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Failure is always a possibility
on 31 July 2014
I enjoyed this book. It is a quiet, rather dry, but effectively devastating academic study of how things drift into failure. In fact right now, there's probably something in your life or work that's actively drifting towards failure!
The book is a very good description of how temporary success and achievement are, and how hard they are to sustain. A bit like Gibbon's narrative of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire the question is either how early where the flaws obvious? Or the reciprocal- With all its flaws how this this system manage to stagger on for so long?
Dekker writes well as an academic. There are detailed examples and references- reflecting his knowledge and experience.
He's superb in his discussions of our notions of controllability and responsibility. He's not sure these ideas really exist, or can be exercised well in complex adaptive systems. He's less convinced anything is "accidental" or that the word can be well defined- every event has its antecedents.
He's quite sceptical of linear descriptions of accidents or system failures. Sometimes they are right- and the causal chain can be mapped out across part of its trajectory. But he's very sceptical these explain the whole story.
He defines the book well in his introduction which is worth quoting,
"Drifting into failure is a gradual, incremental decline into disaster driven by environmental pressure, unruly technology and social processes that normalise growing risk. No organisation is exempt from drifting into failure.....Failure does not come from the occasional, abnormal dysfunction or breakdown of these structures, processes and tasks, but is an inevitable by product of their normal functioning. The same characteristics that guarantee the fulfilment of that organisations mandate will turn out to be responsible for undermining that mandate...
Drifting into failure is a slow incremental process. An organisation using all its resources in pursuit of its mandate (e.g. providing safe air travel,delivering electricity reliably, taking care of your savings) gradually borrows more and more from the margins of what once buffered it from the assumed boundaries of failure.The very pursuit of the mandate, over time, and under pressure environmental factors (competition and scarcity most most prominently) dictates that it does this borrowing- does things more efficiently, does more with less, perhaps takes greater risks. Thus it is the very pursuit of the mandate that creates the conditions for its eventual collapse."
Perhaps all organisations need to be recreated every so often? Perhaps he's describing beautifully why great companies come and go- and maybe why we should allow this to happen, not try to control it.
What he says about drift into failure could probably be flipped around- and some people and organisations drift into success- without much conscious thought or care- but by managing to be around in right time and right place.
His concluding comment is not that there is an easy answer to questions about drifting in to failure but there is one concept which is helpful- "Truth, if there is such a concept, lies in diversity, not singularity."