Ackoff, Idealized Design and Bell Labs

Excerpt from Idealized Design: How to Dissolve Tomorrow’s Crisis…Today by Russell L. Ackoff, Jason Magidson and Herbert J. Addison: How Bell Labs Imagined — and Created — the Telephone System of the Future in the 1950s.

Great stuff and another example showing the obsession with “new” ideas is wasteful.

Idealized design is a way of thinking about change that is deceptively simple to state: In solving problems of virtually any kind, the way to get the best outcome is to imagine what the ideal solution would be and then work backward to where you are today. This ensures that you do not erect imaginary obstacles before you even know what the ideal is.

A simple idea, and a powerful one too. Ackoff always presents his ideas very well, in this book, and in many articles by Dr. Ackoff available online. I still remember Dr. Ackoff’s presenting this material at a Hunter conference years ago – great stuff.

“Doesn’t it strike you as odd,” he said, “that the three most important contributions this laboratory has ever made to telephonic communications were made before any of you were born? What have you been doing?” he asked. “I’ll tell you,” he said. “You have been improving the parts of the system taken separately, but you have not significantly improved the system as a whole. The deficiency,” he said, “is not yours but mine. We’ve had the wrong research-and-development strategy. We’ve been focusing on improving parts of the system rather than focusing on the system as a whole. As a result, we have been improving the parts, but not the whole.

We have got to restart by focusing on designing the whole and then designing parts that fit it rather than vice versa. Therefore, gentlemen, we are going to begin by designing the system with which we would replace the existing system right now if we were free to replace it with whatever system we wanted, subject to only two not-very-restrictive constraints.

Yes all the talk about this new idea called “innovation” is silly. But the truth is innovation is and has been important for a very long time. Ackoff’s books are a great source on how to innovate successfully as a company.

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