Why things go wrong:-

This section has general reviews of why things go wrong in practice, with many detailed examples.

  • Normal Accidents is a classic on technological systems. It discusses ways in which technology may be too demanding, and recommends not attempting to create or operate systems that are beyond one’s competance.
  • Flirting with disaster takes a broader, psychological and organsiational, view of why a broader range of decisions go wrong. It is US-centric, and particualrly notes the importnace of incentives and ‘the agency problem’.
  • Blunders of our Governments takes a British persepctive, noting human factors and systemic issues.
  • Good Strategy/Bad Strategy is also US-centric, and contrasts good and bad strategies. Many bad strategies arise from a fundamental misunderstanding of what sort of thing an effective strategy is. For example ‘hope is not a strategy’.
  • One common problem is Managerialism, even for decisions that one might think were ‘home ground’ and so, one would think, well within our competance.

Between them they provide a rich source of material to help understand why things so often go wrong, in different settings.

See Also

Other headings in my blog discuss the problem from more technical viewpoints, covering particular issues in more detail, e.g. ‘science’. In particular, complexity demystified is of relevance and complements Perrow’s classic. Although not so much focussed on why things go wrong, the book:

  • It considers a wider range of challenges.
  • It has an analysis of the Deepwater Horizon Crisis as a ‘normal accident’.
  • In this and other case studies it describes how to work around the conditions that might normally lead to ‘normal accidents’.
  • In doing so it considerably extends Perrow’s diagnostic tools.

The case studies also seem consistent with the other references above, in that success seems to come to those who somehow evade undue management attention and regulation. This can be some combination of:

  • Being small scale (‘beneath the radar’).
  • Having ones own ‘political capital’ (small ‘p’), such as a recognised good and appropriate track record.
  • Having end users who are sufficiently understanding and empowered to create and maintain the conditions under which adequate progress is possible.
  • Focussing on diagnosis in the early stages and being able to get the management arrangements adjusted accordingly.
  • By facilitating effective collaboration among stakeholders.

The book also has ample pointers to much relevant theory, for those wishing to push the bounds of what is ‘normal’. Unfortunately, it has yet to make it to airport bookstands.

Dave Marsay

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