Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Russell Ackoff

by Jorgen Hesselberg

This entry was written as part of the Supporting Agile Adoption program, an Agile Alliance initiative dedicated to supporting organizations and their people become more Agile.

As a member of the Supporting Agile Adoption initiative, I was fortunate recently to spend a few days in a workshop with Agile thought leaders from a number of different industries and organizations in North America and Europe. (To get an overview of our workspace and our gracious host ING’s Agile transformation journey, check out Ray Arell’s video, Agile Means Business, Episode 1: ING Bank.)

The workshop was characterized by many compelling discussions and an opportunity to reflect on where Agile (and Agility) is going in large organizations today. (For a recording of our musings of the 12 Principles of the Agile Manifesto and how they are still relevant (or not), check out this Agile Coaching Network podcast.)

As we closed the event, program director Hendrik Esser issued a challenge to the members: “I’d like each of you to share what influenced you the most during the course of 2018 and why?”. By gathering powerful ideas — and sharing these with the community — we can perhaps help others in their journey of discovery as well. I think this is a great initiative — helping ideas spread and take on a life of their own is a great way to synthesize and expand what we learn as a community. Here’s my contribution.

One of my main influencers of 2018: Russell Ackoff

As organizations realize that unlocking Agility involves more than scaling a myriad of Scrum teams, my work required me to explore beyond the thought leaders who defined the Agile Manifesto and more towards thinkers of systems and operations research. But beware, here be dragons: organizational theory dates back to the 1940s and was characterized by the idea that an organization could be best understood by carefully studying each of its pieces — not unlike a machine. Subsequent contributions have evolved our thinking to look at organizations more akin to complex adaptive systems than mechanical devices, so how can operations research possibly be of service? Enter Russell Ackoff.

Although Ackoff is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of the study of operation research, he was not like most organizational theorists of his time. He got increasingly interested in how human behavior affected the systems they were part of and came to the realization that systems cannot be understood by studying them in isolation, but rather as a part of much larger systems. “Knowledge and understanding of their aims [individual systems] can only be gained by taking into account the mechanisms of social, cultural, and psychological systems”.

One of the implications of this realization is that focusing on the individual parts of a system with the aim of improving performance — as if a system is merely equal to the sum of its parts — is not only unproductive, it can be harmful to the overall performance of the system.

Take a moment and listen to Ackoff illustrate this concept using an example of how a car functions as a system. (Pay particular attention from 3:30 and beyond).

How Ackoff affects our approach to organizational Agility

What Ackoff is teaching us is that the product of a given system — the essence of what it produces — is not the sum of the behavior of its parts, it’s the product of their interactions. This is quite profound, if you consider the implications: Most efforts to “scale” Agile are focused on coordinating, managing, and synchronizing the various parts of a system through elaborate ceremonies, dependency boards, and quarterly planning sessions.

In other words, these approaches are looking at the behaviors of the individual parts of the system (and coordinating these), not necessarily with the actual interactions between the parts.

What Ackoff showed us was an elegant way of looking at flow. Optimizing for flow involves minimizing handoffs and working on the interactions between interfaces, not the interfaces themselves. This applies not only to optimizing how we produce value, but also on how we improve as an organization. In Ackoff’s words, if we attempt to improve the system (or organization) by focusing on individual parts, “You can be absolutely sure that the performance of a whole will not be improved”.

This insight aligns with my work in this space and is reflected in recent works by Supporting Agile Adoption members such as Bossa Nova and Unlocking Agility: when transforming an organization towards more Agility, all parts of that organization need to be considered: Marketing, HR, Finance, Engineering… it’s not sufficient to simply stand up a few Scrum teams from IT.

The humbling part of Ackoff’s insights also implies that this is not easy. It’s not going to be a matter of implementing a framework, a process, or launching a top-down change program. Organizational Agility involves transforming systems within a larger system — to embrace emergence and continually learn from organizational experimentation and focusing on the organization as a whole. The system is all that matters; which means corporations need to focus less on maximizing shareholder value and more on the quality of work life of those who work within the corporation. This is how we improve our “interfaces”. This is where we make a difference.

Our work is just beginning.

This is an Agile Alliance community blog post. Opinions represented are personal and belong solely to the author. They do not represent opinion or policy of Agile Alliance.

Originally published at on March 7, 2019.

Agile Alliance is a nonprofit global member organization, supporting and serving the Agile community since 2001.

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