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May 24, 2009

Finished Reading: The Logic of Failure, by Dietrich Dorner

I work on a lot of projects. Projects are different from ongoing work processes because projects have a beginning, an end, and usually a specific observable goal; they have a schedule, a budget, and a set of specifications. Projects can (and often do) go awry. Increasingly, I'm not surprised at the projects that go wrong or hit snags; I'm surprised at the projects that don't go wrong.


A lot of current literature focuses on studying success as a path to improvement. Studying success is like studying how you got to work today to improve your driving record — you can't learn much about the non-specific events that didn't happen. Maybe your success was just a fluke. Maybe it has nothing to do with the reasons that you attribute to it. Maybe the success was in spite of the you, not because of the you. Maybe it wasn't your day to die.


The subtitle is: "Recognizing And Avoiding Error In Complex Situations". That's something I can use help with.

The notion of this book (which I really enjoyed) is that too many people study success, when the real opportunity for learning comes from studying failure. Dietrich Dorner suggests that by studying failure, by spotting patterns of failure, we might be able to restrain ourselves in similar situations.

This was a good read and I recommend it. It took me a while to read because there's a lot of food for thought in there.



He opens by talking about not defining goals, not defining success, and not making explicit priorities as factors in failures. He shifts from theory into praxis by presenting results from simulations in which people fail to handle complex, multivariable, time-lagged situations.

Dorner talks about the behaviors people present (choose?) when faced with situations. He identifies several coping mechanisms which are indications of future failure, and suggests that the choice of response is a choice of coping mechanism, which in term is a choice of self-protective behavior.

The book explains how the native human ability to deal with time-dependent systems is minimal, how we tend to see individual events rather than ongoing process and patterns, and how we are prone to identifying single causes in multivariable situations.

This might have gotten pretty dry pretty fast, but it didn't. The examples provided are interesting, and his writing style is enjoyable and witty.


There were a few points which were thought-provoking for me. Dorner talks about
  • falling into a "repair service mentality" where we respond to immediate events without considering the underlying cause.
  • maximizing "diversity efficiency", by which he means preparing for multiple opportunities to respond.
  • reverse planning in an interesting way
  • the context-sensitivity of planning, and quoted Clausewitz as defining strategy as "planning in context"
  • "methodism" — the use of a previously accepted method without consideration of contemporary context. He sees it as a flawed response.


He recommends:
  • seeing events as the results of a time-delayed process rather than unique incidents
  • observing and studying before acting
  • anticipating the time latency of actions taken.
  • learning to think in terms of temporal configurations.




In a way, the proscriptive concept of this book - studying failure to learn what to avoid is more productive than studying success - is consistent with another book I've recently read, What Got You Here, Won't Get You There. The specific notion of W-G-Y-H-W-G-Y-T is that instead of learning new behaviors, it may be more productive to unlearn bad or inneffective behaviors, or the DDT's (Don't Do Thats).

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