What we can learn from Russell L. Ackoff

Ilari Henrik Aegerter recently wrote a blog post about great Osamu Tezuka and what we can learn from him. It was an interesting description of a man that resembles of what I consider to be as expert. Key point being regular practice. I want to now make similar post of a man I think deserves one.

Russell Ackoff at Washington University in St. Louis, May 1993 (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic)

I myself recently saw a Youtube video of Russell L. Ackoff, whom I had not heard of until
then (I want to thank you Bob Marshall for accidentally leading me to Russell L. Ackoff. It was his tweet that mentioned Ackoff.). Now I regret that I have not heard of him before. I immediately watched some more videos of him and ordered a book for my Kindle. I’ve been now reading the book, thinking the things he described in those videos and I wanted to write a blog post that introduces Russell L. Ackoff for others too. In case you have not heard of him before. I will introduce him through few of his f-laws and what I learned from his videos in Youtube (I highly recommend you to watch those videos).

Who is Russell L. Ackoff?

You can read about Russell L. Ackoff from Wikipedia. Specifically his biography and career. I want to though add here a description from the book ‘Systems Thinking for Curious Managers: With 40 New Management f-Laws’. The description is written by his long time friend and business partner Jamshid Gharajedaghi. He says:

Talking about Russ Ackoff is not an easy proposition. His uniqueness and multidimensionality defies conventional wisdom. He was forceful and yet kind; caring but not compromising; fearsome but dependable. For me, he was the epitome of wholeness, bringing complementary opposites into a harmonious whole.

Jamshid also adds later that,

For Russ, choice is at the heart of human development, but choice without competence is meaningless. He exemplified a novel notion in political philosophy that considers colorlessness and the loss of individuality to be as threatening to social sanity as the tyranny of the majority.

Russell L. Ackoff sadly died 29th of October, 2009. That does not mean though that his legacy will not touch our lives now and in the future. As far as I think, it should touch, a lot.

Let us look into some of the ideas he presented via f-laws and his talks.

Systems thinking

Russell L. Ackoff is considered as a pioneer in systems thinking (among others e.g. operations research and management science). Quote that strike me the most on his video that led me writing this post was:

System is not a sum of the behavior of its parts, it’s the product of their interactions.

He was referring to programs of improvement that concentrate on improving the parts separately. According to Ackoff:

If we have system of an improvement, that’s directed at improving the parts taken separately. You can be absolutely sure that the performance of a whole will not be improved.

He uses few examples in his videos and I recommend again that you watch them. I think most of us face in our daily work all kinds of improvement programs that are specifically directed to improving the parts. Like raising the amount of test cases executed, improving the test coverage or perhaps decreasing the time spent on fixing the bugs. You can argue if any of those metrics have any relevance with our work but even more ignorant is focusing on them separately and not thinking on what are the effects on the system as a whole.

Problem solving

Houston, we have a problem.

There is probably not a single person that has not heard this famous phrase (which was originally said as: “Houston, we’ve had a problem”, but was changed for a movie, Apollo 13).

But what is a problem actually? The Wikipedia defines it like this:

A problem is an obstacle, impediment, difficulty or challenge, or any situation that invites resolution; the resolution of which is recognized as a solution or contribution toward a known purpose or goal. A problem implies a desired outcome coupled with an apparent deficiency, doubt or inconsistency that prevents the outcome from taking place.

If we resolve a problem, are we really doing anything to ensure that it won’t happen again? We are actually not looking far enough if we are merely trying to resolve it. Instead if we look from the systems thinking point of view, we should aim at dissolving the problem. Ackoff’s 87. f-law (from the book Systems Thinking for Curious Managers: With 40 New Management f-Laws) states that ‘It is better to dissolve a problem than solve it‘. There is said that:

There are four ways of treating a problem – absolution, resolution, solution, and dissolution – and greatest of these is dissolution.

The description of the law continues on dissolving like this:

To dissolve a problem is to redesign the organisation that has the problem or its environment so the problem is eliminated and cannot reappear. An old Chinese proverb says that giving a hungry man a fish may solve his problem, but it will reoccur. Teaching him how to catch a fish can dissolve his problem.

Before you can absolve, resolve, solve or dissolve anything, it should be noted that problems are based on subjective construct. What problem is to us, is not most often the same as it is to someone else. On the same book 119. f-law says that ‘Problems are not objects of experience but mental constructs extracted from it by analysis.‘. The law is described in more detail like this:

Problems are abstractions. What managers actually experience are messes, which are complex systems of interacting problems. Problems are to messes what atoms are to desks. We experience desks, not the atoms they are made of; we experience messes, not the problems they are made of.

No problem can be solved without affecting others in the system of which it is a part, usually without exacerbating them. A solution to a problem taken separately can create a much more serious problem than the problem solved.

If you want to (dis)solve the problem you need to understand how (dis)solving the problem will affect the system and what the problem really is. Gathering the mental constructs of several people with different mindsets will gain you more understanding of what you are dealing with. Ackoff’s 86. f-law (‘Viewing things differently is not a defect: it is an advantage‘) describes this similar subject stating:

It is only by viewing problems differently and evaluating those differences that the most effective treatments can be found.


The book ‘Systems Thinking for Curious Managers: With 40 New Management f-Laws’ is obviously directed toward managers even though there are a lot of message to everyone else too. According to Ackoff the job of a manager is:

 To manage the interaction of subordinates (s)he has, not to manage their actions.

This sentence was from one of the talks if I remember right. As I understand it, managers should be concentrating on how to make the interactions between the parts of the system work for the purpose of the system itself. Focus should not be solely on what individuals are doing separately.

There is also discussion about metrics, which are talked a lot lately, mainly because they are used to achieve goals that serve no value in terms of the purpose of our existence (organizations). Ackoff’s 51. f-law ‘Managers who don’t know how to measure what they want settle for wanting what they can measure‘ is quite good example of this.

Ackoff also talked a lot about doing the right thing instead of doing things right. This is demonstrated in great way via 109. f-law ‘To managers an ounce of wisdom is worth a pound of understanding‘:

Information, knowledge and understanding enable us to do things right, to be efficient, but wisdom enables us to do the right things, to be effective. Science pursues data, information, knowledge and understanding: what is truth; but the humanities pursue wisdom: what is right.

What next?

I have just dived into the world of Russell L. Ackoff but already see many pieces of information that help me better understand how organizations work and how should we deal problems. Both are essential parts of my career as software testing consultant. As far as I am concentrating on learning more about testing, I also need to gain understanding how my work affects the system as a whole and how I can use that understanding in my advantage. Hopefully someday the knowledge turns into wisdom.

I wish that you will look into the work of Russell L. Ackoff and consider the things he has said and written. Also think of how his legacy affects your work and how you could be the one to make the difference by using that information.

I’ll try to do the same.


Define the Goal

I listened recently the audiobook of ‘The Goal’ by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. To put it short, it was mainly about Theory of Constraints (TOC), Systems Thinking, Socratic dialogues and of course defining the goal which is where it all begins. Book was written as a novel so it was pleasant surprise among other books dealing with organizational theories.

In the book they tried to define the goal of company and it made me think because I have declared becoming expert in software testing as my professional goal.

Software testing expert – what is it actually?

Becoming software testing expert as a goal sounds fairly normal and I think many people that are passionate about their profession have that as their goal. But what does it really mean? How do you know when you have reached that goal? Who can even be called as software testing expert? People that have been working as software tester, say 30 years? They are for sure experts, right?

We have to look more closely the definition of expert if we want to set the goal of becoming one. Let us see what Wikipedia has written of this. Firstly the definition:

An expert is someone widely recognized as a reliable source of technique or skill whose faculty for judging or deciding rightly, justly, or wisely is accorded authority and status by their peers or the public in a specific well-distinguished domain. An expert, more generally, is a person with extensive knowledge or ability based on research, experience, or occupation and in a particular area of study. Experts are called in for advice on their respective subject, but they do not always agree on the particulars of a field of study. An expert can be, by virtue of credential, training, education, profession, publication or experience, believed to have special knowledge of a subject beyond that of the average person, sufficient that others may officially (and legally) rely upon the individual’s opinion.” 

If we sum up what it says about expert:

  • reliable source
  • authority and status by their peers or the public
  • extensive knowledge or ability based on research, experience or occupation
  • not always agree on the particulars of a field of study
  • special knowledge of a subject beyond that of the average person

If we consider that the definition of Wikipedia is valid and set it as our goal, we will I think at some point in our career achieve all those aspects more or less. What then? We open the champagne, pat ourself on the back and continue our life as an expert? No. That should not be enough.

I would like therefore add few points to the definition of Wikipedia and then be more assured that it’s a goal I can try to achieve. The points are:

  • continuous improvement
  • being critical and confident at the same time toward yourself

The statement I’m trying to make with these is that there is no end stop for becoming an expert. It’s a direction that changes along the years. You advance on your journey, but you will never reach the destination. It’s therefore more of a vision. Glimpse of something we are aiming at. The goal that defines also our actions toward reaching it.

Before I define how I am going to pursue my goal in more detail, I must look the big picture and specifically how my goal of becoming software testing expert is affecting my life as a whole. Not forgetting how it is same way affected by other aspects of my life.

Seeing the Big Picture and recognizing the constraints

Systems thinking has led me realizing that my pursuit of becoming software testing expert is just part of the big picture. The big picture is my life as a whole. It includes my profession, family, friends, hobbies, etc. The ultimate goal I have is becoming happy. That of course is something that happens on daily basis.

I have not gave any serious thoughts on how I can measure my happiness, but I believe if I have meaningful profession that I am passionate about and I have good relationship toward my family (son and fiancee), it will be a good start toward becoming happy.

The thing is that I need to remember my ultimate goal when I am defining and pursuing my professional goal of becoming software testing expert. Anything I do to achieve my professional goal, must not contradict with my ultimate goal. I might have several options of how I can accelerate my process of becoming an expert, but it can not come as an expense of my life as a whole. I will not pursuit ways of improving myself as a tester if it is affecting negatively on my life as a whole, and in the end my happiness.

There will therefore be constraints that I should be aware while pursuing my professional goal. I can do whatever I see as best inside those constraints, but those constraints will be more or less static as long as the circumstances remain equally more or less static.

Examples of constraints I have, and actually want to set, are the time I will spend with my family (only with my family when I arrive home around 3-5pm every day), my ability to learn (not a fast reader), need for sleep (on average 7-8 hours per night) and actually sometimes the work I daily do (can’t perhaps learn some specific area I would like to concentrate on at that moment).

So, I will pursuit my professional goal of becoming an expert, but in a way that leaves me fully available for my family after I arrive home after work. In that case I can spend time to learning, but only when it is not away from the time I spend with my family. Basically that means learning when they are sleeping or some other equal moments. Also my strengths and weaknesses in learning (reading specifically) have to be considered. I need to find more effective ways than just reading a book for example(see my post about ‘Book club with a twist’).

Leaving time for sleeping ensures I have rested enough, so my learning and the time I spend with my family is not affected by the lack of sleep. Last, but not the least, the work I daily do can sometimes constrain my learning if I feel I should be learning something else. Therefore I must make the most out of those moments I have the freedom of learning anything I want. For example the moments I am not working for a client as a consultant.

Now the goal of becoming an expert is starting to shape in terms of my ultimate goal of becoming happy, but I need something more. I need to have more precise direction to aim at.

Remember My Spoon

Paul Carvalho has written a blog post about exploratory testing (best I’ve read so far) and there he used the story of Paulo Coelho’s (‘The secret of happiness‘) for describing what exploratory testing is and how it is different compared to scripted testing.

I’d like to use the same story for describing my attempts on achieving my professional goal (read Coelho’s story now, it will take only few minutes).

Creative Commons (Attribution 3.0 Unported)

The world is full of interesting information sources (books, blogs, articles, courses, Twitter, etc.) that you would like to explore. Our time is limited though and everything I do (related to testing) should aim for achieving my professional goal. Put in simple, I need to ask myself: “How does the article I read help become better tester? How will this book evolve me as a tester?”.

To ensure you are not just drifting in the space, you need to define the parts of the universe you want to focus and also remember the spoon, the goal you are aiming at (becoming software testing expert).

Which parts of the universe of information should I explore?

James Bach has an excellent speech at Youtube about becoming software testing expert. With a vast experience he defined what expert in software testing is in his opinion. As much as I would like to copy James’s definition, I can’t. I must define the goal by myself.

To be honest, the thing I liked the most about James’s speech was not actually the content, but the way it was represented. The passion that could be touched was the thing that strike me the most in the speech. And I do think that passion is one of those things where it all starts. Without passion you are pursuing the wrong goal.

If I go back to Paulo Coelho’s story about the spoon, I want to use that as my point of focus while exploring the universe of information. The spoon represents the goal of becoming software testing expert and everything I do need to aim at achieving that goal.

I’ll now try to define the universe of information, I will focus on, after all these thoughts. I will not try to build something really specific as I don’t have much experience and secondly this is not waterfall project. I have a vision and some thoughts on how to reach it, but that will anyway be updated many times during the years I gain more experience, wisdom, understanding, whatever you call it. Nevertheless, this is how I see my journey will continue from this moment:

That is like a first sprint of a life lasting project. I will look back into this and update it anytime I feel it is needed. Even defined like this, it leaves me A LOT room to explore. I just need to remember the spoon and think how the information I am about to dive into will help me reaching my goal of becoming software testing expert.

I’ll end this rather long post to a picture I took while visiting Krakow last year. I don’t know if it has anything to do with this post, but perhaps there lies the essence of what I see expert being in people eyes. And that’s not illusionist ;)