The Logic of Failure

The Logic of Failure

Author: Dietrich Dorner


Does failure take a predictable course? Can we learn to avoid mistakes? This book answers ‘yes’ to both questions saying that failure acts ‘according to its own logic’, following a predictable pattern (pages 9 and 10). The author, a psychology professor, has studied how people solve complex problems in computer simulations. His findings have revealed ‘the nature of our thinking when we deal with complex problems’, and how this leads to failure (page 7). The author justifies the use of computer simulations because they mirror real life situations. He shows how the simulated logic of failure applies to several real life disasters such as the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster in 1986 (pages 28-35), and the catastrophic outcome of the widespread use of the insecticide, DDT (pages 57-58).

FAIL. amboo who? on Flikr.
FAIL. amboo who? on Flikr.

The book shows ‘the difficulties even intelligent people have in dealing with complex systems’. These systems are challenging because they consist of multiple interrelated components (page 37) and have contradictory goals (page 65-70). Furthermore, solving complex problems often results in unintended consequences. The author attributes this to poor planning behaviours such as delaying decision making, ignoring the wider system, inadequate self-reflection, and blaming others for poor outcomes (pages 21-23). Poor planners show ‘a reluctance to gather information and an eagerness to act’ (pages 99-105), and they rely on a repair-service behaviour which wrongly prioritises problems (page 60).

Head in Hands. Alex Proimos on Flikr.
Head in Hands. Alex Proimos on Flikr.

The book’s aim is to demonstrate how better planning helps to address complex problems by enabling people to ‘think through the consequences of certain actions…’ (page 153). The author discusses two types of planning, forward and reverse, and explores the stages of the planning process. He reviews heuristic devices that facilitate planning such as hill climbing (page 157), free experimentation, and culling unsuccessful strategies (page 159). Cautioning against over-planning, he recommended conditional planning saying that ‘in very complex and quickly changing situations, the most reasonable strategy is to plan only in rough outline’ (page 161).

The hallmarks of the book are the numerous suggestions the author makes to guide against the traps of complex problems. For example he urges planners to properly define their goals (page 44), to make allowance for incomplete and incorrect information (page 42), to know when to abandon established practice (page 45), and to recognise and acknowledge when a solution is not working (page 46). He offers many tips such as ‘in complex situations, we cannot do only one thing…we cannot pursue only one goal’ (page 52). Another tip is ‘we must keep track of constantly changing conditions and never treat any image we form of a situation as permanent. Everything is in flux, and we must adapt accordingly’ (page 98). He describes how experts handle complexity, such as their reliance on intuition and their reactions to supersignals.

Dendritic Network. Robert Hruzek on Flikr.
Dendritic Network. Robert Hruzek on Flikr.


This book has a gem in almost every page, making it extremely difficult to summarise. It is an extremely enlightening book which addresses an important problem. It is very-well written and easy to understand. It is well-researched but it is presented in an easy format that all readers will appreciate. The book offers a good mix of simulated and real-life scenarios, and this makes his recommendations very practical. I found very little to criticise in it apart from a rather drab cover.


The book’s lessons are invaluable for healthcare, one of the most complex systems in the world. The book addresses the issue of problem-solving which is relevant to the clinical and leadership functions of all doctors, and I highly recommend it.


  • Publisher, place and year: Basic Books, New York, 1996
  • Number of chapters: 7
  • Number of pages: 222
  • ISBN: 978-0-201-47948-5
  • Price: £10.99
  • Rating: 5 stars


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