Systems Thinking


“We are an aeroplane flying through a hurricane, and if we don’t continuously adjust our position we won’t get there” (Russel Ackoff)

Russell Ackoff is a multi-faceted academic and business thinker. He’s the founder of systems thinking. These are part of a speech he gave to a group of high level Ford executives (1971).

Let me try to give you a feeling of why that [Systems Thinking] is so, by giving you an example rather than trying to give you a generalized proof.

I would like you to go through the following thought experiment. I read in the New York Times the other day that there are 142 makes of automobiles available in the United States. So let’s get one of each and bring them into a large garage: 142 cars.

We’ll hire ourselves a good group of first rate automotive engineers and first ask them to do the following: inspect those 142 cars, test them, do any damn thing you want to, but come out and tell us which on has the best carburetor. So they run a series of tests and they come out and say the Buick has the best carburetor. So we make a note: Buick carburetor.

Then you say fine, now we would like you to do the same thing on transmissions. So they test the transmissions and they come out and say the Mercedes has the best transmission. We make a note: Mercedes transmission.

You say okay, take the distributor, and they run through and they come out and say the Dodge has got the best distributor. Then one by one, we take every part until we have every part required for an automobile and we have identified the best part available. Now when that is done, we tell them to now take those parts off those cars and assemble them, because then we ought to get the best possible automobile.

But, do you get it? You don’t even get an automobile. And for a very obvious reason. Because it turns out that the parts don’t fit, and that’s what systems thinking is all about. It says that the performance of the whole is not the addition of the performance of the parts, but it is a consequence of the relationship between the performance of the parts. It is how performance relates, not how it occurs independently of the other parts. That is what systems thinking is about.

So, synthesis is a different way of thinking and looking for explanations. It tries to find it by looking at wholes, larger whole, of which things are a part rather than by taking things apart.