Our lives depend on the smooth operation of complex systems. Our power and water supplies, communications technology, hospitals and public transport all rely on a web of highly integrated task sequences—avoidance of failure in these and countless other networks sustains the vital infrastructure we need to live in a healthy, comfortable, ordered society. Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It, by Chris Clearfield and András Tilcsik, is an analysis of why systems break down and what we can do to prevent this.
You may already be thinking, Why do I need to know about system collapse? What possible role could I play in preventing a major disaster? Don’t discount Meltdown. It’s as gripping as a best-selling thriller, and when you’ve finished reading you’ll feel empowered and ready for a fresh look at how things work (or don’t) in your own home and workplace.
The book is divided into two parts. In Part One, there’s an examination of system vulnerabilities and how these originated. Part Two offers solutions and prompts us to think about how we can learn from the past. What can small errors tell us about how to avoid large ones? A wide-ranging selection of real-life examples (including the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan) are used as case studies throughout the book to illustrate key ideas. The authors draw on research on behaviour and cognitive psychology and look at the changes, small and large, that can be made to safeguard against disruption.
Both authors bring relevant life experience to the task of unravelling the nature of system failure. Chris Clearfield had a career as a derivatives trader and also trained as a commercial pilot. He witnessed the 2007–2008 financial crisis first-hand. András Tilcsik has a background in research on organisational complexity and created a course for managers to share their experiences and study the failures of others. Together they distill academic studies, accident reports and interviews to reveal insight into the ways good decision-making can improve lives at the personal as well as global level.
Clearfield and Tilcsik look closely at the work of sociology professor Charles Perrow (‘the undisputed master of disaster’) and examine how parts of systems ‘interact in hidden and unexpected ways’. This intricate linking, and the fact that there are often indirect connections between seemingly unrelated parts, means diagnosis of problems can be extremely difficult. Very small glitches can result in huge effects. ‘Tight coupling’—the lack of buffer between parts of a system—means problems spread quickly as we’re unable to shut things down to deal with the issue.
So, how to minimise the risk of system failures? Diversity is one key tool. Company boards and governance bodies should have space for diverse voices and differing opinions. Outsider viewpoints encourage questioning and debate. When consensus is questioned, it can ‘save us from ourselves’ because it positions us to think creatively about an issue.
Meltdown is crammed with crucial information for all of us, not just those in charge of keeping things running. There are comprehensive notes and an index; both will be useful for delving deeper into the examples introduced in the book. Some of the advice may seem obvious to readers blessed with a decent dose of common sense. What it highlights particularly well is that it can be tough to challenge our own natural instincts to persist despite misgivings. When we succumb to the pressure to plug on with a plan even when we’ve recognised red flags, we’re vulnerable and largely ignorant of our vulnerability. Caught up in achieving our goal, we’re often blind to the fact that we’re heading towards danger.
Meltdown forces us to adopt a new perspective. It warns us to pull our heads out of the sand and pay attention to subtle warning signs. It stresses the importance of analysing issues and sharing our findings to help others anticipate the potential for similar problems in their own contexts. It invites us to create a culture of openness and to speak up, no matter how hesitant we are and how low our place in the hierarchy. If we can apply these principles we can make a difference in our own lives and do our bit to protect the lives of others.
Reviewed by Jo Vabolis
Rating out of 10: 10
Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: June 2018