Russell Ackoff (1919-2009) was Professor Emeritus of Management Science at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. This was despite remaining ambivalent about educational institutions in general and business schools in particular, once saying that:

Business schools are high security prisons of the mind.

Ackoff quoted in Stern, 2009

The management pioneer Peter Drucker once wrote to Ackoff saying that his early work:

saved me – as it saved countless others – from descending into mindless ‘model building’ – the disease that all but destroyed so many of the business schools.

Ackoff quoted in Miller, Wall Street Journal (WSJ) 09/11/09

He worked as a consultant (although preferring to be known as an ‘educator’) in many industries, including a three-decade association with Anheuser-Busch (who make Budweiser amongst other beers) in which he helped the brewer achieve dominance in the US. According to an obituary published in the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Ackoff also studied Anheuser-Busch’s marketing strategy, and came to the conclusion that increasing advertising budgets had little effect on sales. (Neither did the taste of the beer, he found through blind taste tests.) ‘This was incredibly valuable,’ says Bill Finnie, a former director of strategic planning for Anheuser-Busch who studied for his Ph.D. under Mr. Ackoff. ‘It gave Anheuser-Busch the confidence to maintain its marketing budget flat from 1961 to 1976. We quadrupled sales.’ According to Mr. Finnie, reduced marketing costs were passed on to the consumer, making Budweiser inexpensive compared with local brands that had dominated the market through the 1950s. In Mr. Ackoff’s more than 30 years working with Anheuser-Busch beginning in 1960, the company’s national market share grew to more than 40% from 7%.

Miller, WSJ 09/11/09

Ackoff’s systems thinking – ‘difficulties’ vs ‘messes’

Ackoff was an advocate of systems thinking because he thought it could deal with the messy complexities of interrelated real-world problems, rather than taking an over-simplified, reductionist view of the world. In his book ‘Redesigning the Future’ (1974), Ackoff discussed the differences between types of situations, some of which he described as ‘difficulties’ and others as ‘messes’. A difficulty is characterised by ‘broad agreement on the nature of the problem and by some understanding of what a solution would look like, and it is bounded in terms of the time and resources required for its resolution’. In contrast:

messes are characterised by no clear agreement about exactly what the problem is and by uncertainty and ambiguity as to how improvements might be made, and they are unbounded in terms of the time and resources they could absorb, the scope of enquiry needed to understand and resolve them and the number of people that may need to be involved.

Chapman 2002

In general, traditional reductionist methods will suffice for dealing with ‘difficulties’ such as repairing a machine, choosing which card to play in a poker game or spotting the errors in a contract. Ackoff argues that systems thinking, and in particular, his form of ‘interactive planning’, is the best way of coping with the complexity inherent in messes (e.g. attempting to improve the performance of the UK police force, or devising a new policy to reduce immigration). For Ackoff, an essential skill of a systems practitioner is the ability to deal with a system of problems and opportunities as a system – synthetically, as a whole.

Interactive planning

Ackoff also categorises different ways of planning in an organisation, contrasting his concept of ‘interactive planning’ with that of ‘reactive planning’ and ‘preactive planning’ (Ackoff 2001). Reactive planning comes from recognising deficiencies in an organisation and then devising projects to remove them. This has two faults: it may remove waste, but it can replace it with something worse. Secondly, it treats parts of the organisation separately despite performance being linked to how these parts interact as a whole in the organisation.

Preactive planning is top-down in its approach and tries to forecast the future. This is bound to fail according to Ackoff, saying that:

any prediction of the future ensures a poor outcome.

Ackoff et al 2006 p4

Instead, ‘interactive planning’ is his alternative: interactive planners

‘plan backward from where they want to be to where they are now … In so doing … they prepare their organizations for success in the unknowable future’.


Formulating the mess, ‘dissolving’ problems and idealized design

Instead of ‘solving’ a problem, Ackoff describes the need to ‘formulate the mess’ so that it can be ‘dissolved’:

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.

Ackoff 1999

In his process of ‘idealized design’, formulating the mess helps participants to identify how the organisation would sow the seeds of its own destruction if it did not change its behaviour to adapt in a changing environment. It involves the preparation of a systems analysis (showing in detail how the company currently operates), an obstruction analysis (showing what would get in the way of further progress), reference projections (hypothetically projecting progress under current policy and anticipating any future changes in its operating environment) and a reference scenario (a description of how and why the organisation would destroy itself if the assumptions were made true, synthesising the previous stages). Then the organisation should engage in ends planning, deciding how the organisation would ideally be now if it had free reign to be whatever it wanted. Following this, the organisation analyses the gaps between that and what was projected in the reference scenario. The organisation then directs its attention at reducing the gaps between these two scenarios ‘collectively and interactively’ (Ackoff 2001). This leads into the first stage of ‘realization’: means planning. Means planning involves selecting the course of action and policies to be pursued to get to the idealized redesign. Resource planning is the next thing to do. This step plans resources required (such as facilities, personnel, money, information and knowledge), when and where they will be needed and what to do if there are shortages. The design of the implementation determines who is to do what, when and where. Finally, the design of the controls looks at how to monitor the improvements, the planning decisions and to determine whether they are producing the required results. Ackoff stresses that interactive planning is continuous and therefore these steps can take place simultaneously and interactively. No phase is ever completed and all outputs are subject to subsequent revision. The plans are treated as:

at best, still photographs taken from a motion picture.

Ackoff 2001

When in the ‘idealized design’ process, Ackoff tells the planners to be aware of certain constraints on the design. They must:

assume that the organization being planned for was completely destroyed last night, but its environment remains exactly as it was. Then they try to design that organization with which they would replace the existing organization right now, if they were free to replace it with any organization they wanted subject to only two constraints (technological feasibility and operational viability) and one requirement (an ability to learn and adapt rapidly and effectively).

Ackoff 2001

Technological feasibility means that the design cannot become a work of science fiction, but it does not preclude new uses of technology. Operational viability means that the organisation must be designed so as to be able to survive in the current environment (e.g. comply with today’s laws and regulations). Ackoff’s example is that whilst all-electronic voting in elections might not be desirable now as it could be susceptible to computer hackers, but it could be desirable in the future when voters could be more confident of the integrity of the system (Ackoff et al 2006 p9). Finally, the organisation needs to be able to learn over time and adapt to changing circumstances. It should, in fact, be frequently redesigned by internal and external stakeholders.

Ackoff’s requirement for constant redesign has the important effect of making an idealized design not an ideal organization. As the system is subject to continuous improvement, it is:

neither perfect nor utopian. The design produced should be that of the best ideal-seeking system of which its designers can currently conceive. (They may, and probably will, be able to conceive of a better one later.).

Ackoff 2001

In many ways this is therefore a ‘thought experiment’ in the manner of those used as a device by moral philosophers to conceive of a better society (e.g. Rawls 1971). Such a thought experiment creates fertile grounds for emergent thinking. This may mean that the end result of the ‘idealized design’ exercise is something completely unexpected. In an example from the book ‘Idealized Design’, Ackoff describes how experimentation on the design of telephones at Bell Laboratories aimed at eradicating the number of wrong numbers dialled actually inadvertently invented touch-tone dialling, and in fact anticipated many of the other innovations in the telephone industry that followed (Ackoff et al 2006 p xl).

The use of Ackoff’s ‘interactive planning’ may be held up as a way of trying to get organisations acting more effectively at the system (rather than sub-system) level. In support of this point, Ackoff comments in a section marked ‘Overcoming Today’s Crisis’ that:

The great power of idealized design is that it identifies a much wider set of possible solutions and opportunities to make changes in the larger system that will make the symptoms in the part disappear.

Ackoff 2006 p138


Ackoff was a powerful communicator, using anecdotes and aphorisms (e.g. ‘a bureaucrat is one who has power to say ‘no’ but none to say ‘yes’’ Ackoff et al 2007 p91) to convey his thinking. Others include:

An organisation that cannot accommodate nonconformity will not be able to retain creative people.

Stefan Stern, Financial Times 09/11/09

Organisations fail more often because of what they have not done than because of what they have done.

The less managers expect of their subordinates, the less they get.

A particular saying which has influenced the Vanguard Method is his statement about ‘doing the wrong thing righter’:

All of our problems arise out of doing the wrong thing righter. The more efficient you are at doing the wrong thing, the wronger you become. It is much better to do the right thing wronger than the wrong thing righter. If you do the right thing wrong and correct it, you get better.

Stern, 2009

References and other Ackoff resources

Ackoff, R 1999a ‘Re-Creating The Corporation: A Design for Organisations in the 21st Century’. Oxford University Press, New York

Ackoff, R 1999b ‘On Passing Through 80’ Systemic Practice and Action Research, Volume 12, Number 4 425-430

Ackoff 2001 ‘A Brief Guide to Interactive Planning and Idealized Design’ (available at accessed 24/8/12)

Ackoff and Deming 1992 ‘A Theory of a System for Educators and Managers’ Downloaded from on 20/7/12

Ackoff R, Magidson J and Addison H 2006 ‘Idealized Design’ Wharton: University of Pennsylvania, USA

Ackoff R, Addison H and Bibb S 2007 ‘Management f-LAWS: How Organizations Really Work’  Triarchy Press: Axminster

Chapman J 2004 ‘System Failure’ Demos: London

Jackson, M 2003 ‘Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers’ Wiley and Sons: Chichester

Miller 2009 ‘A Management Philosopher With Heady Ideas About Beer’ Wall Street Journal 09/11/09 (

Ramage M and Shipp K 2009 ‘Systems Thinkers’ Open University: Milton Keynes

Stern S 2009 ‘Fond farewell to a brilliant thinker’ Financial Times 09/11/09 ( accessed 01.08.12)