Posted by George Colony on April 23, 2008
If you're in the business of running a company, a large team, an acquisition, or a data center, check out this book. The full title is: The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations. It's written by the German psychologist Dietrich Dorner.
The thesis: "...we have been turned loose in the industrial age equipped with the brain of prehistoric times." Simply stated, most human beings are terrible at managing complex systems. Dorner's students run a model of a small fictitious African village -- changing variables like cattle stocks, food stores, arable land. Invariably the students kill off the entire "population" through their miss-planning
As it turns out, good managers of complex systems showed common approaches:
1) They started by laying out clear, measurable goals -- they didn't just jump in and start pulling levers. 2) Good managers acted "more complexly." Their decisions took different aspects of the entire system into account, not just dominant factors. 3) They tested their hypotheses. The bad participants failed to do this. Instead of generating hypotheses, they generated "truths." 4) The good participants asked more "why" questions. 5) They showed high capacity to tolerate uncertainty. They didn't get caught up in the "methodism" of bad managers.
Dorner gives advice to managers of complex systems:
1) State goals clearly.
2) Establish priorities, but don't cling to them.
3) Form a model of the system.
4) Gather information, but not too much.
5) Don't excessively abstract.
6) Analyze errors and draw conclusions from them for reorganizing thinking and behavior.
7) Develop common sense.
It's a rather technical read at times, but very instructive. Dorner's lessons are all the more fascinating given the management of recent history (e.g., Iraq).