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The Logic Of Failure: Recognizing And Avoiding Error In Complex Situations Paperback – August 4, 1997


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (August 4, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0201479486
  • ISBN-13: 978-0201479485
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #56,684 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The Chernobyl atomic-plant explosion, observes Dorner, was entirely due to human error involving the breaking of safety rules by a team of experts who reinforced one another's puffed-up sense of competence. This German psychology professor believes people court failure through sloppy or ingrained mental habits, whether the mistakes involve cleaning dead fish out of a garden pool, adding rooms to a schoolhouse, launching economic development programs in Africa or forecasting oil prices or the scope of the AIDS epidemic. Things go wrong, according to Dorner, because we focus on just one element in a system complicated by interrelationships; we apply corrective measures too aggressively or too timidly; we ignore basic premises, overgeneralize, follow blind alleys, overlook potential side effects and narrowly extrapolate from the moment, basing our predictions of the future on those aspects of the present that bother or delight us the most. This ingenious manual will assist problem-solvers in all fields.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Things going wrong is an all-too-common modern management experience. Pressed for time, an administrator makes a hasty decision that remedies the problem but creates myriad new problems for someone else. Dorner (psychology, Univ. of Baumberg, Germany), an authority on cognitive behavior, questions whether or not our habits of thought measure up to the systemic demands of profound problems such as environmental degradation, nuclear weapons build-up, terrorism, and overpopulation. Using computer-simulated "real world" scenarios, he measured his test subjects's problem-solving performances over time, and, not surprisingly, discovered that people court failure in predictable patterns?from simple confusion and misperception to short attention spans and unwillingness to change tactics. All is not lost, however, for Dorner suggests that despite the repeated failure, we can learn to recognize defective management behaviors and correct them. Dorner's "only the facts" approach is refreshing; he offers clear arguments, convincing evidence, and well-reasoned conclusions. One of the best management titles of the year, this is a necessary addition to both psychology and management collections of all types.?David R. Johnson, Fayetteville P.L., Ark.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Any problem is much more complex than we like to believe.
Ronald Scheer
This is one of those "keepers" that I'll read again and again... and get more from the book each time.
Stephen L. Nelson
I read this book years ago and have been recommending it ever since.
Likes to listen to radio

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

116 of 121 people found the following review helpful By Ronald Scheer on September 23, 2002
Format: Paperback
Dietrich Dörner is an authority on cognitive behavior and a psychology professor at the University of Bamberg, Germany. His research shows that our habits as problem solvers are typically counterproductive.

Probably our main shortcoming is that we like to oversimplify problems. Dörner offers a long list of self-defeating behaviors, but common to all of them is our reluctance to see any problem is part of a whole system of interacting factors. Any problem is much more complex than we like to believe. And failure doesn't have to come from incompetence. The operators of the Chernobyl reactor, as Dörner points out, were "experts." And as experts, they ignored safety standards because they "knew what they were doing."

Dörner identifies four habits of mind and characteristics of thought that account for the frequency of our failures:
1. The slowness of our thinking-We streamline the process of problem solving to save time and energy.
2. Our wish to feel confident and competent in our problem solving abilities-We try to repeat past successes.
3. Our inability to absorb quickly and retain large amounts of information-We prefer unmoving mental models, which cannot capture a dynamic, ever-changing process.
4. Our tendency to focus on immediately pressing problems-We ignore the problems our solutions will create.

Successful problem solving is so complex that there are no hard-and-fast rules that work all the time. The best take-away from the book (and this is my favorite quote): "An individual's reality model can be right or wrong, complete or incomplete. As a rule it will be both incomplete and wrong, and one would do well to keep that probability in mind.
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34 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Robert I. Hedges HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on December 21, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Napoleon said "On s'engage et puis on voit!" Loosely translated that means "One jumps into the fray, then figures out what to do next," a common human approach to planning. This discussion (page 161) takes on the adaptability of thought and cautions decision makers about the risks of overplanning in a dynamic, multivariate system. Using examples from Napoleon as well as more concrete examples such as the quotation about soccer strategy (also on page 161,) Dietrich Dörner, the brilliant German behavioral psychologist (University of Bamberg) has created a masterwork on decision making skills in complex systems; I find it to be highly complimentary to Perrow's work and also highly recommend his equally brilliant "Normal Accidents."

A strength of this work is that Dörner takes examples from so many areas including his own computer simulations which show the near-universal applicability of his concepts. One of Dörner's main themes is the failure to think in temporal configurations (page 198): in other words, humans are good at dealing with problems they currently have, but avoid dealing with and tend to ignore problems they don't have (page 189): potential outcomes of decisions are not foreseen, sometimes with tragic consequences. In one computer simulation (page 18) Dörner had a group of hypereducated academics attempt to manage farmland in Africa: they failed miserably. In this experiment Dörner made observations about the decision makers which revealed that they had: "acted without prior analysis of the situation; failed to anticipate side effects and long-term repercussions; assumed the absence of immediately negative effects meant that correct measures had been taken; and let overinvolvement in 'projects' blind them to emerging needs and changes in the situation.
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52 of 57 people found the following review helpful By Stephen L. Nelson on February 16, 2002
Format: Paperback
I picked this book up after hearing a book editor I really respect say he re-reads this great book every few years. And, wow, am I glad I did. What this book talks about is decision-making in situations of complexity, uncertainty and intransparence. The author, Dorner, recounts the results of computer simulations that explore how people succeed and fail in decision making and planning. This is one of those "keepers" that I'll read again and again... and get more from the book each time.
Tangential comment: I'm also a writer (my best-selling books have been Quicken for Dummies and QuickBooks for Dummies) and so I have to say that this book is really, really well-written and edited. Wonderful craftsmanship!
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34 of 37 people found the following review helpful By William H. Franklin Jr. on January 24, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The book got my juices flowing in the first chapter, especially with the reference to human interaction with dynamic systems and the tendency to "oversteer". I wrote my doctoral dissertation over 30 years ago on just such a phenomenon as applied to the broiler industry (yes, chickens), which behaves as an underdamped servomechanism. (I'm an engineer).

However the early promise of the book didn't bloom as I'd hoped. Rather than use real world examples, all of the author's principles are drawn from simulated experiments. As a doctoral student I was subjected to many simulated business game situations, and while they can be made complex to third and fourth generation consequences, life is more complex than that (think The Tipping Point and Jim Burke's The Pinball Effect).

The effort to draw principles in the last chapter suffered two defects: there are too many of them and they are shallowly explained in terms of real-world usefulness.

While I think the book is worth reading, it over-promised and under-delivered. I'd recommend speed reading it for high level content and avoid getting bogged down in the simulations. I highlight as I read, and the highlighting became less and less as the book wore on. That's the best evidence I have on the value of a book to me when I finish reading it and review my highlighting and notes.

A much more practical book (for me) was Managing the Unexpected by Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe.
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