16 January 2012

Book Review

The Logic of Failure by Dietrich Dörner

The Logic of Failure is an intriguing, albeit somewhat technical, look at failure and its causes.  In some sense, failure can be considered to be pre-programmed in human endeavor.  Success is actually more difficult than it looks (and requires luck besides, but that’s better suited to another post), and often occurs in spite of knowledge gaps and systemic complexity.

Knowledge gaps account for a portion of why people fail in their endeavors.  Quite simply, most individuals and groups simply do not have enough information to make perfectly informed decisions.  Furthermore, all decisions have a time component to them, so acquiring the necessary information is not always possible.

Systemic complexity also makes it more difficult to succeed, for complexity requires one to know how multiple variables relate to one another, what their effects are, and so on.  No human generally possess enough information to handle small systems perfectly, and this is compounded on larger-scale problems.

Furthermore, human beings tend to have certain biases and behavioral tendencies that preclude them from making good decisions.  Humans prefer to think simplistically, making direct correlations based on remarkably small amounts of data.  Not only that, humans also like to feel like they’re solving problems, which generally leads them to focus on small-scale problems they feel they can solve, even if that means ignoring large-scale problems in the meantime.

In all, Dörner’s tome makes an impressive case against bureaucracy and central planning, for human judgment often tends to fail relative to its aims.  While decentralization won’t prevent failure, it will minimize failure’s disastrous consequences (see also: Adapt by Tim Harford).  Dörner also provides some solid planning advice, which one can use to minimize the possibility of failure.  The most essential element of this advice is to determine a specific goal, and work from there.

The Logic of Failure is a highly recommended read, particularly for those who believe that problems are easy to solve.  Once one reads Dörner’s book, though, one will likely be amazed that people ever manage to get anything to work.

No comments:

Post a Comment