When I picked up this book, with its tagline of ‘why our systems fail and what we can do about it’, I was unsure of what to expect. There are plenty of ‘failures’ and potential disasters in the world, so this book should be particularly relevant.
Sadly I found it anything but.
In the prologue, the authors state that this is a book of two parts. The first to investigate why systems fail and the second to look at solutions. I found many of the case studies of system failure interesting, but eventually repetitive. Many of these ‘failures’ have been covered in much more detail by other books and media (the Challenger disaster, the Enron scandal to name but two). I found the authors’ slightly dramatised version of these failures to be irritating and too basic. The end of most of these stories usually led to a pronouncement that they were ‘complex and tightly coupled’ and this had led to the failure. Well, yes – I agree, but I would have agreed before I read this book.
Despite this I found myself looking forward to the second part of the book, the solutions. This should be where the book comes into its own. How disappointed I was. Instead of a series of solutions that might be applied to a number of these issues, what we get are many, smaller solutions, that are quite specific to the scenarios described. I found little that was universally applicable and far too many occasions when I was shaking my head as I came upon yet another vague pronouncement about complexity.
So did I get anything out of this book? Surprisingly yes.
I had been hoping for some material I could use with my economics students – or some case studies about poor management to use with my business students, but I have better case material for both of these groups without this book. The section that I found interesting was to do with management and leadership. In the middle of the book, there are some interesting references to studies about communication, power and management. Admittedly this could have been condensed into a good magazine article, but it piqued my interest and I took from it some further reading material (from the 35 pages of notes and references at the end of the book!).
Overall this book contains some interesting stories, but only as a jumping off point for learning more. If, like me, you enjoy a good business failure case study, then you will already know more than this book gives you. As for the solutions, I took nothing away except the inevitability of the failures. Many of the solutions seemed contradictory and all very specific to the scenarios discussed. How then does one take any lesson from this and apply it to the potential ‘meltdowns’ in the world today? I do not think you can and, sadly, the authors never try.
Simon Dyer teaches at The Peterborough School in Peterborough.
Editor’s comment: Simon is a very knowledgeable teacher who has read widely and used his powers of observation to excellent effect. If you are early on in your career there may still be something you can pick up from this book. It was one of the FT’s Books of the Year in November 2018. However, it is definitely true that a lot of very pedestrian business books find their way into what is already a very big market. Watch out!