Systemic Practice and Action Research, Vol. 12, No. 4, 1999
On Passing Through 80
Russell L. Ackoff1
Received January 22, 1999; revised February 16, 1999
The focus of this passage through age is on the sources of fun in the professional life
of the author. Cited are (1) denying the obvious, (2) revealing that most social systems
do not pursue the objectives they proclaim, (3) replacing conceptual confusion with
order, (4) exposing intellectual con men, and (5) designing organizations that can
avoid the ubiquitous traps that immobilize them.
KEY WORDS: age; fun; organizational objectives, design, and traps; conceptual
confusion; intellectual con men.
When one reaches 80 one is considered to be ripe and ready for picking. Picking
usually consists of the pickers using the pickee as an excuse for a celebration
in which the pickers expect the pickee to make a presentation that falls into one
of several well-worn prototypes.
First, there is the maudlin, sentimental acknowledgment of all those who
have provided support, assistance, and encouragement to the pickee. Such a presentation has virtually no interest to the pickers except for the anxious wait for
mention of their names. Once mentioned, they lose interest in what follows.
Those who are present, but not mentioned, assume a permanent grudge against
the pickee. Furthermore, even if I used all the space allotted to me to acknowledge indebtedness, I could cover only a small percentage of those that should
The second prototype is based on the false assumption that wisdom increases
with age. The pickee is then expected to share with the pickers the bits of wisdom he
or she may have accumulated. Unfortunately, my bag of wisbits is empty. Whatever
I may have once possessed, I have dissipated in my writings.
The third prototype is also based on a false assumption: that the clarity with
which one can foresee the future increases with age. The fact is that whatever we
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can see clearly about the future we will take steps to prevent from happening.
As Kenneth Boulding once said that if we saw tomorrow's newspaper today,
tomorrow would never happen. Unfortunately, as you know, I have no interest
in forecasting the future, only in creating it by acting appropriately in the present.
I am a founding member of the Presentology Society.
The fourth and last prototype is autobiographical. But I have no interest in
reconstructing the past as I would like it to have been. I leaned from it precisely
because it wasn't what I expected, which also explains why I don't remember it.
Furthermore, you cannot learn from my mistakes, only from your own. I want
to encourage, not discourage, your making your own.
Now where do these self-indulgent reflections leave me? Not surprisingly,
where I want to be: discussing the most important aspect of life—having fun.
For me there has never been an amount of money that makes it worth doing
something that is not fun. So I'm going to recall the principal sources of the fun
that I have experienced.
First, the fun derived from denying the obvious and exploring the consequences of doing so. In most cases, I have found the obvious to be wrong. The
obvious, I discovered, is not what needs no proof, but what people do not want
to prove. I have been greatly influenced by Ambrose Bierce's (1967, p. 289)
definition of self-evident: "Evident to one's self and to nobody else."
Here is a very small sample of the obvious things I have had great fun
• That improving the performance of the parts of a system taken separately
will necessarily improve the performance of the whole. False. In fact, it
can destroy an organization, as is apparent in an example I have used ad
nauseum: installing a Rolls Royce engine in a Hyundai can make it inoperable. This explains why benchmarking has almost always failed. Denial
of this principle of performance improvement led to a series of organizational designs intended to facilitate the management of interactions: the
circular organization, the internal market economy, and the multidimensional organization.
• That problems are disciplinary in nature. Effective research is not disciplinary, interdisciplinary, or multidisciplinary; it is transdisciplinary. Systems thinking is holistic; it attempts to derive understanding of parts from
the behavior and properties of wholes rather than derive the behavior and
properties of wholes from those of their parts. Disciplines are taken by
science to represent different parts of the reality we experience. In effect,
science assumes reality is structured and organized the way universities
are. This is a double error. First, disciplines do not constitute different
parts of reality; they are different aspects of reality, different points of
view. Any part of reality can be viewed from any of these aspects. The
On Passing Through 80
whole can be understood only by viewing it from all the perspectives
simultaneously. Second, the separation of our different points of view
encourages looking for solutions to problems with the same point of view
from which the problem was recognized. Paraphrasing Einstein, we cannot deal with problems as effectively as possible by employing the same
point of view as was used in recognizing them. When we know how a
system works, how its parts are connected and interact to produce the
behavior and properties of the whole, we can almost always find one or
more points of view from which better solutions to the problem can be
found than can be found from the point of view from which the problem was recognized. For example, we do not try to cure a headache by
brain surgery, but by putting a pill in the stomach. We do this because
we understand how the body, a biological system, works. When science
divides reality up into disciplinary parts and deals with them separately,
it reveals a lack of understanding of reality as a whole, as a system.
Systems thinking not only erases the boundaries between the points
of view that define the sciences and professions, but also erases the boundary between science and the humanities. Science, I believe, consists of
the search for similarities among things that are apparently different; the
humanities consist of the search for differences among things that are
apparently similar. Science and the humanities are the head and tail of
reality, viewable separately, but not separable. It is for this reason that I
have come to refer to the study of systems as part of the scianities.
• That the best thing that can be done to a problem is to solve it. False.
The best thing that can be done to a problem is to dissolve it, to redesign
the entity that has it or its environment so as to eliminate the problem.
Such a design incorporates common sense and research and increases our
learning more than trial-and-error or scientific research alone can.
My second source of fun has been the revelation that most large social
systems are pursuing objectives other than the ones they proclaim and that the
ones they pursue are wrong. They try to do the wrong thing righter and this
makes what they do wronger. It is much better to do the right thing wrong than
the wrong thing right, because when errors are corrected it makes doing the
wrong thing wronger, but the right thing righter.
A few examples:
• The health care system of the United States is not a health care system; it
is a sickness and disability care system. These are not two aspects of the
same thing, but two different things. Since the revenue generated by the
current system derives from care of the sick and disabled the worst thing
that can happen to it would be universal health. Conversion of the current
system to a health care system would require a fundamental redesign.
• The educational system is not dedicated to produce learning by students,
but teaching by teachers, and teaching is a major obstruction to learning.
Witness the difference between the ease with which we learned our first
language without having it taught to us, and the difficulty with which we
did not learn a second language in school. Most of what we use as adults
we learned once out of school, not in it, and what we learned in school we
forget rapidly—fortunately. Most of it is either wrong or obsolete within
a short time. Although we learn little of use by having it taught to us,
we can learn a great deal by teaching others. It is always the teacher who
learns most in a classroom. Schools are upside down. Students should be
teaching, and teachers at all levels should learn no matter how much they
resist doing so.
A student once asked me in what year I had last taught a class on a
subject that existed when I was a student. A great question. After some
thought, I told him 1951. "Boy," he said, "You must be a good learner.
What a pity you can't teach as well as you can learn." He had it right.
• The principal function of most corporations is not to maximize shareholder value, but to maximize the standard of living and quality of work
life of those who manage the corporation. Providing the shareholders with
a return on their investments is a requirement, not an objective. As Peter
Drucker observed, profit is to a corporation as oxygen is to a human being:
necessary for existence, not the reason for it. A corporation that fails to
provide an adequate return for their investment to its employees and customers is just as likely to fail as one that does not reward its shareholders
The most valuable and least replaceable resource is time. Without
the time of employees, money can produce nothing. Employees have a
much larger investment in most corporations than their shareholders. Corporations should be maximizing stakeholder, not shareholder, value.
My third source of fun derives from producing conceptual order where
ambiguity and confusion prevail. Some examples:
• Identifying and defining the hierarchy of mental content which, in order of
increasing value, are data, information, knowledge, understanding, and
wisdom. However, the educational system and most managers allocate
time to their acquisition that is inversely proportional to their importance. Few individuals, and fewer organizations, know how to facilitate
and accelerate learning—the acquisition of knowledge—let alone understanding and wisdom. It takes a support system do to so.
All learning ultimately derives from mistakes. When we do something right we already know how to do it; the most we get out of it is confirmation. Mistakes are of two types: commission (doing what should not
On Passing Through 80
have been done) and omission (not doing what should have been done).
Errors of omission are generally much more serious than errors of commission, but errors of commission are the only ones picked up by most
accounting systems. Then since mistakes are a no-no in most corporations, and the only mistakes identified and measured are ones involving
doing something that should not have been done, the best strategy for
managers is to do as little as possible. No wonder it prevails in American
• Identifying and defining the three basic types of traditional management:
the reactive or reactionary, the inactive or conservative, and the preactive or liberal. Then showing that a fourth type, the interactive or radical,
denies the assumptions common to the three traditional types and, therefore, constitutes a radical transformation of the concept of management.
The interactive manager plans backward from where he wants to be ideally, right now, not forward to where he wants to be in the future, or past.
The interactive manager plans backward because it reduces the number of alternative paths he must consider, and his destination is where he
would like to be now ideally, because if he did not know this, how could
he possibly know where he will want to be at some other time?
• Identifying and defining the ways we can control the future: vertical integration, horizontal integration, cooperation, incentives, and responsiveness. These are seldom used well. Corporations tend to collect activities that they do not have the competence or even the inclination to run
well. They also tend more to adversarial relationships with employees,
to encourage competition between parts of the corporation and conflict
with competitors. As Peter Drucker pointed out, there is more competition
within corporations than between them, and it tends to be less ethical. In
many cases managers unintentionally create incentives that result in activities diametrically opposed to their best interests—for example, rewarding
themselves for short-term performance, ignoring the long term, or paying
commission based on the amount of a sale rather than its profitability. This
encourages the sale of underpriced, hence usually unprofitable, items.
Few organizations are ready, willing, and able to change in response
to unanticipated internal or external changes; they lack the responsiveness
of a good driver of an automobile, who gets to where he wants to go
without forecasts of what he will encounter but the ability to cope with
My fourth source of fun has been the disclosure of intellectual con men—for
example, propagators of TQM, benchmarking, downsizing, process reengineering, and scenario planning. Management is incurably susceptible to panacea peddlers. They are rooted in the belief that there are simple, if not simple-minded,
solutions to even the most complex of problems. And they do not learn from
bad experiences. Managers fail to diagnose the failures of the fads they adopt;
they do not understand them. Most panaceas fail because they are applied antisystemically. They need not be, but to do otherwise requires an understanding of
systems and the ability to think systemically. The perceived need to learn something new is inversely proportional to the rank of a manager. Those at the top
feel obliged to pretend to omniscience and, therefore, refuse to learn anything
new even if the cost of doing so is success.
Finally, my fifth source of fun has derived from designing organizations that
can avoid the kinds of traps I have described here, for example, the designs of a
democratic hierarchy, an internal market economy, a multidimensional organizational structure, and learning and adaptation support systems. But I have derived
the most fun working with others on the design of INTERACT, the Social Systems Sciences Graduate Program at The Wharton School, and the Operations
Research Graduate Programs at Case and Penn.
I am indebted to all who have made my "work" a continuous source of fun.
Bierce, A. (1967). p. 289.