solutions and the capabilities of new technologies can lead to a careless attitude towards creating problems. We tend to overlook the importance of problems as indicators of deeper issues, instead glorifying the innovators and their solutions. This mindset can be problematic, as it reduces our role as philanthropists to playing catch-up and fails to acknowledge the possibility of fundamental flaws in our approach.

Russell Ackoff, a pioneering systems thinker and organization scholar, famously described the dangers of thinking in terms of problem-solving because “we walk into the future facing the past—we move away from, rather than toward, something. This often results in unforeseen consequences that are more distasteful than the deficiencies removed.” Ackoff highlights our tendency to be reactive rather than proactive in addressing social problems. What would it take to shift from a reactive, past-oriented solution perspective to a proactive philanthropy oriented towards a healthy future that does not create so many problems?

Medicine 3.0: An Inspiration

In the eyes of medical experts, the future of medicine is to prioritize keeping people healthy for longer periods. For example, the Australian Medical Association’s recent health vision is a departure from a tradition of what they call “sickcare” to a genuine health care.

This shift towards Medicine 3.0 is a break from the past when trillions were spent on developing treatments for numerous health issues. Medicine 2.0 was obsessed with the question: How do we develop better solutions for health problems in the form of advanced drugs or surgeries? At the same time, this costly effort threatens health systems and prices advanced treatments out of the hands of millions. Medicine 3.0 instead prioritizes creating and sustaining health over curing diseases. The goal is to promote lifelong preventive health practices to improve healthspan—the number of disease-free years in a person's life. However, this approach is incompatible with the medical industry's dominant focus on extending lifespan—surviving the cycle of diseases and treatments. Medicine 2.0 is oriented towards the past: moving away from illness. Medicine 3.0 is oriented towards the future: building and maintaining health around a vision of “Zero Disease” as the foundation for a fulfilling life.

Can this vision be applied to philanthropy? A vision of “Zero Problem” could move the sector away from prioritizing the design, innovation, and delivery of solutions to a myriad of social problems. Instead, philanthropies would help orchestrate and shape social contexts that create fewer problems in the first place.

A Sketch of Zero-Problem Philanthropy

Many people are familiar with the saying, "All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they get." This may also apply to social context or systems. In fact, it could be said that all social context is perfectly designed to create the problems it does. This means that problems are not unusual and do not need to be fixed as if they are unexpected. Instead, problems are the expected outcomes of a particular social context. To create different outcomes, we need to change the context itself.

While traditional philanthropy aims to solve problems, Zero-Problem Philanthropy invests in developing a healthy context. This investment lays the groundwork for a future where people can thrive rather than having merely some of their problems fixed. Three examples demonstrate the Zero-Problem Philanthropy approach. The first example presents a conceptual vision for redesigning transportation as a zero health-risk sector. The second example illustrates an important intermediary step towards eliminating homelessness from a Zero-Problem Philanthropy vision. The third example emphasizes the opportunity for organizations to create a healthy context where people and the environment can flourish.

Transportation Sector: Vision Zero

A recent proposal for rethinking transportation systems illustrates how the adoption of a zero-problem vision guides operational and portfolio decisions. The transportation sector constitutes a complex problem affecting many aspects of health, including safety, mental health, air quality, and access to services. Researchers recently argued that decades of problem-solving such as aggressive speed limits, seat-belt laws, or measures to reduce alcohol-impaired driving failed to improve many problematic aspects of transportation. US road traffic deaths and injuries remain high and surpass those in most other high-income countries. The authors suggest a paradigm shift towards adopting a radical safe system philosophy, a “Vision Zero.” This vision guides the design of a healthy transportation system that eliminates most safety risks and does not recreate the same old problems. The proposed work would integrate fundamental changes in programs and policies to transform driver education, active and latent safety measures, and the built environment. This approach would also systematically integrate socio-economic issues such as co-locating affordable housing and transit.

Homelessness: Built for Zero

Another inspiration for Zero-Problem Philanthropy is provided by the work of Community Solutions, an NGO based in the US that is committed to ending homelessness through their initiative "Built for Zero." For many years, the organization implemented innovative and large-scale solutions to address the problem of homelessness. It won awards for transforming the Times Square hotel in New York into the nation’s largest affordable housing residency in the early 2000s. This effort's scale exceeded anything deemed feasible at that time. Yet, replicating this transformation in many other hotels in New York did not lower the number of homeless people. In 2010, Community Solutions initiated a nationwide campaign to provide housing for 100,000 homeless people within four years. However, despite achieving their goal, the organization's leaders and employees had to reluctantly admit that they had not made any significant progress in reducing homelessness as a whole.

In 2015, the organization dramatically shifted its focus from problem-solving towards building a healthy context in which sustained homelessness does not occur. Their initiative Built for Zero aligns stakeholders in larger communities and cities to develop sophisticated dashboards enabling real-time knowledge about individuals at risk of homelessness. This awareness is coupled with the ability to immediately house and support any emerging homeless people. According to Community Solutions, more than 70 million people now live in a community where leaders are “building a new reality where homelessness is rare and brief, if it ever occurs.” While Built for Zero cannot yet fully prevent people from becoming homeless, it is designed to eliminate the social problem of sustained and painful homelessness disrupting people’s lives. This result is a major milestone towards a vision of Zero-Problem Philanthropy. The next question is how to reconfigure the education, medical, criminal justice, and corporate systems that are failing too many people and are complicit in the constant inflow of new homelessness. No one wants to become homeless. Imagine using homelessness as a health indicator of society! This vision could align a massive philanthropic effort around a comprehensive redesign of our main social systems and provide a quantifiable measure for our performance.

Multiple Societal Problems: Organizing for a Healthy Context

Ibrahim Abouleish was frustrated with the growing number of problems and the suffering of people in his home country, Egypt, in the 1970s. Because he did not know how to solve these problems, he wanted to build a parallel world to Egypt’s reality, a healthy context that would not create most of Egypt’s problems by design. He left his senior management position in Austria and purchased desert land North of Cairo where he and his family relocated. Abouleish envisioned transforming the desert into healthy land that promotes principles of sustainability and where people can peacefully coexist with each other and the natural environment. He named his initiative Sekem and created a conglomerate of organizations that today enable a broad range of economic, social, educational, and cultural activities in a beautiful and safe environment.

These characteristics of Sekem have created a healthy local context that is strikingly different from the surrounding context where people suffer from Egypt’s many problems. Sekem stands as an inspiring showcase for the ideas of Zero-Problem Philanthropy. This example illustrates how even one determined visionary can successfully engage with building a healthy context. Already in 2003, Sekem was awarded the Right Livelihoods Award in recognition of being a blueprint for a healthy corporation in the 21st century.

Developing Healthy Context

Having a set of criteria to evaluate the healthiness of a context would be extremely beneficial. Luckily, there are philosophers who have offered helpful guidance in this area.

Amartya Sen suggested we should measure social context based on its ability to give individuals and communities the freedom and capability to pursue the things they value in life. Drawing from the ideas of Sen and others, Martha Nussbaum created a more explicit and prescriptive template for evaluating healthy context. She asked: What are the central human capabilities that any social context ought to provide to enable people to live self-determined and dignified lives? Nussbaum identified 10 central capabilities that must be provided beyond a minimum threshold. The capabilities refer to various aspects of life, such as the ability to live a complete and satisfying life into old age. Other capabilities refer to bodily health and integrity, such as the capability to use and nurture senses, imagination, thought, and emotions including affection and expression of justified anger. Living with dignity also involves being able to reason practically, socialize and affiliate with others, and enjoy the beauty of the natural environment. Having opportunities to play and laugh is as essential as being able to participate in political and religious life, own property, and engage in work.

Nussbaum’s framework is not a flawless template. Nevertheless, it remains an excellent starting point for considering healthy contexts and provides practical guidance for developing Zero-Problem Philanthropy practices. The 10 capabilities highlight important areas of learning about how to contextualize and prioritize individual capabilities and how to engage the people who constitute and shape the local social context. This perspective reminds us that we must take individuals seriously, even when working towards a healthy context.

Developing Healthy Individuals

“Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes individuals and communities thrive.”—International Positive Psychology Association

When focusing on a healthy context, there is a risk of falling into naïve holism, an ineffective mindset commonly seen in system perspectives. For effective Zero-Problem Philanthropy, aligning macro and contextual perspectives with micro and individual perspectives is necessary. This is because the assumption of system perspectives that only relations matter and not parts is not helpful for social systems. Purely structural perspectives (focusing on relations) overlook the importance of agency and how a continuous stream of human decision-making drives unpredictable variance in relations.

How does a Zero-Problem Philanthropy perspective on individuals differ from traditional philanthropic work? Philanthropy often sees disadvantaged individuals as problems that need to be fixed. However, recent psychology research promotes a less deficit-oriented approach. Proponents of this positive psychology movement argue that poor people should not be “completely defined by their poverty, nor can they be fully understood in its terms alone.” Zero-Problem Philanthropy, like positive psychology, starts from the assumption that poor people have many positive traits such as wisdom, honesty, courage, and persistence. Assuming positive traits and emotions like joy, love, intimacy, and hope provide an opportunity to build constructive thoughts and ideas about the future. This approach is similar to the shift in psychology from older therapies that focus on eliminating negative emotions and internal conflicts of the past to a future-oriented focus on those factors that form the strongest basis for building a fulfilling life and setting new goals. Several organizations have adopted strengths-based or assets-based practices ranging from community development in the Solomon Islands to working with homeless and disadvantaged people in the UK.

Like Nussbaum’s framework for healthy context, researchers have developed comprehensive approaches applicable to individuals. Developmental Assets is acknowledged as one of the most influential frameworks for strengthening positive youth development. The framework specifies 20 external and 20 internal assets, building blocks that have robustly proven to be efficacious for a healthy development that enables young people to thrive. External assets include those related to support (such as that offered by one’s family or a caring neighborhood); empowerment (such as a community’s attitude of valuing youth or creating a feeling of safety); boundaries and expectations (such as clear and explicit school rules or those offered by adult role models); and constructive use of time (including spending time with creative activities, sports, or a religious community). Internal assets include a commitment to learning (such as nurturing sources of motivation and developing positive bonds to one’s school); positive values (such as developing a caring attitude, integrity, and responsibility); social competencies (including skills such as planning and decision-making or cultural competence); and positive identity (such as a belief to be in control of one’s fate, self-esteem, and purpose). Thousands of communities and schools have adopted the framework and researchers argue that it can be “positioned in a city or state or nation as a set of nutrients that matters, developmentally and behaviorally, for all youth regardless of race, ethnicity, family composition, gender, parental education, or geographic location. Hence, the asset model has the potential to create the kind of shared vision that can lessen fractured and siloed approaches that inhibit cooperation and collaboration.” Developmental Assets also reminds us that in Zero-Problem Philanthropy, healthy individuals and healthy context co-develop!

The Way Forward

Have you ever considered the potential impact of philanthropy aimed at creating healthy context, that is, healthy social systems? When colleagues and I asked leaders of major foundations and development organizations if they would consider adopting such system-oriented philanthropy practices within their organizations, many replied that these practices would not fit their current organizational structures and processes, which focus on solving concrete problems.

It's important to acknowledge the significant changes required in assumptions and attitudes, organizational strategies and processes, progress evaluations, and the need for constant reflection, learning, and adaptation. Many philanthropies may struggle to decide which practices to adopt and to avoid making merely tactical changes uninformed by an overarching strategy. At the same time, several philanthropic practices signal real possibility: participatory grantmaking, inclusive philanthropy, and asset-based community development can be important elements of Zero-Problem Philanthropy. These practices provide true agency to neglected and oppressed people and drastically expand the restricted and predefined opportunity set that traditional problem-solving practices make available to them. Zero-Problem Philanthropy grounded in building a healthy context and frameworks such as that proposed by Nussbaum or Developmental Assets can be an effective strategic scaffolding for building a portfolio of practices. Such shared overarching frameworks will be necessary for coordinating work across partners involved in such efforts and agreeing on criteria against which progress can be evaluated. Creating healthy context and operating from a zero-problem vision would be an ambitious approach to heal philanthropy from some of its shortcomings and to help society re-focus on a positive future.

I also want to offer a clear warning. Many people understand we need to enact Medicine 3.0 to counter a persistent global health crisis. Yet, Medicine 3.0 is far from being a reality. The resistance of a treatment- and deficit-oriented medical system is strong. Philanthropy, like medicine, urgently requires a new vision grounded in tackling problem supply, not just offering solutions. We cannot afford to continue with business as usual. The declining state of this planet is a strong reminder that our current path is unsustainable. Unfortunately, the current ambitions around big-bet philanthropy or system change seem only to reinforce our traditional ways. I hope many readers will engage in the difficult but crucial work of figuring out how to realize a vision of Zero-Problem Philanthropy!

Zero-Problem Philanthropy


Posted by ACASA on October 27, 2023 at 10:36 AM in blog post | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 29, 2023

Setting priorities through “systems thinking” at the SDG Summit

While every bit of progress on the SDGs by 2030 matters, easy fixes may not be the best place to focus Member States’ efforts. A systems-thinking approach is required to determine where to prioritize action to accelerate progress across the Goals.

Published on 14 April 2023


  • All SDGs need attention, as the 17 Goals are inseparable and integrated, but in each context, some Goals matter more than others to boost progress.
  • In setting priorities for accelerating the SDGs, Member States should consider the systemic role each Goal plays.
  • The scientific community now has an important role in supporting “systems literacy” and bringing practical ways to incorporate systems thinking in policymaking to support SDG acceleration.

Before the September UN SDG Summit in New York, US, UN Member States must decide on their priorities for accelerating progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We argue that Member States can prioritize some Goals above others to boost progress on the 2030 Agenda. To do this while maintaining the commitment to achieve all SDGs, they need to incorporate “systems thinking” into SDGs and national decision- and policymaking processes.

The SDGs are indivisible, meaning progress on all 17 Goals is necessary for building a sustainable future. Because many of the Goals are also interlinked, one or a handful of Goals may have the capacity to “push progress” and make development more sustainable across many or even all the Goals. At the same time, some Goals merit additional attention as they are more isolated and will not receive that push from other Goals, while some may even be constrained by progress in another Goal. The interplay between the Goals matters as Member States aim to achieve them all while acknowledging that in each context, progress on some Goals will be more important for accelerating the SDGs than others.

Despite the Goals’ indivisible and integrated nature, we haven’t seen systems thinking broadly applied to the SDGs. We argue that even though prioritization might sound like cherry-picking, it can be done in such a way as to create far-reaching actions across the whole 2030 Agenda. Member States have the responsibility to progress on the SDGs, and they have much to gain from considering the systemic role each Goal plays within the 2030 Agenda. With an increasingly challenging geopolitical context and a rapidly changing world, decision-makers need to rethink their approach to priority setting in the next half year.

Prioritizing for greater impact

The 2030 Agenda remains an ambitious and uniting global sustainable development framework that would likely not be adopted today. Member States must take this opportunity to deliver on their responsibility to make as much progress as possible on all SDGs up to 2030. The temptation will be to do the easiest things to showcase progress – which may be counter-productive.

Prioritizing progress on SDGs that are more easily achieved or because they serve short-term political or economic interests will not take us far in achieving the vision of the 2030 Agenda and could conceivably threaten progress on other Goals. Systems thinking can help set priorities for actions on the SDGs by showing interactions, both synergies and trade-offs between the Goals. Seeing the whole and understanding relationships, rather than breaking systems down into separate parts, is basic systems thinking.

The relationship between the Goals varies in each context. Results from our work with the tool SDG Synergies in Sweden represent one context-specific example of how taking a systemic view can capitalize on how the indivisible Goals interact. Our tool offered decision-makers a number of perspectives on the Goals’ systemic impact. We found that SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities) had the most positive impact on progress across all 17 SDGs for Sweden. The next most impactful Goals were, in descending order, partnerships for the goals (SDG 17), quality education (SDG 4), peace, justice, and strong institutions (SDG 16), and climate action (SDG 13).

While these five Goals were considered important accelerators to progress on all the SDGs in Sweden, our results also showed the trade-offs that progress in these highly synergistic Goals posed for some other SDGs. We saw that clean water and sanitation (SDG 6), life on land (SDG 15), affordable and clean energy (SDG 7), responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), climate action (SDG 13), and life below water (SDG 14) all suffered. Seeing how SDG 13 can both work to accelerate progress across the system as a whole, pose trade-offs with some Goals, and be negatively influenced by progress in some of the other accelerator Goals illustrates the complexity of the SDGs as a system. With our tool, we could show which SDGs received a strong push by progress in other Goals and, therefore, may not need much-targeted efforts. We were also able to pinpoint the Goals that would not receive such boosts through progress in other SDGs and, therefore, risk falling behind.

Based on how all the Goals interact, this type of analysis can help decision-makers see the impacts on all SDGs by moving towards certain Goals. Such information is necessary to guide priority setting to focus actions for the most widespread positive impacts – and avoid unnecessary costs from missteps, as well as balance the needs of all kinds of stakeholders, from civil society to businesses and more. SDG Synergies is not the only tool that helps leverage SDG interlinkages. The iSDG modelSDG Interlinkages Analysis & Visualisation Tool, and others provide science-based assessments that can help policymakers and other stakeholders see the whole picture while they prioritize next steps.

Setting priorities through “systems thinking” at the SDG Summit

Posted by ACASA on August 29, 2023 at 10:45 PM in blog post | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 31, 2023

What is systems thinking?

April 10, 2023
Find out what it is for, how it works, and why it’s so important for businesses.

Systems thinking is fundamental to understanding complex environments and proposing solutions to the challenges of our time. Changes in thinking and practice are fundamental, and understanding them is the first step toward systemic practice.

Everything is interconnected in one way or another, as our society has organized itself in a systematic way. This observation has caused systems thinking in organizations to gain prominence in the business world.

A system is a set of components that interact in an organized way – one part influences the other in a reciprocal way. These systems also relate to one another. For example, departments in business work in an interrelated way and need to be aligned if the organization is to achieve its long-term goals and objectives.

What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking is the ability to understand facts not only in their own right but as they relate to other relevant people and instances. By practicing systems thinking, we are able to grasp the implications of an event for those directly or indirectly involved.

Systems thinking considers several aspects in order to carry out certain actions assertively and effectively, working together towards a single purpose and prioritizing what is good for the company as a whole. Such a “systemic view” is important for considering and enacting improvements.

Professionals who can see the relationships between different departments make decisions based on what is best for the company as a whole, anticipating the possible consequences of each choice for the different sectors and deciding which path will best direct the organization toward its goals.

In other words, systems thinking engenders a global perspective, which doesn’t distinguish sectors or treat processes individually.

The discipline seeks to understand structural elements via complex models. Interpreting reality systemically means seeing circles of influence instead of straight lines. Tracing the flows of influence reveals patterns that repeat themselves over and over again, for better or for worse – you can make a flowchart to have a better understanding of the flows of influence.

Systems thinking in organizations is the opposite of linear thinking – a line of reasoning which considers companies as assembly lines: taking one step after the other, with sectors working more or less independently, resulting in the final product.

Differences between systems thinking and linear thinking

Systems thinking allows teams to look at problems as a whole, understanding the impacts which each action may cause. Alterations within a certain company sector often affect other sectors, and once this is understood by all collaborators, problems can be properly resolved as soon as they arise.

Linear thinking, on the other hand, focuses on just one task at a time and solving a specific problem, often disregarding the latter’s impact elsewhere.

Why is systems thinking important?

Posted by ACASA on May 31, 2023 at 07:45 PM in blog post | Permalink | Comments (0)

April 28, 2023

An Introduction to the Systems Approach

By H. William Dettmer

There is no question that in our age there is a good deal of turmoil about the manner in

which society is run. Probably at no point in the history of man has there been so much

discussion about the rights and wrongs of the policy makers...[Citizens have] begun to

suspect that the people who make the major decisions that affect our lives don’t know

what they are doing... They don’t know what they are doing simply because they have

no adequate basis to judge the effects of their decisions. To many it must seem that we

live in an age of moronic decision making.

C. West Churchman

The Systems Approach (Introduction) [1:vi]

Sounds like Churchman is talking about us today, doesn’t it? The preceding quotation comes from the

introduction to his seminal book on systems thinking, The Systems Approach, written in 1968. That’s sad

testimony to the fact that few decision makers in the world have learned much about complex systems in

the last 37 years. In the immortal words of Winston Churchill, “Man will occasionally stumble over the

truth, but usually he just picks himself up and continues on.”

We’ve been “continuing on” for four decades. It’s time to go back and revisit that truth we stumbled over

in 1968. We can snicker at the fact that life seemed so much simpler then. The world has “gotten smaller” as travel,
communication, the information age, and the Internet have combined to connect people and societies as never be-
fore. As economies have evolved from regional to national to transnational to global, our organizations have grown
in size and complexity. It is nearly impossible for the people running them to fully understand what goes on
“where the rubber meets the road” in nations, governments, and companies.

Analysis versus Synthesis

Since the turn of the century (the 20th century, that is), the accepted approach to dealing with increasing com-
plexity is to try to reduce it into manageable “bites” and address them in isolation. This approach is referred to as
analysis. We analyze a complex situation or issue by trying to break it down into component pieces and consider
each in isolation from the others. This kind of thinking has its roots in analytic geometry, where one basic axiom is
that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. Think about that for a moment. The underlying assumption behind
this conclusion is that all of the parts are essentially independent of one another.

But although this mathematical thinking might apply to bricks and other inanimate objects, it fails when ap-
plied to dynamic, homeostatic, or cybernetic systems [2:28-31]which generally include any organic systems, or
those where human beings have a role. And unfortunately such systems are the ones that exert the most influence
on our lives. We see the failure of the analytical approach all the time: The Rohr Corporation’s Riverside, Califor-
nia, plant recorded a 55% increase in profits in 1996. Great news, if all you focus on is short-term profits. When
you look at the larger system, you see the reason for that increase is better “efficiency” (meaning cost cutting) tem-
porarily had a greater impact than the 3% decline in sales. Or, as the corporate treasurer enthusiastically observed,
“Costs have come down quicker than our revenue has decreased.” [3:G-1]. (I’m sure the 3,500 people laid off at
Riverside by Rohr in the preceding few years are immensely gratified to know that!) The Rohr story is a classic
example of self delusion by analytical thinking.

If an analytical approach to management is counter-productive, what should we be doing instead? A holistic,
or whole system approach is considerably better suited to the kinds of complex organizations we usually encounter
today. What’s the difference between an analytical and a systems approach? The systems approach represents syn-
thesisthinking with an integrated perspective about the whole enterprise.

An Introduction to the Systems Approach


Posted by ACASA on April 28, 2023 at 08:08 PM in blog post | Permalink | Comments (0)

March 29, 2023

Evading the Success Trap

By Gordon Institute of Business Science

07 Nov 2022

Most companies accept that innovation is essential to ensuring long-term sustainability, but most struggle with the practicalities of integrating innovation into their ‘business-as-usual’ mantra.

One of the many paradoxes of business is that success exposes a company to the risk of ultimate irrelevance. Companies that are conscious of this risk avoid the success trap by integrating disruption or innovation into their business models. The trouble is that it is fiendishly difficult to do, and many fail to get it right. As always, understanding the problem is the first step in solving it.

It’s easy to see why success can act as a trap. While business success is typically built on the back of innovation, the reality is that when it all pays off, the focus shifts from thinking out of the box to creating an institution – the focus shifts to putting in place the processes to maximise profits and minimise costs. Conceptually, the business’ mindset moves from how to get ahead to how to stay ahead. The two can seem mutually exclusive, especially if, as is almost inevitable, the company structures itself in traditional ways.


To cite one glaring example: the typical corporate structure of business units focused on meeting targets can work well in the short term, but it actually militates against innovation. This article aims to understand why that should be so and how to put a company into a stronger position to build innovation into its “business-as-usual” structure and mindset.

First, one needs to understand how innovation works. Then, based on this basic understanding, we can begin to extrapolate some principles for how a company could integrate innovation into the way it does things. At the same time, it will become clear how traditional ways of doing business are often inimical to the development of innovations.


Workplace design

Steve Johnson’s insight about the English coffee house as the epitome of a space that nurtures design suggests how inhospitable to innovation the industrial design of many workplaces is. By contrast, the “cool” workplace of the archetypal technology company, with its chill rooms and campus atmosphere, starts to make more sense. Such companies depend on par excellence in fostering innovation.

But for more conventional companies, all is not lost – Johnson cites the work of researcher Kevin Dunbar, who filmed how work was done in several science labs around the world. On analysing the videos, he found that the most important ideas did not emerge from the classic lab environment. Almost all of the breakthrough ideas emanated from the weekly lab conferences. Everybody got together to share their latest findings and thoughts – often, it was sharing mistakes or frustrations that sparked the innovative thought. Johnson calls this environment in which different people from different backgrounds and interests come together to share what they are doing during a “liquid network”.

So it might not be necessary to spring for acid-green beanbags and a ping-pong table – the good old-fashioned conference table with everybody around it regularly will work just as well. It’s all about creating a semi-chaotic environment that allows people to see how seemingly disparate things could collide and create that spark of something new.

Organisational design

Equally important is organisational design. The typical organisational design tends to create silos (business units, functions like marketing, sales or IT), making it very hard to create the kind of physical environment, as described above, in which a wide variety of ideas, data, and interests can fruitfully collide. The silos (inadvertently) created by typical organisational designs also prevent people from seeing the company as a whole. Useful insight comes from Dr. Russell Ackoff, an organisational theorist: “In any system, when one improves the performance of the parts taken separately, the performance of the whole does not necessarily improve and frequently gets worse.”

Great innovations in marketing, for example, do not necessarily translate into innovation that makes the company more competitive or serves its customers better. One should never forget that most of the important business processes are horizontal, and that way of thinking needs to permeate the organisational design.

It’s no exaggeration that this problem of silos and the negative impact they have on all aspects of a company’s performance, not just its ability to innovate, is one of the perennial business challenges. The often-heard desire for as flat a corporate structure as possible is essentially a wish to solve the silo problem.

One way to encourage employees to see the company as a whole, as a codependent and interdependent system, could be to look at how performance is measured. Too often, performance measures mirror the organisational silos or the crude bottom line, but careful design could link them to common goals and objectives. This approach could nudge people to think about running the business better and how to change it for future relevance.

Corporate culture

Culture is a notoriously slippery concept and difficult to change, but it is a potent force in any organisation. A company that wants to integrate innovation into its DNA certainly needs to take steps to promote a culture of reinvention. As discussed in the previous point, rethinking how performance is measured will lay the groundwork.

Another important foundation for a culture of reinvention would be to change how failure is viewed. As Steve Johnson argued, it is often when people discuss their failures with colleagues that connections are made that spark innovation. One of the things that people have always noticed about the business culture in the United States, compared with that in the United Kingdom or South Africa, is the diametrically opposed way that failure is viewed. Typically, in the United States, failure is seen as a learning experience that makes entrepreneurs better able to succeed; here, it is something to be swept under the carpet. In the corporate environment, in particular, failure is very much a dirty word. In contrast, in the United States, it can be seen as identifying an individual prepared to try new things. (I suppose the quantum of failures would be important!)

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Evading the Success Trap


Posted by ACASA on March 29, 2023 at 11:37 PM in blog post | Permalink | Comments (0)

February 28, 2023

On the Use of Models in Corporate Planning’ by Russell Ackoff- and Why Militaries Should Read this.

Image source: https://twitter.com/reuterspictures/status/1623019893720248320/photo/1

Posted by ACASA on February 28, 2023 at 08:35 PM in blog post | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 31, 2022

A Collaborative Business Culture Is a Must-Have for Transformational Change

With a culture of collaboration, everything is easier. Can you use some of these collaboration strategies for your teams?

In my discussions with CIOs over the last several years, they have repeatedly stressed the importance of considering people and processes before technology. The transformational change CIOs are leading needs to fit with their organizations.

After reading "Smarter Collaboration" by Heidi Gardner and Ivan Matviak (the book reaches shelves on Nov. 1), I think collaborative business culture is a must-have for organizations needing transformation change. This culture should, as a goal, put IT into a team that is creating the corporate future. For this reason, I recommend "Smarter Collaboration" to business leaders and CIOs. With a culture of collaboration, everything is easier.

Why Collaborate?

Gardner and Matviak start their book by asserting that competition moves faster in the digital era. Speed can be a competitive edge or deterrent. The authors argue firms that succeed at transformation figure out how to collaborate across silos and build teams with complementary skills. And this is increasingly the essence of competitive advantage. While technology and the ability to “sense that the snow is melting at the edge” still matters — without collaboration, some organizations can have a "Kodak moment" where the middle of the organization rebels against corporate strategy.

For this reason, businesses today need contributors that can build networks across boundaries and then invoke those networks to deliver value to their companies. The author’s research shows collaboration accelerates innovation, increases customer satisfaction and enhances employee engagement. And these result in higher revenues and profits, greater market share, improved efficiency, accelerated growth and improved transparency and risk management. To prove this point, they provide case studies from multiple industries.

Importantly, smart collaboration also impacts employee engagement. Today, 30% of employees worldwide and 67% in the US say they are not engaged. Expectedly, working remotely tends to increase worker isolation. Given this, CIO David Seidl said in a recent #CIOChat that “today, we're focused on how we build connections and communities for new hires and maintain it for everyone.”

This matters, the authors say, because today’s business uncertainty and complexity are best tackled by a diverse team with complementary talents. The reference to complexity is similar to Professor Russell Ackoff, who suggested, “our environments have become larger, more complex, and less predictable — in short more turbulent.” (“Creating the Corporate Future,” Wiley Press, page 4).

A Collaborative Business Culture Is a Must-Have for Transformational Change



Posted by ACASA on October 31, 2022 at 12:58 PM in blog post | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 30, 2022

Researchers Develop Innovative Approaches to Graduate Education and Workforce Training

Initiatives Are Supported by $463K in Grants from the National Science Foundation

Kavitha Chandra-portrait
Electrical and Computer Engineering Prof. Kavitha Chandra is the principal investigator in the two NSF-funded projects on graduate education and future workforce training.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

A team of researchers headed by Electrical and Computer Engineering Prof. Kavitha Chandra is developing interdisciplinary programs that target graduate education and future workforce training in using digital technologies for automotive and manufacturing industries. The initiatives are supported by two grants totaling nearly $463,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“Future work in science and engineering fields demands that learners acquire not only strong disciplinary knowledge, but also design skills and systems-thinking skills that can be adapted and applied to solving emerging, complex problems in society,” says Chandra, who is the associate dean for undergraduate programs at the Francis College of Engineering.

“At the same time, this need also opens opportunities for women and students of color, traditionally underrepresented in science and engineering, to explore a broader range of research and career pathways that better identify with their interests and values,” she says.

Researchers Develop Innovative Approaches to Graduate Education and Workforce Training

Posted by ACASA on August 30, 2022 at 11:27 PM in blog post | Permalink | Comments (0)

July 31, 2022

Susanne Kaiser on DDD, Wardley Mapping, & Team Topologies

"Wes Reisz: Great. There's so many things that are in software. What made you decide to bring these three things together to kind of a story?

Susanne Kaiser: Yes. So for me, the combination of Wardley Mapping, Domain-Driven Design and team topologies evolved naturally over time, but it was at its core driven by system thinking. So, Dr. Russell Ackoff, one of the pioneers of the system thinking movement, he stated that a system is more than the sum of its parts. It's a product of their interaction. So the way parts fit together, that determines the performance of system, not on how they perform taken separately. So, and when we are building systems in general, we are faced with the challenges of building the right thing and building the thing right. Right? And building the right thing addresses effectiveness, and addresses questions such as how aligned is our solution to the users and business needs. Are we creating value for our customers? Have we understood the problem and do we share a common understanding and building the thing right?

Focuses on efficiencies, for example, efficiency of engineering practices, and it's not only crucial to generate value, but also being able to deliver that value. How fast can we deliver changes, and how fast and easy can we make a change effective and adapt to new circumstances. So, the one doesn't go without the other, but as Dr. Russell Ackoff pointed out doing the wrong thing right is not nearly as good as doing the right thing wrong. So, by considering the whole, and having effectiveness and efficiency in mind to build the right thing right, that we need a kind of like holistic perspective to build adaptive systems. One approach out of many is combining these three perspectives of business strategy with Wardley Mapping, software architecture, and design was Domain-Driven Design, and team organization was team topologies. So, in order to build and design and evolve adaptive socio-technical systems that are optimized for fast flow of change."

Susanne Kaiser on DDD, Wardley Mapping, & Team Topologies

Posted by ACASA on July 31, 2022 at 10:20 PM in blog post | Permalink | Comments (0)

June 30, 2022

“Systems Thinking” announced as 2022-2023 Common Experience theme

The Common Experience at Texas State University has announced that the 2022-2023 theme will be "Systems Thinking." Texas State presents an engaging academic theme each year, providing numerous opportunities for everyone — students, faculty, staff, and community members. Systems Thinking was chosen as the Common Experience theme for 2022-2023 because students are made of, surrounded by, and embedded in systems from the moment they enter the world. When they choose to attend Texas State, they choose to insert themselves into one of the most impactful systems of their lives — one that will allow them to change the world.​ When one understands a system, one can better navigate it.​ When one can navigate a system, one can advocate for change.​ As part of the Common Experience, all incoming first-year students receive a critically acclaimed book related to the year’s theme. Students discuss the book in their University Seminar class and other courses. The 2022-2023 Common Reading book is Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O'Neil. First-year students will receive a free copy during Bobcat Welcome Week. The Common Experience team encourages and welcomes interdisciplinary collaboration. To discuss the theme, events, and activities planned for the 2022-2023 academic year, contact (512) 245-3579 or [email protected]

Posted by ACASA on June 30, 2022 at 11:53 PM in blog post | Permalink | Comments (0)