Ackoff’s stages of idealized design – a powerful tool for school designers

Design and design thinking are popular terms in business literature. While Adaptive Path founder and experience designer Peter Merholz has some concerns with the way the phrase “design thinking” is being used in general (he recently wrote about the use of the term), I like to use the concept of design thinking when talking about schooling because it entails open-ended approaches to problem solving, but not unstructured or haphazard ones (See Tim Brown’s book, he is the CEO of the international design firm IDEO).

Ackoff, Magidson, and Addison’s (2006) “idealized design” offers relatively clearly defined design process that is intended for ongoing organizational design work. (I have written about Ackoff before and you can see his definition of design here). Ackoff et al. explain “interactivism,” the philosophy behind their conception of idealized design. They write, “Interactive planners…plan backward from where they want to be to where they are now. They plan not for the future but for what they want their organizations to be at the present time” (p. 5). In this way design is work done on the present shape of an organization as well as on its future shape. Idealized design creates both a vision of the future and the conditions of current reality required to accomplish that future.

Where Brown offers three broad “overlapping spaces” as he calls them to organize the design process—inspiration, ideation, and implementation— Ackoff, Magidson, and Addison (2006) represent a parallel but more detailed set of stages. Figure 1, maps out the idealized design (ID) framework. There are two major stages, Idealization and Realization, that are similar to the stages suggested by Brown, but there are also an six additional sub-stages, as detailed—each sub-stage with an explanation of the stage and some of its potential processes.

Schools can use a template like this to replace the artificial annual report with a meaningful process that pushes the school as an organization beyond its comfortable habits and requires the members of the school community to confront their failures and to design a better model for achieving their purposes.

Major Stage Sub-stage Description
Idealization Formulating the Mess This process identifies the major challenges facing an organization and the major needs the organization must address: “Every organization or institution is faced with a set of interacting threats and opportunities. These form what we call a mess…This process identifies an organization’s Achilles’ heel-=-the seeds of its self-destruction—and provides a focus for the planning that follows by identifying what the organization or institution must avoid at all costs” (p. 5).
Ends Planning “This stage is at the heart of idealized design. It involves determining what planners would like the organization or institution to be now if it could be whatever they wanted. It then identifies the gaps between this idealized design and the organization as it is, thus revealing the gaps to be filled by the rest of the planning process” (p. 7).
Realization Means Planning “This phase requires planners to determine what should be done to approximate the ideal as closely as possible to avoid the self-destruction projected in the formulation of the mess. Planners must invent and select courses of action, practices, projects, programs, and policies to be implemented” (p. 7).
Resource planning “Implementing idealized design requires planners to identify and marshal the resources needed to accomplish the planned changes…” (p. 7).
Design of implementation “Determine who is to do what, when, and where. Create a schedule and allocate resources to the tasks to be carried out” (p. 8).
Design of controls “Determine (1) how to monitor these assignments and schedules, (2) how to adjust for failures to meet or exceed schedules, and (3) how to monitor planning decisions to determine whether they are producing expected results (and if not, determine what is responsible for the errors and correct them)” (p. 8).

Figure 1: The Stages of Idealized Design



  1. Hello! I’m so glad I discovered your site. I love the contents and the way you write. I want to ask about school design theories. I’m confused, how will you know if it is a theory or not? Can you give examples of school design theories? Thank you very much! 🙂

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