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Customer Review

on September 23, 2002
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." The book is 199 easy-to-read pages, and Dörner gives lots of interesting examples from lab tests illustrating people's actual behavior in problem-solving situations.
It's a thought-provoking book for anyone whose job is to tackle complex problems. In one way or another that includes anyone in just about any profession.
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