Dr. Russell Ackoff, my systems theory guru. Dr. Ackoff did some really compelling research on advertising and personality that helped Anheuser Busch dominate the beer industry.

Over the course of the next few weeks I plan to share some of my favorite Ackoff fables on problem solving. Who says philosophers can’t be useful?

Systems theory in a nutshell:

  • It’s about interactions not actions
  • The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts
  • Use force where you have the greatest leverage, regardless of where the problem is (i.e if you have a headache take an aspirin rather than attempt brain surgery.)
  • The nature of the whole is not the same as the nature of the parts. Every part affects the whole. Furthermore, actions on the parts will not produce equivalent results in the whole.
  • Synthesis is the opposite of analysis; looking at the whole as part of a bigger system (i.e. car as part of transportation industry) as opposed to looking at the parts to understand the whole (i.e car in the mechanic’s shop).
  • Analysis answers “what/how” questions. Synthesis answers “why” questions.

Below you’ll find my top resources on systems theory and systems thinking.

-Systems Theory Books

  • The Art of Problem Solving Russell Ackoff, The book that converted me. This is the single best book there is on the topic of problem solving and creativity. Period.
  • The Fifth Discipline In this definitive tome, Peter Senge of MIT applies system thinking to real-world problems in management, business dynamics, innovation and logistics.
  • Ackoff’s Best An anthology of classic writings and research on management.
  • What are some other classic books on systems and problem solving? Tao of Pooh and The Art of War come to mind. I guess The Tipping Point even borders on systems theory.
  • Any of the excellent books around on crowd-sourcing are also highly recommended.

In addition to this list, I consider the work of most of the great economists to take a systemic view. For even more, visit this excellent systems thinking wiki.


How does Venice stays afloat? An interesting logistical challenge for my systems thinkers out there.

Beautifully filmed.