Organisations, environmental management and innovation
Organisations, environmental management and innovation

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1.9 Wrong thing righter?

The systems writer Russell Ackoff provides a useful commentary, which has a significant bearing on maintaining a critical stance on innovation. In the following extract from his writings, his reference to reformations approximates to incremental innovation and the reference to transformations approximates to more radical innovations, particularly at the system level.

Reformations and transformations are not the same thing. Reformations are concerned with changing the means systems employ to pursue their objectives. Transformations involve changes in the objectives they pursue. Peter Drucker put this distinction dramatically when he said there is a difference between doing things right (the intent of reformations) and doing the right thing (the intent of transformations).

The righter we do the wrong thing, the wronger we become. When we make a mistake doing the wrong thing and correct it, we become wronger. When we make a mistake doing the right thing and correct it, we become righter. Therefore, it is better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right. This is very significant because almost every problem confronting our society is a result of the fact that our public policy makers are doing the wrong things and are trying to do them righter.

(Ackoff, 2004, pp. 1–2)

Activity 10 Eco-innovations – wrong thing right or right thing wrong?

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Having read the preceding extract, comment on your own experiences of eco-innovation (it could be related to an item, process, idea, etc.). Which eco-innovations would you consider to be doing the ‘wrong thing right’ or doing the ‘right thing wrong’?

Provide your answer...

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


Using Ackoff’s ideas, it is possible to conclude that the invention of the car was a major transformation in transport systems. All the subsequent improvements and refinements might justifiably be considered as reformations – perhaps with the exception of electric cars – because they are still within the framing of an oil-based engine. In which case, we could conclude the modern car, however efficient, is more of the same – i.e. doing the wrong thing righter. But cars are also becoming more fuel- and material-efficient. Is the increasing move to more fuel-efficient and electric cars evidence of some transformation?

Multiple perspectives are inevitable in answering these kinds of questions. But Ackoff’s commentary and shorthand phrasing is a potent reminder that humans have innovated throughout our history, but not all innovations have proved to be desirable either in the short or long term. It is also a reminder that it may not be necessary to innovate – i.e. engage in transformation if we are trying to do the right thing in the first place. In this case, incremental innovations might be an appropriate strategy.

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371