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Meltdown

Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It

By Chris Clearfield & András Tilcsik
13-minute read
Audio available
Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It by Chris Clearfield & András Tilcsik

Meltdown (2018) unpacks the weaknesses shared by local and global systems. With diverse and astonishing examples, it provides empowering solutions to avoid failure. The Financial Times named it one of their best books of 2018, and the book’s message is ultimately hopeful – that the answers are easily within reach if we look for them. 

  • Curious individuals seeking a new perspective on how the world works
  • Leaders and staff who want to build stronger teams and better handle or prevent crises
  • Whistleblowers, dissenters and diversity champions

Co-authors Chris Clearfield and András Tilcsik are world leaders in crisis prevention and bring an unusual combination of specialist skills, prestige and academic credentials to their work. Clearfield is a licensed commercial pilot who once dealt in financial forecasting as a derivatives trader, while Tilcsik has been recognized as one of the world’s top 40 business professors under 40 in his role at the University of Toronto. Between them, they’ve had articles published in respected publications like the Guardian, Forbes and Harvard Kennedy School Review and have even been approved by the United Nations for leading the best course on disaster risk management at any business school.

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Meltdown

Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It

By Chris Clearfield & András Tilcsik
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It by Chris Clearfield & András Tilcsik
Synopsis

Meltdown (2018) unpacks the weaknesses shared by local and global systems. With diverse and astonishing examples, it provides empowering solutions to avoid failure. The Financial Times named it one of their best books of 2018, and the book’s message is ultimately hopeful – that the answers are easily within reach if we look for them. 

Key idea 1 of 8

Modern systems often fail for similar reasons in very different contexts.

What do BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the global financial crisis all have in common? Yes, they’re all crises, but they also share the same underlying causes.

Modern systems are more capable than ever, yet increased capability has also driven up complexity and made systems less forgiving. Take the finance industry, for instance: the switch from face-to-face to computerized stock-market trading has helped reduce operational costs, increased trading speed and given more control over transactions. But the digital shift has also made the system harder to understand and increased the chance of complex, unexpected interactions. Finance has become a perfect example of what sociology professor Charles Perrow would call a complex, tightly coupled system. 

Perrow was an expert on organizations hired in the late 1970s to investigate the causes of a nuclear accident in Pennsylvania. What he discovered revolutionized the science of catastrophic failure. 

Perrow identified a combination of small failures behind the disaster that interacted in a domino effect. Instead of blaming the nuclear plant’s operators or calling it a freak occurrence, Perrow saw that the accident had been caused by features inherent in the plant as a system – complexity and tight coupling. 

Tight coupling is an engineering term for when a system is unforgiving or has little buffer between its parts. The system for cooking a Thanksgiving dinner, for instance, is tightly coupled: the meal involves many elements that depend on each other, like stuffing that cooks inside the turkey and gravy that comes from the roasted bird’s juices. And with only one oven in most houses, one dish could set back all the rest.

Complexity in a system means that it’s non-linear and hard to see inside. If we stick with the Thanksgiving dinner analogy, cooking a turkey is a complex system, because it’s hard to see inside the bird to tell if it’s cooked. Complexity in a system makes it tough to identify problems and their knock-on effects.

A combination of complexity and tight coupling takes us into what Perrow calls the Danger Zone. This is where meltdown – the collapse or breakdown of a system – becomes highly likely. So that tightly coupled, complex Thanksgiving dinner could well be doomed unless precautions are taken.

Perrow’s complexity/coupling formula reveals the shared DNA behind all kinds of modern meltdowns, so failure in one industry can now provide lessons in other fields. We’ll find out how in the following blinks. 

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