A favorite book: The Logic of Failure

The_logic_of_failure_2If 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).

Comments

re: A favorite book: The Logic of Failure

Yes, the era of catastrophic failure is upon us, perhaps…for some theoretical writings, Paul Virilio has been pushing this idea for some time. I have not read the below cited work, but many of his earlier writings concern the catastrophe and how we might learn from such. Sometimes Virilio takes his logic a bit beyond the horizon, as it were, but terribly prescient none the less.Amazon link to recent essay “The Original Accident”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/product description/0745636144/ref=dp_proddesc_0?ie=UTF8&n=283155&s=books

re: A favorite book: The Logic of Failure

Hello George Colony: I gained access today to your service via a corporate sponsorship. I noticed while reviewing a search on another on of our libraries on-line tool that one (1) of your analysts (finally) mention Dr. Eli Goldratt's "Theory of Constraints" in a report dated about April 22, 2008. Sounds good. I took a peek at the various blogs herein. Your blog stands out as the most useful for my purposes.In reviewing your on-line biography I noticed the prominent quote: "Technology Changes Everything". You have tohe opportunity to elaborate... please.I am making this particular blog comment because upon casual review ... the quote above ("Technology Change Everything") appears to be a flawed assumption. In reviewing the prsentations at the recent In2IN.org conference April 18, 2008 in Casnoga Park, California (L.A. -- San Fernando Valley) I accept quite a bit of empherical evidence that validate's Demming's Systems thinking.*** As the systems become more and more complex, the greater the proportion of continuous improvement benefits that result direct from facilitating human-to-human social relationships. ***In other words, technology is just a tool.I would like to listen and learn about your perspective and that of the readers.I am looking casually and informally for a Peer Review of "a" simple business plan that I hope to draft in August 2008 for presentation at an academic conference October 5, 2008 in Warsaw, Poland to "TOCinEducation.com" folks and friends.In summary, the published work "Logic of Failure ..." that was the topic of your blog post appears to be excellent and I will absorb it as best as I can. Thank you for your service. I was not aware of the subject topic publication.Sincerely,Leo Henton

re: A favorite book: The Logic of Failure

Leo:Your point about complex systems being continually improved by social relationships......I'm with you. It's clear that the only way to perfect, form, or understand increasingly complex systems (be they political organizations, encyclopedias, or historical events)in the future will be through the efforts of many more people than exist in traditional organizations. That's why A.G. Lafley at Proctor & Gamble is searching the world for innovation -- his labs aren't big enough to keep up with rapidly changing consumers (P&G has over a billion customers).Social technologies will be one of the great tools in the management of future complex systems.Thanks for the comment...George

re: A favorite book: The Logic of Failure

Hello again George: Thaks for taking the time to provide your valuable perspective on my prior mini-rant. And "Thank You" for establishing an enduring organization to facilitate research. It sure is an advancement (in terms of my research efforts of year 1977).It's time to take it to the next level.I've chatted with one of your fine people, David Vance during the courteous orientation that your fine organization provides to rookie members (users).I have introduced a few relevant terms in discussion with David Vance of Forrester.com At this point, I'm deferring on introducing the two terms into semi-public conversation on your excellent blog ... until such time in the near-future when I've been able to reasonably confirm that the two terms (concepts / implementation vehicles) have not been discussed to-date herein under a synonym.Would you like to hear more?If by chance, Admiral J. M. (Mike) McConnell ( USA -- DNI.gov ) or his designated representative is a subscriber ... I think his team would also be interested. Of course, I'm not suggesting you violate the confidentiality of subscribers. Rather I'm suggesting if there is such a subscriber, that your team clue them in to tune into a RSS or manual review of this thread. Thank you.Best regards,Leo

re: A favorite book: The Logic of Failure

Hi george: For the more general audience, especially Americians, especially "WASP's" I suggest a review of the collected published works of Benjamin Graham ( 1894 - 1976 ). Thereafter, if you or any of your readers are aware of a suitable "refresh" of Benjomin Graham's concepts and principles, in the form of a recent published work by a much younger author ... it would be greatly appreciated.This request is in the aspect that there is a worthy consideration of going retro, a a "reset" to the baseline of leading-edge business thoughts circa year 1950. I keep on meeting "younger" hotshots tthat have been distracted on tangents and short-horizons since year 1970. I do not circulate much with top executives, except for very brief interactions on a social basis at informal conferences. It is notable that during sustained formal conversations with middle-managers (aka "organizers, not "transformers") that the degreed middle managers do not appear to have listened to anything since their grandfather advised them on undergraduate college selection (circa year 1935 perceptions). This is quite distressing since many ( a large percentage of, the vast majority of ) empherical experiments have validated such classic works as Demming, Graham during exhaustive controlled (and uncontrolled) exercises during the 1980 and early 1990's in both American culture and other cultures.In effect, it is quite remarkable that such effort is given as lip-service to Continuous Quality Improvement that in effect becomes a mere fad. Shocking.The fascination of Americans with "Singularity" is a bit hard to understand. Given that "Singularity" in nature is rather rare.More to follow ... at your request ... if you or any of your readers are interested.Also, I sure would like to listen and learn with (from) your readers, in addition to just providing mini-rants ... that are probably hard to follow for most folks due to length restrictions.Sincerely,Leo

re: A favorite book: The Logic of Failure

You might want to check out Dave Snowden's writing on this topic (www. cognitive-edge.com).He has discussed this topic in some depth over the past decade or so, including a recent Harvard Business Review lead article (Nov 2007, "A Leader's Framework for Decision Making").