Book Review: Systems Thinking For Curious Managers

March 25, 2010

Russell Ackoff was a professor of management at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He was also a leading authority on systems thinking. Ackoff died in October 2009, but this new book “Systems Thinking For Curious Managers,” is an excellent contribution to systems thinking and serves as a fitting tribute to his legacy.

This book is a short and very accessible read. Ackoff and his co-authors, Herbert J. Addison and Andrew Carey, provide an exceptional overview of the basics of general systems as they specifically relate to business and organizations. They hit all the basics with succinct treatments of systems principles such as feedback loops, tropisms, self-organization, interconnectedness, equifinality, events vs. systems, and parts vs. the whole. They also provide excellent references for those that might want to learn more about the origins, principles and practices of systems thinking. Here is a definition of systems and systems thinking that is as simple yet complete as any you will find:

A system is a set or pattern of relationships that work together in some fashion. Systems can accomplish things that would be impossible if the same elements were put into random relationships, or no relationships at all…..Systems thinking looks at relationships (rather than unrelated objects), connectedness, process (rather than structure), the whole (rather than just its parts), the patterns (rather than the contents) of a system, and context. (p. 6).

The book summarizes Ackoff’s 81 f-laws – Ackoff’s wisdom about organizations expressed as a series of unspoken laws and unconventional truths of management. Here are some examples of some of his original f-laws:

  • You can’t teach an old dog or executive new tricks, or even that there are any new tricks
  • The best reason for recording what one thinks is to discover what one thinks and to organize it in transmittable form
  • In an organization that disapproves of mistakes, but identifies only errors of commission, the best strategy for anyone who seeks job security is to do nothing
  • Administration, management, and leadership are not the same thing
  • Managers cannot talk and listen at the same time; in fact, most managers find it very difficult to listen when they are not talking
  • Complex problems do not have simple solutions, only simple minded managers and their consultants think they do

The book then goes on to introduce 40 new f-laws. I love what he says about knowledge, understanding, and wisdom: “knowledge enables us to make things work; understanding enables us to make things work the way we want; wisdom enables us to want the “right” things, things that increase our ability to obtain what we and others need and want.” (p. 67).

This book is a gem both for those familiar with and those new to systems thinking. It is well worth the two hours it will take you to read it.

Related Posts:

The Easy Way Out Usually Leads Back In

Toyota’s Quality Mess: What Would Deming Say?

Goal Setting: A Few Anecdotal Observations

Why Do People Do The Things They Do?

About the Author:

Comments (6)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Hi Bret, that sounds like a good book to read! I loved the short yet engaging overview of Ackoff’s book you present us here, especially the f-laws Ackoff summarized about organizations’ leaders. So I will try to read it! Thank you, Javier.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    If you are not familiar with systems thinking, this book is a great place to start. Thanks! Bret

  2. Dibyendu De says:

    A fine book review. Tempts me to lay my hands on the book as soon as possible. Wonder whether the book has more to say about system solutions in addition to Ackoff’s amusing but generally true f-laws

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Does not go into much depth on systems solutions. More just an introduction to the concepts, but still a worthy ready. Thanks! Bret

  3. Art Petty says:

    Bret, thanks for the enticing review. You’ve once again positively impacted my reading list. -Art

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    It is an easy read but I think a good reference. If you read it, let me know what you think, Art. Thanks, Bret