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Ackoff on Reductionism and Expansionism, Part II

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Part I here.

Using his theme of 'take it apart' or 'God as root cause,' Ackoff defines Reductionism as the process of taking a system apart, analyzing the parts, and trying to understand cause and effect among the parts. In Ackoff's hands, root cause is God. While others stop short of a deity, it is the most common form of systems analysis, managerial or technical, but while it is necessary, it is not sufficient to describe a system. Reductionism excludes the environment in which the system functions as if it had no effect on the system under study.

In "Toward a System of Systems Concepts," Ackoff defines a system as, "A system is a set of interrelated elements. Thus a system is an entity which is compose of at least two elements and a relation that holds between each of its elements and at least one other element in the set. Each of a system's elements is connected to every other element, directly or indirectly. Furthermore, no subset of elements is unrelated to any other subset."

Ackoff proceeded to describe three theorems in "The Second Industrial Revolution":

"If you take apart a system and take it apart to identify its components, and then operate those components in such a way that every component behaves as well as it possibly can, there is only one thing of which you can be sure. The system as a whole will not behave as well as it can...The corollary is this -- if you have a system that is behaving as well as it can, none of the parts will be."

"The second characteristic of a system is that any part that affects the whole depends on what at least one other part is doing. Or put another way, no part of the system has an independent effect on the whole."

"Now the third condition is the most complex one, and the most important. It says that if you take these elements and group them in any way, they form subgroups. These subgroups will be subject to the same first and second conditions as the original elements were; e.g., each subgroup will affect the performance as a whole and no subgroup will have an independent effect on the performance of the whole."

Ackoff describes this process as Expansionism. Both Reductionism and Expansionism are useful. Reductionism tells us how a system is assembled and something about how it works, but it is Expansionism that tells us what a system is likely to do and how it interacts with its components and its environment. Both are required to understand a system, but the great majority shift their problem solving skills, at their peril, towards Reductionism at the expense of Expansionism.

I cannot help but observe that our dealings with the World Bank and the IMF would proceed more smoothly if we understood Ackoff's distinction between growth and development. Ackoff refutes the common assumption that the terms are synonyms: "Growth is a concept concerned with size and expansion; development is a concept concerned with capacity and competence." In an outsourcing and rightsizing world, Ackoff would have us look more at developing new ways of thinking and taking advantage of irreversible changes rather than clinging growth of existing jobs. The former may be difficult but the latter is to book passage on the Ship of Fools.

In closing, the Ackoff Center at U Penn has released an interview originally published in Strategy & Leadership, Vol 31-3, in which Ackoff argues against consultant-driven sloganeering for systemic thinking considers problems in terms of how the interactions of the parts, and the parts with the whole and its environment, create the properties of the whole. Find this recommended read here.

Russell L. Ackoff, iconoclastic management authority, advocates a ‘‘systemic’’ approach to innovation
Robert J. Allio
Strategy & Leadership
August, 2003

Also, look at the Proceedings of RUSSELL L. ACKOFF and THE ADVENT OF SYSTEMS THINKING. Many good articles, but see Ackoff's "ON PASSING THROUGH 80," page 32.

Ackoff, R. (1971). "Toward a System of Systems Concepts," Management Science, 17 (1971), July, pp. 661-671.

Ackoff, R "The Second Industrial Revolution," Alban Institute Publication, Washington, D.C., 1975.

Gordon Housworth



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