Russell Lincoln Ackoff
Russell Ackoff at Washington University in St. Louis, May 1993
Born(1919-02-12)February 12, 1919
DiedOctober 29, 2009(2009-10-29) (aged 90)
Alma materUniversity of Pennsylvania BA 1941
University of Pennsylvania PhD 1947
Known fororganizational theory, general systems theory, operations research
Scientific career
Fieldssystems sciences
management science
InstitutionsWharton School of the University of Pennsylvania
Doctoral advisorC. West Churchman
Other academic advisorsEdgar A. Singer, Jr.
Doctoral studentsPeter C. Fishburn, William Richard King

Russell Lincoln Ackoff (February 12, 1919 – October 29, 2009) was an American organizational theorist, consultant, and Anheuser-Busch Professor Emeritus of Management Science at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Ackoff was a pioneer in the field of operations research, systems thinking and management science.


Russell L. Ackoff was born on February 12, 1919, in Philadelphia to Jack and Fannie (Weitz) Ackoff.[1][2] He received his bachelor degree in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1941.[1] After graduation, he taught at Penn for one year as an assistant instructor in philosophy. From 1942 to 1946, he served in the U.S. Army in the Philippines.[1] He returned to study at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his doctorate in philosophy of science in 1947 as C. West Churchman’s first doctoral student.[3] He also received a number of honorary doctorates, from 1967 and onward.

From 1947 to 1951 Ackoff was assistant professor in philosophy and mathematics at the Wayne State University. He was associate professor and professor of operations research at Case Institute of Technology from 1951 to 1964. In 1961 and 1962 he was also visiting professor of operational research at the University of Birmingham. From 1964 to 1986 he was professor of systems sciences and professor of management science at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Nicholson and Myers (1998) report that, in the 1970s and 1980s, the Social Systems Sciences Program at the Wharton School was "noted for combining theory and practice, escaping disciplinary bounds, and driving students toward independent thought and action. The learning environment was fostered by distinguished standing and visiting faculty such as Eric Trist, C. West Churchman, Hasan Ozbekhan, Thomas A. Cowan, and Fred Emery".[4]

Beginning in 1979, Ackoff worked together with John Pourdehnad as consultants in a broad range of industries including aerospace, chemicals, computer equipment, data services and software, electronics, energy, food and beverages, healthcare, hospitality, industrial equipment, automotive, insurance, metals, mining, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, utilities, and transportation.

From 1986 to 2009, Ackoff was professor emeritus of the Wharton School, and chairman of Interact, the Institute for Interactive Management. From 1989 to 1995 he was visiting professor of marketing at Washington University in St. Louis.

Ackoff was president of Operations Research Society of America (ORSA) from 1956 to 1957, and he was president of the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS) in 1987.

In 1965 Ackoff was elected as a Fellow of the American Statistical Association.[5] He was elected to the 2002 class of Fellows of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences.[6] He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science at the University of Lancaster, UK in 1967. He got a Silver Medal from the Operational Research Society in 1971. Other honors came from the Washington University in St. Louis in 1993, the University of New Haven in 1997, the Pontificia Universidad Catolica Del Peru, Lima in 1999 and the University of Lincolnshire & Humberside, UK in 1999. That year from the UK Systems Society he got an Award for outstanding achievement in Systems Thinking and Practice.

Ackoff married Alexandra Makar on July 17, 1949.[1][2] The couple had three children: Alan W., Karen B., and Karla S.[1][2] After his wife's death, Ackoff married Helen Wald on December 20, 1987.[1][2]

Between 2003 and 2007, Ackoff delivered an annual series of public lectures, both half-day and full-day, for which the Ackoff family has granted permission for public viewing at this link.

Russell L. Ackoff died unexpectedly Thursday, October 29, 2009, after complications of hip replacement surgery.


Throughout the years Ackoff's work in research, consulting and education has involved more than 250 corporations and 50 governmental agencies in the U.S. and abroad.

Operations research

Russell Ackoff started his career in operations research at the end of the 1940s. His 1957 book Introduction to Operations Research, co-authored with C. West Churchman and Leonard Arnoff, was one of the first publications that helped define the field. The influence of this work, according to Kirby and Rosenhead (2005), "on the early development of the discipline in the USA and in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s is hard to over-estimate".[3]

In the 1970s Ackoff became one of the most important critics of the so-called "technique-dominated Operations Research", and starting proposing more participative approaches. His critiques, according to Kirby and Rosenhead (2005), "had little resonance within the USA, but were picked up both in Britain, where they helped to stimulate the growth of Problem Structuring Methods, and in the systems community world-wide",[3] such as soft systems methodology from Peter Checkland.

Purposeful systems

In 1972 Ackoff wrote a book with Frederick Edmund Emery about purposeful systems,[7] which focused on the question how systems thinking relates to human behaviour. "Individual systems are purposive", they said, "knowledge and understanding of their aims can only be gained by taking into account the mechanisms of social, cultural, and psychological systems".[3]

Any human-created systems can be characterized as "purposeful system" when its "members are also purposeful individuals who intentionally and collectively formulate objectives and are parts of larger purposeful systems".[8] Other characteristics are:

According to Kirby and Rosenhead (2005), "the fact that these systems were experiencing profound change could be attributed to the end of the "Machine Age" and the onset of the "Systems Age". The Machine Age, bequeathed by the Industrial Revolution, was underpinned by two concepts – reductionism (everything can in the end be decomposed into indivisible parts) and mechanism (cause-effect relationships)".[3] Hereby "all phenomena were believed to be explained by using only one ultimately simple relationship, cause-effect", which in the Systems Age are replaced by expansionism and teleology with producer-product replacing cause-effect. "Expansionism is a doctrine maintaining that all objects and events, and all experiences of them, are parts of larger wholes."[11] According to Ackoff, "the beginning of the end of the Machine Age and the beginning of the Systems Age could be dated to the 1940s, a decade when philosophers, mathematicians, and biologists, building on developments in the interwar period, defined a new intellectual framework".[3]


In 2006, Ackoff worked with Herbert J. Addison and Sally Bibb. They developed the term f-Law to describe a series of over 100 distilled observations of bad leadership and the misplaced wisdom that often surrounds management in organizations. A collection of subversive epigrams published in two volumes by Triarchy Press, these f-Laws expose the common flaws in both the practice of leadership and in the established beliefs that surround it. According to Ackoff "f-Laws are truths about organizations that we might wish to deny or ignore – simple and more reliable guides to managers' everyday behavior than the complex truths proposed by scientists, economists, sociologists, politicians and philosophers".[12]

White House Communications Agency

In collaboration with Dr. J. Gerald Suarez,[13] Ackoff's ideas were introduced and implemented at the White House Communications Agency and The White House Military Office during the Clinton and Bush administrations, a historic effort to bring the White House into the age of systems thinking.[14]

Relationship to Peter Drucker

Russell Ackoff was friends with Peter Drucker from the earliest days of their careers. Mr. Drucker acknowledged the early, critical contribution Ackoff made to his work – and the world of management in general – in the following letter, which was delivered to Ackoff by former General Motors V.P. Vince Barabba on the occasion of the 3rd International Conference on Systems Thinking in Management (ICSTM) held at the University of Pennsylvania, May 19–24, 2004:

I was then, as you may recall, one of the early ones who applied Operations Research and the new methods of Quantitative Analysis to specific BUSINESS PROBLEMS—rather than, as they had been originally developed for, to military or scientific problems. I had led teams applying the new methodology in two of the world’s largest companies—GE and AT&T. We had successfully solved several major production and technical problems for these companies—and my clients were highly satisfied. But I was not—we had solved TECHNICAL problems but our work had no impact on the organizations and on their mindsets. On the contrary: we had all but convinced the managements of these two big companies that QUANTITATIVE MANIPULATION was a substitute for THINKING. And then your work and your example showed us—or at least, it showed me—that the QUANTITATIVE ANALYSIS comes AFTER the THINKING—it validates the thinking; it shows up intellectual sloppiness and uncritical reliance on precedent, on untested assumptions and on the seemingly “obvious.” But it does not substitute for hard, rigorous, intellectually challenging THINKING. It demands it, though—but does not replace it. This is, of course, what YOU mean BY system. And your work in those far-away days thus saved me—as it saved countless others—from either descending into mindless “model building” – the disease that all but destroyed so many of the Business Schools in the last decades—or from sloppiness parading as ‘insight.’


Ackoff authored or co-authored 35 books and published over 150 articles in a variety of journals. Books:

Articles, a selection

Some Ackoff center blogs:



  1. ^ a b c d e f "Russell L. Ackoff, A Scholar Who Cared". Philadelphia Daily News. November 4, 2009. p. 43. Retrieved October 3, 2019 – via Open access icon
  2. ^ a b c d Who's Who in America, 61st ed. (2007), p. 17.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Maurice Kirby and Jonathan Rosenhead (2005). "IFORS Operational Research Hall of Fame: Russell L. Ackoff". In: Intl. Trans. in Op. Res. Vol 12 pp. 129–134. Archived 2010-05-09 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Margaret M. Nicholson and Kent Myers eds. (1998). Ackoff Russell L. and the advent of systems thinking Archived 2004-09-25 at the Wayback Machine Updated Program Announcement 4/14/99. Accessed Oct 30, 2009.
  5. ^ View/Search Fellows of the ASA Archived 2016-06-16 at the Wayback Machine, accessed 2016-08-20.
  6. ^ Fellows: Alphabetical List, Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences, retrieved October 9, 2019
  7. ^ Ackoff, Russell, and Emery, F. E. On Purposeful Systems. Aldine-Atherton: Chicago 1972.
  8. ^ ISD Knowledge Base; Systems Theory Archived 2007-06-26 at the Wayback Machine, 27 October 2001
  9. ^ a b R.L. Ackoff et al. (2006) On purposeful systems: an interdisciplinary analysis of individual and ... p.241.
  10. ^ Without ideals man's life is purposeless, by Stuart Umpleby, 24 July 1996. Archived 4 December 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ "Science in the Systems Age: Beyond...", p. 663–665; "Science in the Systems Age", pp. 9–10.
  12. ^ F Laws: Management Truths We Wish To Ignore, Ackoff Center Weblog, 10 November 2006.
  13. ^ "J. Gerald Suarez". Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. Retrieved April 16, 2018.
  14. ^ March Laree Jacques (1999). "Transformation and Redesign at the White House Communications Agency". In: Quality Management Journal, Volume 6, Issue 3, 1999.
  15. ^ This is really a video; part of The Deming Library series, produced by Clare Crawford Mason) Real publication date is 1993.
  16. ^ Program National Summit on School Design, October 6–8, 2005 Archived 2007-06-09 at the Wayback Machine, American Architecture Foundation.