Ackoff’s Best: An Introduction to Systems Theory

Systems have always been a topic of interest to me ever since studying sociology because it changed the way I look at and understand my environment. To further educate myself on Systems, Systems Theory enthusiast Jeff Lindsay recommended “Ackoff’s Best“, by Russel L. Ackoff. This book is a compilation of Dr. Ackoff’s writings on management and is divided into four sections: Systems, Planning, Applications, and Science.

So let me begin by asking the question “What is systems thinking?” Systems thinking is one of many ways to understanding an object. This object can be a physical object, an institution, an idea, etc. Before I get too specific, let me introduce another concept in which we will use to contrast: machinist thinking, or analysis. Analysis is the act of breaking an object apart into smaller pieces to better understand it. It is believed you can better understand an object if you understand the parts that make it up. Systems thinking, on the other hand, is a way to understand something by seeing how an object fits into a larger picture. Although both concepts may seem contradictory, they are actually complimentary because both describe the same object, but with different points of view.

So now that we have introduced the idea of Systems thinking, it begs the question “What is a system?” A system consists of dependent elements that interact with each other to make up and contribute to a greater whole. These elements alone cannot function and the system without one or more of the elements cannot properly function.

Confusing? Let’s look at some real life scenarios. A general example can be project management. Each person in the project has a specific task that leads to an outcome or results. However, if one person leaves the project, the overall outcome lacks the results from that one person’s work. Further, a person’s work alone cannot produce the full outcome of the project.

To contrast this scenario, let’s go back to analysis. If you’re going to analyze the project, you’re going to take a top-bottom approach. First you look at the goal of the project. Next, you’ll look at the tasks that need to be done and analyze how they’re performed. A systems thinker doesn’t care about how a task is performed, because the task has been delegated to another element(person) within the system(project). Since systems thinking only cares about managing the project, we’re concerned about the outcome of the project (the bigger picture), not how the smaller tasks are performed.

A more specific and current example can be the “console-wars.” In my opinion, Sony had a machinist (analysis) approach to the design of the PS3 while Nintendo and Microsoft had more of a systems approach to the design of their respective consoles. Sony concentrated more on the specifics of the hardware and the performance of the console. Nintendo and Microsoft on the other hand concentrated on a much larger picture. Nintendo concentrated more on the overall user experience and interactivity with the console. This is seen through their original and revolutionary controllers that requires physical interaction. Microsoft on the other hand wanted to get into the media center market, so they introduced media center features (now including IPTV!). The only thing the PS3 really had going for it was the power of the system, but even that somewhat failed due to cost and time constraints. If we look at the demand for the respective consoles, the system thinkers got the upper hand.

As shown, systems theory has a practical use in the way we look at objects in our everyday lives. It’ll be interesting to see how I’ll interpret things as I continue reading more about systems and systems theory.

3 thoughts on “Ackoff’s Best: An Introduction to Systems Theory

  1. Sounds like you’re getting the idea! One thing that I didn’t get immediately is that systems thinking is not just about synthesis (the opposite of analysis), it’s using both. However, since synthesis is the new concept, it gets more attention.

    On the topic of synthesis, there’s another book on systems thinking appropriately called Systems Thinking that seems to develop/expand/better explain Ackoff’s ideas. I got from it the idea that synthesis isn’t just about the bigger picture (I mean, that’s one way to put it), but it’s about looking specifically at the role of the object in the context of the greater system. And that role usually has to do with how it interacts with the other elements in the system.

    I really like your console wars explanation. Sony definitely took the machine thinking approach. Nintendo has been known to be a holistic thinker (like Apple, they also appreciate user experience more than most), and Microsoft I think can’t help but look at their console at a high-level because their plan from the start was to be that “set-top box” they were talking about years before they made the Xbox (they really want to be in your living room).

    As a side-note, despite Sony’s lack of greater perspective, I think the console market is pretty harmonious. The major players all have their niche. Xbox is the hardcore gamer’s console. Wii is the casual/family console. Playstation gets the middle, which may or may not actually exist. That definitely doesn’t help Sony because to me, Nintendo and Microsoft know their respective markets very well. Sony acts almost as if those niches don’t exist.

    Anyway, getting back to systems theory, I know what you mean when you say “objects” but really, even if seems like a single thing, it’s still a system (which is one of the great things about systems theory: everything is a system). Even most of the things (at least in the physical world) that came from the reductionist way of thinking (atoms, cells, chemical elements) are still systems, both in the fact that they are made up of many interacting parts, and that they exist within a greater system.

    You have a really good definition of a system, but the last part you mention should stress the fact that if you take a system apart (for example, by disconnecting the parts), the system no longer exists. You lose the essential properties of that system. The essential property of a car is that it takes you from place to place, but after taking the car apart, no single part of it can take you from place to place. This is why analysis fails to work in some cases because if you take something apart to study it, you’ve likely eliminated the essential property of the thing you’re studying!

    There’s a parallel in the whole knowledge, understanding, wisdom paradigm that I saw somebody point out once. So, knowledge is generally regarded as “what/how” information. Understanding is regarded as knowing “why” information. Wisdom is then systems thinking. Because analysis gets you “what/how” information (how does it work?), and synthesis gets you “why” information (why does it work?). Wisdom is using both, hence it is systems thinking!

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