This is a transcript of a speech originally given by Dr. Ackoff
in Tallberg, Sweden on the occasion of his receipt of the Tallberg
Foundation / Swedbank Leadership Award for Principled Pragmatism
on August 3, 2005.
So much time is currently spent in worrying about the future that
the present is allowed to go to hell. Unless we correct some of
the world's current systemic deficiencies now, the future is condemned
to be as disappointing as the present.
My preoccupation is with where we would ideally like to be right
now. Knowing this, we can act now so as to constantly reduce the
gap between where we are and where we want to be. Then, to a large
extent, the future is created by what we do now. Now is the only
time in which we can act.
I have found widespread agreement among governmental and organizational
executives that their current state is more a product of what their
organizations did in the past than a product of what was done to
them. Therefore, our future state will be more a product of what
we do now than of what is done to us.
If we don't know what state we would be in right now if we could
be in whatever state we wanted, how can we possibly know in what
state we would like to be in the future? Furthermore, statements
of where we want to be in the future are usually based on forecasts
of what the future will be. Such forecasts are inevitably wrong;
we cannot identify all the significant changes that will occur in
our environments between now and then.
It is for this reason that so many plans are never completely implemented;
they are dropped when it becomes apparent that the forecasts on
which they are based are false. I was once told by a public planner
that only two percent of the public-sector plans produced in my
country were ever completely implemented for this and other reasons.
Nevertheless, it is apparent that our current decisions are based
on what we expect the relevant future to be. Obviously, we must
do something about those aspects of the future that we cannot control
but which can affect us significantly. But this should not be based
on forecasts; it should be based on assumptions.
When forecasting addicts hear a statement such as this they think
"Aha, gotcha! Assumptions are nothing but forecasts in disguise."
They could not be more wrong. For example, we carry a spare tire
in our cars because we assume a flat tire is possible, not because
we forecast that one is going to occur on our next trip. In fact,
one can easily show by examining our preparations for the next trip
by automobile that we forecast implicitly that we will not have
a flat tire on that trip. Forecasts are about probabilities; assumptions
are about possibilities. We handle future possibilities differently
than we handle future probabilities.
There are two nonexclusive ways of dealing with possibilities;
contingency planning and developing responsiveness. In contingency
planning we identify a set of (hopefully exhaustive) possibilities
that would be costly not to anticipate if they came about, and prepare
a plan to identify and respond to the correct possibility as early
as possible. In World War II I participated in planning the invasion
of Leyte in the Philippines. We had poor intelligence on the conditions
we would encounter on landing. We identified a set of possibilities
that we thought were exhaustive and prepared a landing plan for
each. Then the commanding general selected the one he thought most
likely. We had hardly hit the beach when it became apparent that
the possibility he had selected was wrong. The plan was changed
immediately. If this had not been done, I and many others would
not be here today.
Making organizations able to respond rapidly and effectively to
the unexpected is appropriate when we can't identify anything approximating
all the possibilities. For example, when I drive from my home in
Philadelphia to New York City, my getting there depends on what
a large number of people do while driving their cars along the route
I take. I do not try to forecast what I will encounter because I
believe I can react rapidly and effectively to whatever confronts
me. Design of a theater's stage does much the same thing. The designer
cannot anticipate all the scenes the stage will have to accommodate,
but he can design a stage so flexible that it can accommodate virtually
any set that a producer wants to put on it.
Some, if not many, aspects of the relevant future are subject to
our control. For example, a municipal government can control land
use by zoning ordinances. It can control the availability of publicly
owned utilities. It can control traffic, and so on. In addition
it can influence much of the behavior it cannot control. The prices
it sets on publicly provided services influence their use. Taxation
influences savings and expenditures. Financial aid influences attendance
at universities, use of medical facilities, and so on.
There are two types of control: control of causes and control of
effects. For example, we can use DDT to destroy mosquitoes bearing
yellow fever and thereby avoid an epidemic of this disease. On the
other hand we can avoid an epidemic by immunizing people against
yellow fever. Where we cannot prevent negative effects we may be
able to reduce them. For example, we cannot prevent earthquakes
but we can build buildings that will not crumble when one occurs.
It should also be noted that many of those relevant aspects of
the future that we cannot control or influence may, nevertheless,
be subject to control or influence if we and others collaborate.
For example, sanctions unilaterally imposed by one nation on another
may have little effect; but the same sanctions imposed by a number
of nations may have a considerable effect. The same is true of measures
to reduce or eliminate environmental pollution.
So much for how I believe we should think about the future- we should
do so by focusing on the present and the gaps between where we are
and where we want to be now, ideally. We can then march into the
future redefining those gaps as we and our environments change,
and by closing or reducing them.
Now let me focus on what I believe to be the major gaps between
where we collectively are and where we would most like to be...[click
here to continue]
Dr. Russell L. Ackoff is the Anheuser Busch Professor
Emeritus of management science at the Wharton School of the University
of Pennsylvania. Dr. Ackoff has authored over 20 books and 250 articles,
and has conducted research for more than 300 corporations and government