Russell L. Ackoff

Russell L. Ackoff, 1993

Russell L. Ackoff (19192009) was an American organizational theorist, professor and pioneer in the field of operations research, systems thinking and management science.



  • Out of this basic language, we can build up the other languages of the sciences, beginning with the language of physics, and proceeding to biology, psychology, and the social sciences.
    • Charles West Churchman, Russell Lincoln Ackoff (1950) Methods of inquiry: an introduction to philosophy and scientific method. p. 185; Cited in: Britton, G. A., & McCallion, H. (1994). An overview of the Singer/Churchman/Ackoff school of thought. Systems Practice, Vol 7 (5), 487-521
  • In the last two decades we have witnessed the emergence of the "system" as a key concept in scientific research. Systems, of course, have been studied for centuries, but something new has been added... The tendency to study systems as an entity rather than as a conglomeration of parts is consistent with the tendency in contemporary science no longer to isolate phenomena in narrowly confined contexts, but rather to open interactions for examination and to examine larger and larger slices of nature. Under the banner of systems research (and its many synonyms) we have also witnessed a convergence of many more specialized contemporary scientific developments... These research pursuits and many others are being interwoven into a cooperative research effort involving an ever-widening spectrum of scientific and engineering disciplines. We are participating in what is probably the most comprehensive effort to attain a synthesis of scientific knowledge yet made.

The development of operations research as a science, 1956Edit

R.L. Ackoff (1956) "The development of operations research as a science" in; Operations Research Vol 4. pp.265-295
  • The development (rather than the history) of operations research as a science consists of the development of its methods, concepts, and techniques. Operations research is neither a method nor a technique; it is or is becoming a science and as such is defined by a combination of the phenomena it studies.
    • Cited in: Joe Kelly (1969) Organizational behaviour. p.26
  • A great deal of study has been directed to denning 'best decisions,' particularly since the pioneering work of mathematical statisticians (such as Wald), of mathematicians (such as von Neumann), of economists (such as Arrow)... The main effect of this development on the practice of OR has been the growing realization that there are decision objectives other than maximizing expected return and minimizing maximum loss. That is, in many practical situations there are criteria of optimality that are more appropriate than these two mentioned.
  • A problem never exists in isolation; it is surrounded by other problems in space and time. The more of the context of a problem that a scientist can comprehend, the greater are his chances of finding a truly adequate solution.
    • Partly cited in: Jean-Marc Choukroun, Roberta Snow (1992) Planning for human systems: essays in honor of Russell L. Ackoff. p. 287


Scientific method: optimizing applied research decisions, 1962Edit

  • The extensive literature addressed to the definition or characterization of science is filled with inconsistent points of view and demonstrates that an adequate definition is not easy to attain. Part of the difficulty arises from the fact that the meaning of science is not fixed, but is dynamic. As science has evolved, so has its meaning. It takes on a new meaning and significance with successive ages.
    • p.1
  • The word model is used as a noun, adjective, and verb, and in each instance it has a slightly different connotation. As a noun "model" is a representation in the sense in which an architect constructs a small-scale model of a building or a physicist a large-scale model of an atom. As an adjective "model" implies a degree of perfection or idealization, as in reference to a model home, a model student, or a model husband. As an adjective "model" implies a degree or perfection or idealization, as in reference to a model home, a model student, or a model husband. As a verb "to model" means to demonstrate, to reveal, to show what a thing is like.
  • Scientific models have all these connotations. They are representations of states, objects, and events. They are idealized in the sense that they are less complicated than reality and hence easier to use for research purposes. These models are easier to manipulate and "carry" than the real thing. The simplicity of models, compared with reality, lies in the fact that only the relevant properties of reality are represented.
    • p.108 as cited in: Joe H. Ward, Earl Jennings (1973) Introduction to linear models. p.4
  • Because we cannot yet (1) characterize all the possible experimental designs along quantitative scales and (2) generate cost-of-error functions, comparisons must be made in specific contexts rather than by use of analytic optimizing.
    • p.340 as cited in: Philosophica gandensia, Vol.6-7 (1968). p.141

Management misinformation systems, 1967Edit

Russell L. Ackoff (1967) "Management Misinformation Systems," in: Management Sciences Vol. 14, No. 4, December 1967.
  • I do not deny that most managers lack a good deal of information that they should have, but I do deny that this is the most important informational deficiency from which they suffer. It seems to me that they suffer more from an overabundance of irrelevant information.
    • p.147
  • My experience indicates that most managers receive much more data (if not information) than they can possibly absorb even if they spend all of their time trying to do so. Hence they already suffer from an information overload. They must spend a great deal of time separating the relevant documents. For example, I have found that I receive an average of 43 hours of unsolicited reading material each week. The solicited material is usually half again this amount.
    • p.148
  • Unless the information overload to which managers are subjected is reduced, any additional information made available by an MIS cannot be expected to be used effectively.
    • p.148
  • Most managers have some conception of at least some of the types of decisions they must make. Their conceptions, however, are likely to be deficient in a very critical way, a way that follows from an important principle of scientific economy: The less we understand a phenomenon, the more variables we require to explain it.
    • p.149
  • [Mistake 2:] Managers need all the information they want. Most MIS designers "determine" what information is needed by asking managers what information they would like to have. This is based on the assumption that managers know what information they need and want.
    • As cited in: Merrill J. Riley (1981) Management information systems. p.114

A concept of corporate planning, 1969Edit

  • Planning is the design of a desired future and of effective ways of bringing it about. It is an instrument that is used by the wise, but not by the wise alone. When conducted by lesser men it often becomes an irrelevant ritual that produces short-run peace of mind, but not the future that is longed for.
    • p.1 as cited in: George David Hughes (1997) Marketing management: a planning approach. p.14 and many other works.
  • Recently I asked three corporate executives what decisions they had made in the last year that they would not have made were it not for their it not for their corporate plans. All had difficulty in identifying one such decision. Since each of their plans were marked 'secret' or 'confidential', I asked them how their competitors might benefit from the possession of their plans. Each answered with embarrassment that their Each answered with embarrassment that their competitors would not benefit. Yet these executives were strong advocates of corporate planning.
    • p.1 as cited in: Henry Mintzberg (1994) Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning. p.98.


  • The basic managerial idea introduced by systems thinking, is that to manage a system effectively, you might focus on the interactions of the parts rather than their behavior taken separately.
    • Russell L. Ackoff and Fred Emery (1972) On purposeful systems, cited in: Lloyd Dobyns, Clare Crawford-Mason (1994) Thinking about quality: progress, wisdom, and the Deming philosophy. p.40
  • A system is more than the sum of its parts; it is an indivisible whole. It loses its essential properties when it is taken apart. The elements of a system may themselves be systems, and every system may be part of a larger system.
    • Ackoff (1973) "Science in the Systems Age: beyond IE, OR and MS." in: Operations Research Vol 21, pp. 664

Towards a System of Systems Concepts, 1971Edit

Ackoff (1971) "Towards a System of Systems Concepts". In: Management Science. Vol.17. pp.661-671
  • The systems approach to problems focuses on systems taken as a whole, not on their parts taken separately. Such an approach is concerned whit total- system performance even when a change in only one or a few of its parts is contemplated because there are some properties of systems that can only be treated adequately from a holistic point of view. These properties derive from the relationship between parts of systems: how the parts interact and fit together
    • Cited in: Haluk Demirkan, James C. Spohrer, Vikas Krishna (2011) The Science of Service Systems. p.274
  • Despite the importance of systems concepts and the attention that they have received and are receiving, we do not yet have a unified or integrated set (i.e., a system) of such concepts. Different terms are used to refer to the same thing and the same term is used to refer to different things. This state is aggravated by the fact that the literature of systems research is widely dispersed and is therefore difficult to track. Researchers in a wide variety of disciplines and interdisciplines are contributing to the conceptual development of the systems sciences but these contributions are not as interactive and additive as they might be.
    • As cited in: Journal of systems management. Vol. 25, p.39. Association for Systems Management, 1974
  • [The environment of a system is] a set of elements and their relevant properties, which elements are not part of the system, but a change in any of which can cause or produce a change in the state of the system.

On purposeful systems., 1972Edit

Ackoff, Russell Lincoln, and Frederick Edmund Emery. On purposeful systems. Vol. 6. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton, 1972.

  • A subject may be said to be in such a state if he (it) wants something and has unequally efficient alternative ways of trying to get it.
    • p. 39, as cited in: Jacob Hendrik Galjaard (2009) De droom van mijnheer Ariyoshi. p. 89:
  • The measure of information to be developed here will also be related to freedom of choice; that is, it will be a function of the probabilities of choice associated with the alternative courses of action... The measure developed here is a function of m, the number of alternative potential courses of action.
    • p. 145, as cited in: Galjaard (2009, p. 89): About the information-concept of Ackoff.
  • Man seeks objectives that enable him to convert the attainment of every goal into a means for the attainment of a new and more desirable goal. The ultimate objective in such a sequence cannot be obtainable; otherwise its attainment would put an end to the process. An end that satisfies these conditions is an ideal...
    Thus the formulation and pursuit of ideals is a means by which to put meaning and significance into his life and into the history of which he is part.
    • p. 237, as cited in: William E. Smith (2008) The Creative Power. p. 58

Redesigning the future, 1974Edit

  • Successful problem solving requires finding the right solution to the right problem. We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem.
    • p.8
  • Because a cause was taken to be sufficient for its effect, nothing was required to explain the effect other than the cause. Consequently, the quest for causes was environment-free. It employed what we now call 'closed-system' thinking. Laws. —like that of freely falling bodies—-were formulated so as to exclude environmental effects.
    • p.10
  • The synthetic mode of thought, when applied to systems problems, is called the systems approach. In this approach a problem is not solved by taking it apart but by viewing it as a part of a larger problem.
    • p.14
  • In the Systems Age we tend to look at things as part of larger wholes rather than as wholes to be taken apart. This the the doctrine of expansionism. Expansionism brings with it the synthetic mode of thought much as reductionism brought with it.
    • p.14
  • Because the Systems Age is teleologically oriented, it is preoccupied with systems that are goal-seeking or purposeful, that is, systems that can display choice of either means or ends, or both. It is interested in purely mechanical systems only.
    • p.18
  • Problem solving has traditionally been taken to be an essential function of management. Through systems thinking, however, we have come to doubt the existence of problems and solutions to them.
    • p.20
  • We have also come to realize that no problem ever exists in complete isolation. Every problem interacts with other problems and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems I choose to call such a system a mess” problems... Furthermore solutions to most problems produce other problems... a financial problem, a maintenance problem, and conflict among family members for its use.
    • p.21 as cited in: Frederick M. Zimmerman (2011) From Riches to Rags at a Time of Prosperity, p.12
  • "English does not contain a suitable word for 'system of problems.' Therefore, I have had to coin one. I choose to call such a system a mess"
    • p.21

The Art of Problem Solving, 1978Edit

  • The effort to get rid of what we do not want is reactive, retrospectively oriented problem solving. The effort to obtain what we want is proactive, prospectively oriented problem solving.
    • Cited in: Chris Griffiths, Melina Costi (2011) GRASP: The Solution. p.64
  • In reactive problem solving we walk into the future facing the past — we move away from, rather than toward, something. This often results in unforseen consequences that are more distasteful than the deficiencies removed.
  • In proactive problem solving we specify where we want to go, and we try to get there. Although such an approach does not eliminate the possibility of overlooking relevant consequences of our solutions, it reduces the probability of doing so. The more ultimate the desired outcome we specify, the more likely we are to consider the intermediate and long-run consequences of our immediate actions. The more immediate the source of dissatisfaction we try to get rid of, the less likely we are to take account of relevant consequences. Therefore, the chances of overlooking relevant consequences are minimized when we formulate a problem in terms of approaching one or more ideals.
    • As cited in: Problem Solving & Goal Setting blog, 24 October 2010

The future of operational research is past, 1979Edit

Russell L. Ackoff (1979) "The future of operational research is past". In: The Journal of the Operational Research Society, Vol 30, pp.93-104.
  • Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are extracted from messes by analysis. Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.
  • When a mess, which is a system of problems, is taken apart, it loses its essential properties and so does each of its parts. The behavior of a mess depends more on how the treatment of its parts interact than how they act independently of each other. A partial solution to a whole system of problems is better than whole solutions of each of its parts taken separately.
    • Cited in: Can Alpaslan, Ian Mitroff (2011) Swans, Swine, and Swindlers: Coping with the Growing Threat of Mega-Crises and Mega-Messes. p.16


  • Most corporate mission statements are worthless.... [Cooperations] often formulate necessities as objectives: For example, 'to achieve sufficient profit.' This is like a person saying his mission is to breathe sufficiently
    • Russel L. Ackoff, (1987) "Mission statements", in: Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 15 Iss: 4, pp.30 - 31

Creating the Corporate Future, 1981Edit

  • A system is a set of two or more elements that satisfies the following three conditions. (1) The behavior of each element has an effect on the behavior of the whole. (2) The behavior of the elements and their effects on the whole are interdependent. the way each element behaves and the way it affects the whole depends on how at least one other element behaves. (3) However subgroups of the elements are formed, each has an effect on the behavior of the whole and none has an independent effect on it.
    • p.15-16
  • The Machine Age’s commitment to cause and effect was the source of many dilemmas, including the one involving free will. At the turn of the century the American philosopher E.A. Singer, Jr., showed that science had, in effect, been cheating. It was using two different relationships but calling both cause and effect. He pointed out, for example, that acorns do not cause oaks because they are not sufficient, even though they are necessary, for oaks. An acorn thrown into the ocean, or planted in the desert or an Arctic ice cap does not yield an oak. To call the relationship between an acorn and an oak ‘probabilistic’ or ‘non deterministic causality,’ as many scientists did, was cheating because it is not possible to have a probability other than 1.0 associated with a cause; a cause completely determines its effect. Therefore, Singer chose to call this relationship ‘producer-product’ and to differentiate it from cause-effect.
    • p. 224-225 as cited in: David Ing (2010) "The producer-product relation, and coproducers in systems theory". in the Coevolving blog, September 02, 2010.

From Data to Wisdom, 1989Edit

R.L. Ackoff (1989) "From data to wisdom". In: Journal of applied systems analysis. Vol 15. pp.3-9
  • Data is raw. It simply exists and has no significance beyond its existence (in and of itself). It can exist in any form, usable or not. It does not have meaning of itself. In computer parlance, a spreadsheet generally starts out by holding data.
  • Information is data that has been given meaning by way of relational connection. This "meaning" can be useful, but does not have to be. In computer parlance, a relational database makes information from the data stored within it.
  • Knowledge is the appropriate collection of information, such that it's intent is to be useful. Knowledge is a deterministic process. When someone "memorizes" information (as less-aspiring test-bound students often do), then they have amassed knowledge. This knowledge has useful meaning to them, but it does not provide for, in and of itself, an integration such as would infer further knowledge.
    • As cited in: Jeff A. Riley and Kemal A. Delic (2010) "Enterprise Knowledge Clouds". In: Handbook of Cloud Computing. Borko Furht, Armando Escalante ed. Springer 2010.


  • The higher standard of living, the more consideration we give to the fun we derive from what we do and its meaningfulness.
    • Ackoff (1994, p.71) cited in: James P. Lewis (2002) Working Together: 12 Principles for Achieving Excellence. p.35
  • [Ackoff also developed the circular organization concept. This structure is a democratic hierarchy with three essential characteristics:]
    (1) the absence of an ultimate authority, the circularity of power;
    (2) the ability of each member to participate directly or through representation in all decisions that affect him or her directly; and
    (3) the ability of members, individually or collectively, to make and implement decisions that affect no one other than the decision maker or decision-makers.
    • Ackoff’s (1994) The Democratic Corporation: A Radical Prescription for Recreating Corporate America and Rediscovering Success. p.117 cited in: Stuart A. Umpleby and Eric B. Dent. (1999) "The Origins and Purposes of Several Traditions. in Systems Theory and Cybernetics". in Cybernetics and Systems: An International Journal, Vol 30. pp. 79-103
  • The effectiveness of any model used to describe and understand behavior of a particular system as a whole ultimately depends on the degree to which that model accurately represents that system. Nevertheless, there have been and are situations in which application of deterministic or animate models to social systems have produced useful results for a short period of time. However, in a longer run, such mismatches usually result in less than desirable results because critical aspects of the social systems were omitted in the less complex model that was used.
    • Ackoff (1999, p.34) cited in: Michael C. Jackson (2000) Systems Approaches to Management. p.234
  • Systems science and technology constitute one aspect of systems thinking, but the humanities and arts make up the other. The fact that design plays such a large part in the systemic treatment of problems makes it apparent that art has a major role in it as well. Ethics and aesthetics are integral aspects of evaluating systems... the systems approach involves the pursuit of truth (science) and its effective use (technology), plenty (economics), the good (ethics and morality), and beauty and fun (aesthetics). To compare systems methodology with that of any of the so-called ‘hard’ disciplines—for example, physics—is to misunderstand the nature of systems. The worry is not that the systems approach is not scientific in the sense which physics or chemistry or biology is, but that some try to make it scientific in that sense. To the extent they succeed, they destroy it.
    • Ackoff (1999). "Disciplines, the two cultures and the scianities". Systems Research and Behavioral Science. 16 (6), p. 537. Cited in: Sherryl Stalinski (2005) A Systems View of Social Systems, Culture and Communities. Saybrook Graduate School. p. 5

Re-Creating the Corporation (1999)Edit

Russell L. Ackoff (1999) Re-Creating the Corporation: A Design of Organizations for the 21st Century
  • Over time, every way of thinking generates important problems that it cannot solve.
    • p. 3. Opening sentence.
  • Every culture has a shared pattern of thinking. It is the cement that holds a culture together, gives it unity. A culture's characteristic way of thinking is imbedded in its concept of the nature of reality, its world view.
    • p. 4
  • A change of world view not only brings about profound cultural changes, but also is responsible for what historians call a "change of age." An age is a period of time in which the prevailing world view has remained relatively unchanged.
    • p. 4
  • Analysis of a system reveals its structure and how it works. It provides the knowledge required to make it work efficiently and to repair it when it stops working. Its product is know-how, knowledge, not understanding. To enable a system to perform effectively we must understand it—we must be able to explain its behavior—and this requires being aware of its functions in the larger systems of which it is a part.
    • p. 12
  • An organization's mission statement (1) should contain its reasons for existence and its most general aspirations, its ideals. (2) It should identify in very general terms the way(s) by which the organization will pursue its ideals, that is, the business it wants to be in. (3) It should formulate the ways by which it will attempt to serve each of its stakeholder groups. (4) It should meet the preceding requirements in a way that is exciting and challenging to all its stakeholders. Finally, (5) it should establish the uniqueness of the organization.
    • p. 83
  • A mission statement should define the business that the organization wants to be in, not necessarily what it is in.
    • p. 83
  • When a business is bought, it is bought for its potential—for its future, not its past.
    • p. 133
  • Another common deficiency is the failure of some panaceas to take into account a social system's developmental responsibilities to its stakeholders.
    • p. 253
  • A corporation that fails to see itself as an instrument of all its stakeholders will probably fail to use them, and be used by them, effectively enough to survive in the emerging environment.
    • p. 289


  • Doing philosophy was an opportunity to learn something new. I expected this to be an adjunct to my practice of architecture. But it turned out the other way. It turned out that the philosophy of science gave me the opportunity to design social systems, and I was more interested in people-oriented systems than in buildings. They were both design, but different kinds of design. I like creating things.
    • Ackoff cited in: Carole Novak (2000) "Interview with Russell L. Ackoff". in: Technos Quartely. Fall 2000 Vol. 9 No. 3. This quote is the answer to the question, why Ackoff switched from architecture to philosophy in his graduate studies.
  • A bureaucrat is one who has the power to say “no” but none to say “yes”. Bureaucrats can find an infinite number of reasons for rejecting any proposed change, but can find none for accepting it.
    • Ackoff (2006) A little book of f-laws: 13 common sins of management. p.12
  • The only problems that have simple solutions are simple problems. The only managers that have simple problems have simple minds. Problems that arise in organisations are almost always the product of interactions of parts, never the action of a single part. Complex problems do not have simple solutions.
    • Ackoff (2007) as cited in: Stefan Stern (2009) "Fond farewell to a brilliant thinker". in: Financial Times, November 9, 2009.
  • Analysis of a system reveals how it works; it provides know-how, knowledge, not understanding; that is, explanations of why it works the way it does. This [understanding of why systems work] requires synthetic thinking... Analysis is the way scientists conduct research. Synthetic thinking is exemplified by design.
    • Ackoff & Greenberg (2008) Turning Learning Right Side Up. p.61 as cited in: Stephen M Millett (2011) Managing the Future: A Guide to Forecasting and Strategic Planning. p.52

A little book of f-laws: 13 common sins of management, 2006Edit

  • The lower the rank of managers, the more they know about fewer things. The higher the rank of managers, the less they know about many things.
    • p.2 cited in: Gregory H. Watson (2010) "By rejecting the status quo, Russ Ackoff took systems thinking to greater heights" in: QP. vol 27, March 2010, p.30
  • Managers who don't know how to measure what they want settle for wanting what they can measure. For example, those who want a high quality of work life but don't know how to measure it, often settle for wanting a high standard of living because they can measure it.
    • p.4, bold text cited in: Colin J. Neill, Phillip A. Laplante, Joanna F. DeFranco (2011) Antipatterns: Managing Software Organizations and People
  • The less sure managers are of their opinions, the more vigorously they defend them. Managers do not waste their time defending beliefs they hold strongly – they just assert them. Nor do they bother to refute what they strongly believe is false.
    • p.8, bold text cited in: Gregory H. Watson (2010)
  • The less important an issue is, the more time managers spend discussing it. More time is spent on small talk than is spent on large talk. Most talk is about what matters least. What matters least is what most of us know most about.
    • p.16, bold text cited in: Gerald Haigh (2008) Inspirational, and Cautionary Tales for Would-be School Leaders. p.142
  • Managers cannot learn from doing things right, only from doing them wrong
    • p.37 cited in: Andrew Carey (2008) Inside Project Red Stripe: Incubating Innovation and Teamwork at the Economist. p.49

About Russell L. AckoffEdit

  • If the story of my early years with Russ sound like they were years of battle, then the sound is correct.
    • C. West Churchman (1990, p.130) cited in: Magnus Ramage, Karen Shipp (2009) Systems Thinkers. p.140
  • I have noticed that Professor Ackoff (or even I) can make a good theory work in practice, at least well enough to demonstrate its application. But can we expect management practitioners to follow our guidance, just from our writing management books and giving workshops?
    • Peter Jones (2009)Integral Leadership Review Vol IX, no 4, Aug 2009. cited in: Russell L Ackoff, Herbert J. Addison, Jamshid Gharajedaghi (2010) Systems Thinking for Curious Managers: With 40 New Management F-Laws. p.4
  • Systems thinking, as written about and practiced by Russell Ackoff, C. West Churchman, Peter Checkland and others, contained within it many of the impulses that motivate the application of design ideas to strategy, organization, society, and management. Ideas such as engaging a broad set of stakeholders, moving beyond simple metrics and calculations, considering idealized options and using scenarios to explore them, shifting boundaries to reframe problems, iteration, the liberal use of diagrams and rich pictures, and tirelessly searching for a better set of alternatives were all there. If the business and management community had bought it, we would not be having the many discussions about design, design thinking, and expanding management education to engage the intuitive, to embrace values, to look beyond available choices.
    • Fred Collopy (2009) "Lessons Learned -- Why the Failure of Systems Thinking Should Inform the Future of Design Thinking". In Fast Company blog, June 7, 2009.

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Last modified on 7 January 2014, at 22:38