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The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations
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The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations

3.93  ·  Rating details ·  830 ratings  ·  65 reviews
Why do we make mistakes? Are there certain errors common to failure, whether in a complex enterprise or daily life? In this truly indispensable book, Dietrich Dörner identifies what he calls the “logic of failure”—certain tendencies in our patterns of thought that, while appropriate to an older, simpler world, prove disastrous for the complex world we live in now. Working ...more
Paperback, 240 pages
Published August 4th 1997 by Basic Books (first published May 31st 1996)
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Jul 25, 2014 rated it it was ok
The main gist of this book is that human beings don't always behave logically. This is entirely valid, but not very interesting to me. And anyway there are many other books on that topic. The attraction of this book was the promise of something that could help to deal with "complex situations." Unfortunately, the book is about computer simulations--NOT about "avoiding error" in the real world. It makes sense to rely on sims when it's not possible to study something in the real world, for example ...more
Apr 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
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 belie
Mar 11, 2013 rated it it was ok
Ultimately, the author of this book was just stringing a bunch of anecdotes together to try to prove that simulated gaming would be a good training method. I work with people who make a living at develooing and employing such games, and know how to actually use the scientific method, unlike this guy, who couldn't even bother to find ay scientific references for the poijnts he was trying to make.

In addition, his basic attitude was that people fail becuse they arent't as smart as he is, although h
Oct 12, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: system-theory
This quote from the book sums it up well:

"[in relationship to good and bad planners] The good participants differed from the bad ones in that they tested their hypotheses. The bad participants failed to do this. For them, to propose a hypothesis was to understand reality; testing that hypothesis was unnecessary. Instead of generating hypotheses, they generated 'truths'."

Or in other words, dangling truths unconnected from reality.

The entire book is full of real world case studies and experiment
TK Keanini
This is the best book I've read on the patterns common to all failures. It cuts to a very fundamental limit of our cognition and reasoning. When we build systems that challenge our perception or cognitive capacities, we are just asking for trouble.

This is a book I always have on hand for reference.
Robert Bor
Apr 10, 2013 rated it it was ok
I did not like this book. I am no academic, but I was appalled by the fact that the findings of this book are founded on such a small population of observations made in game-like scenarios. And then, to move from the specific to the generic, with broad strokes of the brush. A presumptuous book full of truisms. The one thing to take away from this book is that real-life systems are complex and not easily understood by humans.
Oct 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
There is a lot to learn from simulation-games, board or computer, in seeing how good or poor the modelling is of situation.

One of the classics of poor decision making were some of the Therac-25 Radiation Therapy Machines where keys didn'[t work properly and people had to overide the controls and people got burned and died from the machines.

one can look this creepy situation

"For six unfortunate patients in 1986 and 1987, the Therac-25 did the unthinkable: it exposed them to massive overdoses of r
Munthir Mahir
Nov 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Concise, direct and up to the point. The Logic of Failure is an exploration of some of the prominent factors affecting our ability to plan and act. Factors that are at no lack to anyone, but seem to slip away through our common sense (which just means our present and available brain capacity or capabilities); factors such as temporal configurations, realizations of non-linear relationships, tendency to employ methodism, etc. There are many factors affecting our planning and actions, of considera ...more
Interesting breakdown of what makes complex problems complex, and how we can train our brains to better assess problems in a dynamic world (hint: change over time and the specific conditions a problem exists within are often overlooked). However, Dörner relies a bit too heavily on results of experiments where participants play computer simulations (think academia's version of The Sims) to make his points; the 25th graph is only marginally more informative than the 10th. The book drags, despite d ...more
Fred Leland
Nov 14, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great book that got me to thinking aboput taking whole or systems thinking when it comes to complex problem solving. We all too often think about only our role in the problem solving prcess which can have detrimental effects in the long term. The Logic of Failure lays out the foundation behind failures and then does a masterful job of explaining the how too learn from and minimize failure with both an explicit and implict view. I recommend the book to any looking tpo becominga better problem sol ...more
Daniel Frank
Oct 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
When Cass Sunstein call a book a classic (with similar praise from Tim Harford); it's definitely worth checking out.

Until reading this book, I had no idea this type of thinking/analysis was a thing but now that I've the book, I can't believe I lived an existence without employing this type of analysis.

The world is full of complex dynamic multi-variable interconnected problems that our brains systematically fail to comprehend. Through experience dealing with these systems (and reading this book!)
May 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Found out about this book while reading The 25 Sales Habits.
Michael Burnam-Fink
The Logic of Failure is a popular translation of what appears to be some pretty hefty scholarly literature (I think-didn't bother to actually check 30 years of literature in German), that is hindered by becoming largely accepted wisdom. Dorner is a cognitive scientist who based this book on a series of studies of how people interacted with computer models: desertification in the Sahel, the economy and politics of a small town, predator and prey interactions. These studies, along with some exampl ...more
Jul 02, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone interested in why people in power screw up
Shelves: sciencebooks
The author of this book is a social scientist who uses computer simulations as a way of studying human problem-solving behavior. Some of his insights into why people have problems dealing with complex situations:
- People have trouble understanding processes that work over time. People tend to respond to the situation, rather than to the process that produces the situation, leading them to overshoot or undershoot in their response.
- Both good problem solvers and bad problem solvers develop hypot
Oct 03, 2010 rated it really liked it
I re-read this recently and it held up quite well.It is probably the closest thing to self-help, psychology or a business advice book I would read. I'm not getting soft or developing ambitions of business consulting; it is academic, analytical, and focuses on failures and fiascos. The subject is how poorly and predictably our intuition and thought patterns serves us in complex situations.

In addition to real world situations (Chernobyl, for example) the author describes various laboratory experim
Nov 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing
"On s'engage partout, et puis l'on voit" - Napoleon, which roughly translates to "One jumps into the fray, then figures out what to do next."

We live nonlinear lives. When you fill up your gas tank, drive 50 miles and the fuel gauge barely budges, then you drive another 50 and it plunges. That's a classic nonlinear relationship. The math is hard, we hate doing that kind of math and we kid ourselves into believing that we can generalize such relationships. We can't. All we can do is recognize that
Nov 22, 2010 rated it liked it
Not what I expected. Rather than looking at real situations, this book looks at awesome videogame simulations of highly chaotic (in the mathematic sense) planning scenarios! Like playing discretized sim city, or playing 'balance the predators and prey'. The whole time they were describing how the good vs bad players played I was thinking 'come on, this basically seems like an IQ test'. Then they said that it didn't correlate at all with IQ, and talked about cool other rationality things. Like it ...more
Jan 30, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Herr Dorner gives us an important book that provides insights into human shortcomings in recognizing and dealing with complex situations. It’s not that we’re not smart, but our cognitive processes are in turn, petulant, impatient, and lazy. Happily, Dorner provides some assistance in meeting the challenge of complex situations; so, this volume has both theoretical and practical applications. This work has important implications for military strategists, statesmen, and public policy practitioners ...more
Temy Chonos
Jul 07, 2011 rated it really liked it
Working with intriguing computer simulations of his own invention,Dorner exposes these flaws in our thinking. His examples-sometimes hilarious,sometimes horrifying-and brain-teasing thought experiments teach us how to solve complex problems.Awesome work for planning and decision making that bolster rational thinking skills of businessman or government officials or single mom..
Aug 18, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: systems
When I started reading the book, I found it very interesting to see the fails in the human way of thinking in complex situations. Especially if you correlate this to computer programming and complex software systems. But after a while the book theme was constantly repeating the same pattern: a simulation where people made bad decisions and an analysis what these bad decisions where. At no point was there a mention on how to change this. Only in the end did the author try to handle this question ...more
Brian Thorson
Dec 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I’ve read a lot of books this year that I wouldn’t recommend to everyone. This one I do recommend to everyone, or at least everyone intent on improving their general thinking and problem solving abilities.

Dörner examines numerous thinking traps and methods to overcome them by examining a number of interesting case studies, both real and simulated. He holds the reader’s attention and keeps the theoretical grounded in the practical.

At no point does Dörner recommend a single approach. Instead, he
Matt Danner
Nov 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
Very good, but a dense read. This was translated from German in a very literal way. Sometimes the sentence structure feels clunky for English speakers.

That said, the translation is my only negative criticism. I enjoyed the way the author broke down complex situations into a series of simple steps and events. I don’t have any advanced training but was able to understand everything.

Recommended for fans of Daniel Kahneman. I found myself thinking of his pre-mortem technique often as I read this boo
Alex Barker
Feb 24, 2021 rated it really liked it
Full disclosure that I read this for a class and as a result skimmed some sections. That said, this was a surprisingly excellent and useful read. In short, Dörner's argument is that people are really, really bad at understanding the complexity of situations facing them. Most people either latch on to a single facet of a problem they understand, or the first one that is presented to them, without digging in further. The book is fairly short, and his explanations are intuitive with lots of interes ...more
Nov 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Main takeaway “We human beings are creatures of the present. But in the world of today we must learn to think in temporal configurations. We must learn that there is a lag time between the execution of a measure and its effect. We must learn to recognize “shapes” in time. We must learn that events have not only their immediate, visible effects but long term repercussions as well.”
Jun 24, 2017 rated it it was ok
Read at the suggestion of a colleague, as we spiral toward project failure
Gary Klein
Dec 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Outstanding book; check out my comments for some great quotes and some of my thoughts.
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Ryan Clare
Nov 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: growth
Amazing book about interdependencies and decision making in complex situations. Definitely recommend
Andrea James
Sep 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I gave this book five stars partly because I think decisions in complex situations are not explored enough and far too few people are paying sufficient attention to this problem. Most aren't even aware that that they are not aware of the problem.

I also gave this book five stars because it makes the subject accessible beyond academia.

A couple of examples from the book:
"It seems likely that the capacity to tolerate uncertainty has something to do with how our participants behaved. When someone si
Ian Fleischmann
Aug 05, 2013 rated it liked it
Dörner presents a good intro to decision-making in complex environments, however many of his recommendations could be shrugged off as common sense. Good problem solvers use clear goals (and intermediary goals) with accurate mental models which they refine over time. Poor problem solvers fail to account for conditions they want to leave unchanged, use less clear or precise language to express goals, and speak in absolutes. The only advice Dörner gives with which I disagree is his characterizatio ...more
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83 likes · 21 comments
“If we want to solve problems effectively...we must keep in mind not only many features but also the influences among them. Complexity is the label we will give to the existence of many interdependent variables in a given system. The more variables and the greater their interdependence, the greater the system's complexity. Great complexity places high demands on a planner's capacity to gather information, integrate findings, and design effective actions. The links between the variables oblige us to attend to a great many features simultaneously, and that, concomitantly, makes it impossible for us to undertake only one action in a complex system.

A system of variables is "interrelated" if an action that affects or meant to affect one part of the system will also affect other parts of it. Interrelatedness guarantees that an action aimed at one variable will have side effects and long-term repercussions. A large number of variables will make it easy to overlook them.

We might think of complexity could be regarded as an objective attribute of systems. We might even think we could assign a numerical value to it, making it, for instance, the product of the number of features times the number of interrelationships. If a system had ten variables and five links between them, then its "complexity quotient", measured in this way would be fifty. If there are no links, its complexity quotient would be zero. Such attempts to measure the complexity of a system have in fact been made.

Complexity is not an objective factor but a subjective one. Supersignals reduce complexity, collapsing a number of features into one. Consequently, complexity must be understood in terms of a specific individual and his or her supply of supersignals. We learn supersignals from experience, and our supply can differ greatly from another individual's. Therefore there can be no objective measure of complexity.”
“When we set out to change things, we don't pay enough attention to what we want to leave unchanged.” 1 likes
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