Monday, January 22, 2007
Russell Ackoff's Stories
Russell Ackoff was the guest speaker for last week’s In2:InThinking discussion, hosted by United Technologies' Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. (To get on the list for future discussions, send an e-mail to email@example.com, with “Add/Remove” in the subject line and to learn more about the series, see www.in2in.org ) More than 60 people were on the phone for some or all of the 4 hours over 2 days.
Dr. Ackoff has written over 2 dozen books, and is the embodiment of paradox—he is a deep thinker, a systems thinker, and an entertaining speaker. His two new books for 2006 are Idealized Design: How to Dissolve Tomorrow's and Management F-laws (yes, it is a joke: F-Laws are flaws)
TRIZ practioners will find that Ackoff’s Idealized Design method is quite similar to the Ideal Final Result. He has many stories that will be useful to any student of innovation.
Persistent themes include
*The importance of identifying the problem without the jargon of the specialists. This is very similar to the TRIZ method of identifying useful functions to be enhanced and harmful functions to be removed, and avoiding naming the technologies and mechanisms to be used.
*The need for outside perspective
*The reasons that experts are wrong
*Your customers and your employees already know the solutions to your problems—learn to listen to them
I stopped the list because I could sense that RealInnovation Commentary readers were starting to say “so what’s new?” The answer is NOTHING is new, but what is fresh, interesting, and stimulating is Ackoff’s stories of how these insights, applied in a wide variety of circumstances, repeatedly produce spectacular results.
Although I’ve been to many of Dr. Ackoff’s seminars, one of his stories in last week’s conversation was new to me. For many years he was a professor of city planning (and a bunch of other distinguished titles simultaneously) at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He got a call for help from a school principal—most of his students were illiterate, and he had tried all the things that all the experts recommended, with very minor results. He wanted to ask non-experts to help.
Ackoff’s team spent time with the students and their families, as well as in the school. The neighborhood was severely impoverished. They found that the students’ homes had no books, newspapers or magazines—not even the free ones available from libraries and churches. The parents had never read stories to the students. The parents did not read anything at home. The community had a strong oral tradition of storytelling, but not a written tradition. Ackoff’s team concluded that the students had no motivation to read, since they never saw anyone doing it outside of school, and very few of them had any motivation to succeed in school, since they did not that school success lead to life success.
The immediate challenge was to find something that would motivate the students to want to read, using the storytelling tradition. The solution came from outside the extensive system of reading studies. The school bought a large collection of silent films, from the Charlie Chaplin era. The films were kept in an accessible room, and any student could go to that room at any time. Because the stories could not be fully appreciated without reading the titles and captions, the students taught each other to read!
Retrospectively, Ackoff attributes this to the same mechanism used in the one-room schools of the 18th-19th centuries, in which the older students taught the younger, with the teacher functioning as a resource and a planner. But at the time, the solution came from looking for something that would motivate the students to read to get something they valued (the stories).
Without preaching, Dr. Ackoff makes eloquent points about leadership, outside perspective, and respect for the “customer,” in a situation that most of us who complain about lack of corporate innovation would find hopeless. Thanks for the story, Russ.