Why things fail is one of the main topics in the book “Adapt – Why Success Always Begins with Failure” by Tim Hartford. Two of the reasons resonated with me because they provide a sort of lens with which you can look at situations and predict their inevitable failure. These two main reasons are;
1. They are complex. Complex things fail easily. The reason they do so is because there are so many parts and functions to the thing (be it system, machine, organization) that each part is a target for an unexpected or new condition. New and unexpected things can show up (and will show up) that are provided great opportunity to break something because its complex. Sometimes in complex things, individual parts can get broken that may not destroy the whole thing. That is where the second thing that makes stuff fail comes into play.
2. They are tightly coupled. Tightly coupled things fail easily. Tightly coupled means that even though the thing is not complex, once failure starts it proliferates so quickly that there is no way to stop it. This is called the domino effect. Dominos are not complex but if set up close enough to one another that each one is quickly affected by the other, failure happens before you can stop it.
Consider that our global banking system was both very complex and tightly coupled and you now know why we have seen systemic financial failure that continues to have enough aftershocks to make you wonder if the big one has even happened yet. Put this lens on for your organization and consider the complexities (targets for the unexpected something) and how tightly coupled the pieces are. This insight into your own propensity for failure may actually help you avert it. You can’t eliminate error, but you should certainly try to simplify and decouple it.
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