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Systemantics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail Paperback – May 1, 1978

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Product Details

  • Paperback
  • Publisher: Pocket; 1st edition (May 1, 1978)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0671819100
  • ISBN-13: 978-0671819101
  • Product Dimensions: 6.8 x 4.2 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #483,106 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By rhhardin on March 30, 2000
Format: Hardcover
There is no better book, with more startlingly accurate insights into one's current predicament.
It has the slight failing that it can't quite decide if it ought to be another _Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown_ or not, so there's a few paragraphs to skip here and there.
The rest is great.
I can quote from memory my favorite system axioms:
``Systems grow, and as they grow they encroach.''
``Systems attract systems-people.''
``Intra-system goals come first.''
``Reality is whatever is reported to the system.''
``Fail-safe systems fail by failing to fail safe.''
My favorite chapter is ``Administrative Encirclement,'' where each researcher is asked to write out his objectives.
The deepest insight, very subtle indeed, is Orwell's Inversion: the confusion of input and output:
``Example: A giant program is to Conquer Cancer is begun. At the end of five years, cancer has not been conquered, but one thousand research papers have been published. In addition, one million copies of a pamphlet entitled ``You and the War Against Cancer'' have been distributed. Those publications will absolutely be regarded as Output rather than Input.''
Nobody who knows the book will be surprised that the biggest killers of dogs today are humane societies.
People who follow the book will understand why the small early version _General Systemantics_ (1975), privately published, is an absolute gem; this version is pretty good, almost the same; and today's version (_...the underground text..._) is expanded beyond belief. The author has made it a system.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Jon Richfield on November 7, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is one of those books that should have become required reading, but possibly because it is too thought provoking, never became prominent. A great pity. It is as entertaining as Parkinson's works on his famous laws, and to me personally it has proven a good deal more valuable in practice. (Parkinson himself reviewed it and liked it!) It is a pity it is out of print. I hope that its follow-up (which I have not yet read) is as good.
Though jocularly written, this is really valuable, stimulating material. Its aphorisms may read like jokes, but they are all the more valuable for being quotable and easy to remember in context. Thinking back on all the godawful systems that I have seen, political, management, engineering and computer, there is not one that could not have been mitigated by intelligent anticipatory digestion of this book.
Unfortunately mentalities prominent among power-seekers, control freaks and grandiose designers, not to mention outright dishonesty among managers with conflicts of interest, cause considerable resistance to the ideas and attitudes that Gall promotes. If you are one such, I have nothing to say to you. If on the other hand you enjoy a bit of thoughtful and edifying entertainment, do your best to read this book.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Gary Sprandel on August 26, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is a lighthearted look at how systems fail and are destined to fail. These laws of human behavior, though tongue-in-cheek, offer more than a grain of truth. Perhaps some of the laws could be updated, for example "Systems tend to expand to fill the known universe", could be rewritten as: "The Internet (or tends to expand to fill the known universe." I'm afraid that the Internet is a classic example of "The real world is what is reported to the system", as we look to our search engines to find the truth. As an employee of state government, I understand Le Chatelier's Principle that "Systems tend to oppose their own proper functions". A quick read, and enjoyable book.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By David Kirk on August 9, 2003
Format: Hardcover
and it is... at least in my department of systems analysts. While people everywhere are continuing to want to develop complex computer systems, even before the concepts have been worked out on paper, this is a refreshing sanity check that most systems are too complex, ill-designed, not focused, and not meeting the business objectives. This is a book that you can read several times, learning more each time. After studying this entertaining book, you will be able to forecast which new systems are doomed, even before they're finished. I reread the book each year to help me stay sensitive to poor systems ideas.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Joseph Reddy on January 8, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Systemantics was probably my favorite technical read of the year for my software development career. Like The Design of Everyday Things, this book is not about software development, at least not directly. This book addresses all the things that are arguably true about systems. The book refers to large systems like government and public school systems, and medium systems like city garbage collection, and even smaller systems like families, or a system for managing a small group of employees. These systems are all set up to solve or at least manage a problem the same way we develop software systems to do the same.

The author refers back and forth to these common systems as it explains over 20 truisms of systems, especially large ones. Some of my favorites include:
- First rule of systems design: do without out one if possible
- New systems mean new problems
- A large system produced by expanding a smaller system will not behave like the smaller system
- Things are as they appear to be, not what they are

The book is written in a very lighthearted yet serious way which makes it easy to read, even funny. Everywhere, things are not working well and those outside of the systems that are failing are sure they could fix them if only their ideas were universally adopted. However, this book admittedly offers no solution. There is no single method to follow and all axioms are too fundamental for direct application. Rather the axioms provide clues and guidance to awareness of what makes a particular system faulty. The Systematics student, understanding the risk of failure, even catastrophic failure, knows that the undertaking should only be begun where the present evil is very clear and the consequences of utter failure are no more unbearable than the original unsatisfactory situation.
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