Ur-Turn (3): The Logic of Failure

4 min

In his book The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations, Professor Dietrich Dörner describes the results of a series of computer simulations he and his scientific team conducted to figure out which decision strategies would yield the best results under complex conditions.

In his studies he tasked dozens of volunteers with improving the living situation of a fictitious native East African tribe and leading them out of poverty. The virtual (transformation) leaders were given the power to implement a range of development aid measures, from building wells and scaling agriculture to electrification and improving medical care.

Unfortunately, most of the participants eventually killed the entire tribe. Not intentionally, of course, and not by a single bad decision that sparked a catastrophe. They induced catastrophic spirals by ignoring the complex, systemic character of the ecosystem, the hidden, non-linear dynamics, and by not practicing patient and balanced decision-making. As we all know: well-meant is not necessarily well done.

Complexity kills the best intentions.

In contrast to complicated situations, where you can determine precise cause-and-effect chains with enough effort, the exact behavior of complex systems is often unclear and unpredictable.

Hasty, biased, or one-sided decisions can cause the previously balanced system to become unstable and collapse. You definitely want to avoid such a scenario, so keep in mind:

When transforming your business, you are inducing instability into a complex, potentially fragile system.

Too much focus on one area, and hidden feedback loops can cause major, unforeseen side effects in other areas.

Focus on transforming your technology and organization only, and you might discourage your staff and ruin your corporate culture, including negatively impacting the quality of your solution and your customer experience.

The few successful participants in Dörner’s experiments had one thing in common: they first tried to understand the behavior of the ecosystem by looking at the different levers and understanding their impact on the entire system.

Change a little bit of this, then observe and adjust. Change a little bit of that—observe, adjust. Only when they clearly understood the rough dynamics did they begin to expand and scale their activities.

So, here are a few takeaways to consider when planning for your transformation journey:

  • Apply systems thinking
  • Uncover hidden feedback loops
  • Evaluate cause and effect relationships
  • Expect second- and third-degree impacts
  • Start small and scale cautiously

And last but not least:

• Use common sense

The text above is the third part (out of eight) of our new whitepaper on Business Transformation - why most of the initiatives systematically fail and what measures help prevent failure.

Trexcelerator® is dedicated to support businesses around the globe cope with complex transformation challenges successfully - by creating clarity about the organization's environment, the dynamics and dependencies of the internal areas of action, as well as the appropriate transformation approach.

Our tool—The Transformation Board—helps transformation leaders, managers, and coaches envision, explain, enable, and execute transformational change effectively.

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