Should we do, or not-do? Russell Ackoff, over many years, wrote about (negative) potential consequences:
There are two possible types of decision-making mistakes, which are not equally easy to identify.
- (1) Errors of commission: doing something that should not have been done.
- (2) Errors of omission: not doing something that should have been done.
For example, acquiring a company that reduces a corporation’s overall performance is an error of commission, as is coming out with a product that fails to break even. Failure to acquire a company that could have been acquired and that would have increased the value of the corporation or failure to introduce a product that would have been very profitable is an error of omission [Ackoff 1994, pp. 3-4].
Ackoff has always been great with turns of phrases such as these. Some deeper reading evokes three ideas that may be worth further exploration:
These three ideas, explored in sections below, lead us from the management of human affairs, beyond questions of science, and into question of philosophy.
For those interested in the history of philosophy and science, the three ideas above are followed by an extra section:
The question of doing or not-doing has been deep in the intellectual traditions of American management thinking in the latter 20th century. The attitude of Bias for Action espoused by Tom Peters first published in 1982 exhorts managers to do. Peters describes the shifts of 1962 “Bias of planning”, to 1982 “Bias for action” in a report card from 2001, and observes in a 2018 interview that it’s become the first of eight commandments in Silicon Valley.
One way of framing doing and not-doing is around decision-making mistakes. In 1994, Ackoff was advocating strongly for organizational learning. He criticized executives who suppress the surfacing of prior errors that might preclude the recurrence of mistakes.
daviding February 28th, 2019
I attended the Memorial Service for Russell Ackoff at the University of Pennsylvania in February. Since I was already in Philadelphia, I was invited to hang out for an extra day to present at the Organizational Dynamics Lecture Series, as part of the master’s program in the School of Arts and Sciences. I gave a talk on “The Emerging Science of Service Systems”, based on the research that I’ve been doing since I first saw Jim Spohrer speak at the ISSS 2005 meeting in Cancun.
I had previously posted the slides for the talk on the Coevolving Innovation Commons Publications archive. An outline for the talk is as follows:
The presentation is now available as a web video on the University of Pennsylvania media site for the School of Arts and Sciences.
I’m one, but not the only, researcher looking into Service Science, Engineering, Management and Design from the foundations of a systems approach. A group from the ISSS has been having conversations on the emerging science. Following the question-and-answer period after the formal talk, some students stayed on to ask questions about systems in more depth. The University of Pennsylvania, with a long tradition of systems thinking, continues to attract students with that interest!
The Organizational Dynamics program is now the home of the Russell Lincoln Ackoff Systems Thinking Library. Coincidentally, the ISSS Cancun 2005 meeting with Russ Ackoff as the keynote speaker was the last formal presentation that I saw of him. I never had the opportunity to discuss service systems with Russ, and hope that he might have appreciated the direction that I’m taking with the services sciences agenda.
daviding March 29th, 2010