Ackoff’s lift and Rory Sutherland’s fantasy…

Ian Mitroff reminds me of this classic story (evidently repeated in several publications by Ackoff):

There is a classic case in which the tenants of a large office building complained about the increasingly poor elevator service.  A consulting firm specializing in elevator-related problems was employed to deal with the situation.  It first established that average waiting time for elevators was too long. It then evaluated the possibilities of adding elevators, replacing existing elevators with faster ones, and introducing computer controls to improve utilization of elevators. For various reasons, none of these turned out to be satisfactory.  The engineers declared the problem to be unsolvable.

        When exposed to the problem, a young psychologist employed in the building’s personnel department made a simple suggestion that dissolved the problem. Unlike the engineers who saw the service as too slow, he saw the problem as one deriving from the boredom of those waiting for an elevator. So he decided they should be given something to do.  He suggested putting mirrors in the elevator lobbies to occupy those waiting by enabling them to look at themselves and others without appearing to do so. The mirrors were put up and complaints stopped.  In fact, some of the previously complaining tenants congratulated management on improvement of the elevator service.

                                                                Ackoff, R. L.,  1999

                                                                Re-creating the Corporation

                                                                Oxford Univ. Press, NY p15-16’s%20elevator%20story.htm

To me, this seems to tie in with Rory Sutherland’s more recent ‘Perspective is Everything’ TED Talk:


Speaking to Ian Mitroff (for a forthcoming podcast) has certainly validated and cemented my own ‘systems thinking identity’ as being focused on this kind of story – the importance of framing, the priority of actual outcomes and of making things better!