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9 August 2011

Russell Ackoff on Analysis

I have been watching 'systems thinking' clips on Youtube and the most recent one (part 1 of 3 below) made me reflect once again on the role of the business analyst.

For the uninitiated the simple summary of Dr Ackoff's message in this speech is that you can't use analysis to understand a system.

Analysis, per Ackoff, is reductionist.  You break something down into it's parts and understand the parts. By doing this you hope to understand the whole.  What we need is to apply systemic thinking; understand the parts in relation to the whole.  In fact we should invest our efforts to understand the system the parts are a part of.  This way we understand the whole system and can improve it. The implication is that if we don't do this thinking we end up tinkering. And maybe even degrading the system.   Examples that illustrate the point pepper the half hour talk.

When a business analysts tackles the work before them, what do they do?  Do they tackle it via Ackoff's definition of analysis - break down the object and then try to understand how it all works through decomposition?  Or do they apply systems thinking to the whole system they are working with and think about how the parts interact and relate together with the system they play in?

Different analysts apply decomposition, contextual and relational thinking... and sometimes both.  Complex systems, for example can be very difficult to understand through decomposition.  Complicated systems can be difficult to understand without decomposition.  Complex and complicated situations probably need a combination of analysis styles.

Reflecting as I write I see another "it depends on your circumstances" answer forming, but in reality - if we want consistent project outcomes - we need to have the capacity for both and the judgement to know when to apply the various thinking models.

What's your analysis of this thinking?