How to Solve Intractable Problems

I highly recommend this profound presentation by the late Dr. Russell L. Ackoff, the dean of the systems thinking community. In it, Dr. Ackoff dicusses the history, nature and application of systems thinking. A few of his observations will give you an idea of the force of the presentation:

-The properties of a system (e.g. a business organization, an automobile or the human body) depend on the way in which the parts of the system interact.

-When a system is taken apart, it loses all of its essential properties and so do each of its parts (e.g. Take the motor out of an auto and what's left is not an auto. Moreover, the motor no longer moves anything. It just sits there.)

-A system is not the sum of its parts. It is the product of the interactions of its parts.

-The performance of a system is not ordinarily improved by improving the performance of its parts individually (e.g. "fixing" the marketing department may not improve the performance of the business organization).

-To "dissolve" or eliminate a problem (as opposed to absolving, resolving or solving it), ideally redesign the system of which the problem is a part to eliminate the problem, and then see how close you can come to realizing the ideal redesign.

-The strength of the U.S. economic system is its tremendous ability to survive its inefficiencies.

-The U.S. educational system kills creativity.

-The righter you do the wrong things, the wronger you become. Better to do the right things wrong, than the wrong things better.

Dr. Ackoff cites specific instances where systems thinking was used to dissolve seemingly intractable problems. To eliminate an illiteracy problem in an inner city grade school, for example, a team of which Dr. Ackoff was a member, used a grant to set up a continuous showing of Charlie Chaplin silent films that students could watch at any time. Soon the illiteracy problem dissolved, as students became motivated to learn to read so that they could understand the subtitles.