Chapter 6. Why Things Break

“I’m not convinced,” said Linda, “that we can get rid of blame and punishment at the firm. It seems so ingrained in how we do things. It’s the flip side of reward—you get rewarded for not screwing up.”

“You get rewarded,” said Bill, “at least in part, for not being fully accountable.”

“It’s a reflection of our misunderstanding of how complex systems function,” said Ollie. “Failure is a normal part of complex systems, yet it’s always so surprising when they fail. Why aren’t we more surprised when they function?”

“Failure is normal?” said Linda, raising her eyebrows.

“In complex systems,” Ollie replied, “failure is absolutely normal and expected. Malfunction is as ‘normal’ as ‘regular’ functioning.”

“That makes no sense, Ollie!”

“OK, let’s get a little philosophical for a minute.” Ollie said. “Why do things break?”

“It seems that you’re saying that things break because they do—that it’s just normal,” Linda said.

“There are lots of reasons that things break,” Bill said. “Somebody does something, wear and tear, an ‘Act of God.’ It’s not like there’s a single root cause for all failures.”

“Well, what if I said that there is a single root cause for all failures,” Ollie said, smiling. “And for all successes, too. There’s something that all systems—working or breaking—have in common, and that’s change.”

“Sure,” Bill said, “I can see that when things break, somebody usually changes something, like a router configuration, and all hell breaks loose. But once you ...

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