The scene is Detroit, a training room at the headquarters of one of the three great US car companies. A group of corporate vice-presidents is attending a course being given by a distinguished management thinker.
“What you are telling us is great,” the VPs say, “but you are talking to the wrong level. You should be speaking to the next tier up.” The next week, working with more senior managers, he hears the same thing. “This is great, but you are talking to the wrong level. You should be speaking with the chief executive.”
The week after that, our thinker finally gets in to see the boss. “This is great,” the CEO says, “but you should be speaking with my subordinates – I’d need their support in order to do it.”
This is a true story, as told by Russ Ackoff, the management thinker in question, who died a few days ago, aged 90. Two key Ackoffian ideas emerge from this tale. First, do not wait for others in the business to start changing things. Go and do it yourself. But second, and more important: never forget that everyone in the business is interconnected, that they are all operating as part of a system, that tinkering with one part of the company is never really enough, and may even make things worse. You need to see the business as a whole, as a complete system, if you want to make lasting improvements to it.