Who thinks well? (Who produces the good outcomes they wanted?)

How good thinkers work initially

§         Uses analogy rigorously to determine the structure of the system    and as part of the strategies Dörner suggests for systems thinking     an example

§         Collects and PLOTs data (needed to see “covariations” that may have a “time lag”) 

§         Takes action but waits for measurement before acting again 

§         Takes more aspects into consideration 

§         Focuses on what they want to retain

§         Uses “reverse planning”

§         Follows a process - example

§         Develops goals that can adjust to changes and deals with contradictory goals

§         Makes more decisions


How good thinkers continue and complete their work

§         Does more testing of their own hypotheses (less assumption of "truth")

§         Has more accountability (less blame-shifting)

§         Has more tolerance of uncertainty

§         Encourages more critique

§         Continues to pay attention      and before acting "submit" our observations to "'strategic' scrutiny"

§         Is able to deal with changes over time


A Partial List of  Quotations from Dörner's The Logic of Failure in Page Order (only the quotations for the links above)


The use of these quotations does not indicate Dietrich Dörner's endorsement of the content on this webpage. Previously, Dörner gave permission to use these quotations as a resource for others. I have sent an email request to use these quotations here. If he does not agree, we will, of course, remove these quotations immediately.



Quotation from Dietrich Dörner's Logic of Failure


The first obvious difference is that the good participants [in the Greenvale simulations] made more decisions than the bad ones….


The participants acted “more complexly.” Their decisions took different aspects of the entire system into account, not just one aspect. This is clearly the more appropriate behavior in dealing with complicated systems.


The good participants differed from the bad ones, however, in how often they tested their hypotheses. The bad participants failed to do this. For them, to propose a hypothesis was to understand reality; testing that hypothesis was unnecessary. Instead of generating hypotheses, they generated “truths.”

Then, too, the good participants asked more why questions (as opposed to what questions). They were more interested in the causal links behind events….


When they could see no other way out, their last resort was to say: Tom or Dick or Harry should tend to the problem. This is a normal human dodge… But it has potentially serious consequences. If, the moment something goes wrong, we no longer hold ourselves responsible but push the blame onto others, we guarantee that we remain ignorant of the real reasons for poor decisions, namely inadequate plans and failures to anticipate the consequences.


What factors shaped the behavior of participants? The usual battery of psychological tests is useless in predicting participant behavior. We would assume that “intelligence” would determine behavior in complex situations like this, for complicated planning¾formulating and carrying out of decisions¾presumably places demands on what psychology has traditionally labeled “intelligence.” But there is no significant correlation between scores on IQ tests and performance in the Greenvale experiment or in any other complicated problem-solving experiment.


It seems likely that the capacity to tolerate uncertainly has something to do with how our participants behaved. [Goes on to criticize delegators.]


[Draws stages of "problem-solving process," including "review of effects of actions and revision of strategy.”]


Action follows decision. Plans must be translated into reality. This, too, is a difficult enterprise, one that calls for constant self-observation and critique. Is what I expected to happen actually happening? … We must be prepared to acknowledge that a solution is not working.


[Required balancing act]:

§         [not too specific too early] –“Who knows how the game will develop?”

§         [not avoid having specific goals] ¾”…if particular actions are not informed by an overall conception, behavior will respond only to the demands of the moment.”


How can we avoid this pitfall? Simply by keeping in mind, whenever we undertake the solution of a problem, the features of the current situation that we want to retain. Simple? Apparently not.


As Brecht observed late in life, advocates of progress often have too low an opinion of what already exists. When we set out to change things, in other words, we do not pay enough attention to what we want to leave unchanged. But an analysis of what should be retained:

§         gives us our only opportunity to make implicit goals explicit

§         and to prevent the solution of each problem from generating new problems like heads of the Hydra.


Contradictory goals are the rule, not the exception, in complex situations. In economic systems costs and benefits are almost always at odds.[bold added] … More dangerous are the situations in which the contradictory relation of partial goals is not evident.”

[Gives example of goals of liberty and equality in “days of French revolution.”]


Unrecognized contradictory relations between partial goals lead to actions that inevitably replace one problem with another. A vicious circle is commonly the result. By solving problem X, we create problem Y. And if the interval between the solutions is long enough that we an forget that the solution of the first problem created the second one…someone is sure to come up with an old solution for whatever the currently pressing problem is and will not realize that the old solution will create problem X again and send the circle into another cycle.


The same thing happens when current problems are so urgent that we will do anything to be rid of them. This, too, can produce a vicious circle in which we flip-flop between two problematic solutions [as in headache/stomach cures].


[Uses example of watch production and person who used analogy to process for self-manufacturing of cigarettes. Analogies are presented as a powerful way to learn. The participant as able to notice the commonalities in the “production process”:

§         The need for “raw materials”

§         The “certain sequence” and “set plan” with those raw materials to create the product

§         The need for “energy” and “how much is required”

§         The “skills do the makers of watches have to have”]


By thinking of watch production as analogous to rolling cigarettes, this participant was able to develop a mental picture of watch manufacturing. This gave her a basis for asking further questions about watch production and enabled her to grasp quickly the essentials of the field she had to work in.


This kind of analogous thinking is possible only if we consider things in the abstract. We must understand that making watches is only one narrow form of the broad concept of production process. And all production processes have in common is using energy to put different materials together according to a set plan.


Thinking by analogy may seem, after the fact, a rather primitive and obvious step, but many of our participants never made use of it and therefore bog down hopelessly in concrete situations. The prerequisite for making connections between watch production and rolling cigarettes—and therefore for thinking of useful question to ask—is an abstract understanding of watch manufacturing as a production process.


To deal effectively with a system… [w]e need to know:

§         …. how the causal relationships among the variables in a system work together in that system.

§         … how the individual components of a system fit into a hierarchy of broad and narrow concepts. This can help us fill in by analogy those parts of a structure unfamiliar to us.

§         ….component parts into which the elements of a system can be broken and the larger complexes in which those elements are embedded. We need to know this so that we can propose hypotheses about previously unrecognized interactions between variables.”


How do we acquire knowledge about the structure of a system? One important method is analogy, as illustrated above.


Another method…is to observe the changes that variables undergo over time. If we observe in an given ecosystem that an increase in animal population A is followed by an increase in animal population B and if we then observe a decline in population A followed by a decline in population B, we can assume that animals of type B feed on animals of type A and that the two populations form a predator-prey system.


The observation of covariations, between which there may be a time lag, is one way of acquiring structural knowledge, and all it requires is the collection and integrating of data over time. [Methods for plotting this data so that change over time is visible is a key method.]


Even after we know enough about a system to understand its structure, we must continue to gather information. We need to know about the system’s present status so as to predict future developments and assess the effects of past actions. These requirements make information essential for planning.[bold added]



[This is from a section about a participant in the computer simulations who persisted in a solution and could not see it was not applicable to new problems.] The experience of success left an indelible mark. “The promotion of tourism,” this participant believed, “pays off.” But this abstract formulation was an overgeneralization based on only one success story.


His promotion of tourism had proved successful only because it had coincided with a favorable constellation in the environment… But our participant did not take note of that constellation of conditions in formulating his abstract concepts….


This “deconditionalized” concept¾this concept removed from the context of conditions bearing on it¾led our participant into disaster.


The effectiveness of a measure almost always depends on the context within which the measure is pursued. A measure that produces good effects in one situation may do damage in another, and contextual dependencies mean that there are few general rules (rules that remain valid regardless of conditions surrounding them) that we can use to guide our actions. Every situation must be considered afresh.


A sensible and effective measure in one set of circumstances can become a dangerous course of action when conditions change. We must keep track of constantly changing conditions and never treat any image we form of a situation as permanent. Everything is in flux, and we must adapt accordingly. The need to adapt to particular circumstances, however, runs counter to our tendency to generalize and form abstract plans of action. We have here an example of how an important element of human intellectual activity can be both useful and harmful. Abstract concepts are useful in organizing and mastering complicated situations. Unfortunately, this advantage tempts us to use generalization and abstraction too freely. Before we apply an abstract concept to a concrete situation, we should submit it to “strategic” scrutiny to decide whether it is appropriate to the context.



We live and act in a four-dimensional system. In addition to the three dimensions of space, this system includes the fourth dimension of time, which moves in one direction, and that direction is toward the future…. We rarely have trouble dealing with configurations in space. If we’re not entirely sure of what we’re looking at, we can take another look and resolve our uncertainty. We can normally look at forms in space again and again and in this way precisely determine their particular configuration. That is not true of configurations in time. A time configuration is available for examination only in retrospect. …


Because we are constantly presented with whole spatial configurations, we readily think in such terms.… Our experience with spatial forms also gives us great intuition about the “missing pieces”….


By contrast, we often overlook time configurations and treat successive steps in a temporal development as individual events…. In contrast to the rich set of spatial concepts we can use to understand patters in space, we seem to rely on only a few mechanism of prognostication to gain insight into the future.


The primary such mechanism is extrapolation from the moment. In other words, those aspects of the present that anger, worry, or delight us the most will play a key role in our predictions of the future….


Two factors come together in extrapolations from the moment: [bullets added]

§         first, the limited focus on a notable feature of the present
[Example from page 110: “Fixation” on this “brings with it the danger that too much significance is ascribed to present circumstances.” – A Hong Kong tourist in typhoon season expects “the colony’s imminent water end.” On the other hand, a resident sees it “as unremarkable in the context of an entire year’s weather.”]

§         and, second, extension of the perceived trend in a more or less linear and “monotone” fashion (that is, without allowing for any change in direction).
[Example from page 110: “”Fixation linear future development may prevent us from anticipating changes in direction and pace.”]


Our ultimate concern in this chapter is how people form their ideas of the future. If we can identify the typical difficulties people have in dealing with time and in recognizing temporal patterns, we can suggest ways to overcome these difficulties and to improve temporal intuition.


[Dörner focuses on the success of a “good participant” who tries a setting and waits to see what happens before changing the setting again.]

Participant 27a always waits a fairly long time before adjusting the regulator, and as a consequence, slowly develops a feel for the proper setting. He gradually lowers the settings and finally succeeds in bring the storeroom down to the desired temperature.


[Thinking systemically is possible. Dörner covers a variety of strategies, including “reverse planning,” a method he attributes as a “standard method” for “mathematicians and logicians.” “Reverse planning” requires figuring out where you want to be and backing up from there—two complex actions, but hopeful. He suggests how to use such approaches as:

§         “[N]arrowing the problem sector” so you can remedy a smaller problem, with Dörner covering methods from pages 157 to 159, including “culling unsuccessful strategies,” something “particularly effective in helping us overcome deeply entrenched patterns of though.”

§         Using analogy, including with “time lags”
“In the refrigerated-storeroom experiment, the essential point for participants to grasp was the time lag between an action and the effect produced by that action. A participant who saw an analogy between setting the regulator [for temperature] at a new value and sending bills to customers (‘I do not get my money instantly either’) may not have developed an earthshaking idea, but he did hit on the one idea he needed to solve his problem.” (p. 160)

§         Setting up “’a redundancy of potential command,’ that is, many individuals who are all capable of carrying out leadership tasks within the context of general directives”
Note: “…problem solvers working under stress used the personal pronoun I more…. Does this finding suggest a tendency to resort to centralized regimes in stressful situations.”]


Geniuses are geniuses by birth, whereas the wise gain their wisdom thorough experience. And it seems to me that the ability to deal with problems in the most appropriate way is the hallmark of wisdom rather than genius.


If that is so, then it must be possible both to teach and to learn how to think in complex situations. Some of the results presented in this book show that people can respond to circumstances and learn to deal with specific areas of reality….


Rather simple methods can, however, improve our ability to think. [Dörner describes several strategies for education and his “plea” for changes. The final quotation reveals his fundamental hopefulness.]


What matters is not, I think, development of the neglected right half of the brain, not the liberation of some mysterious creative potential, and not the mobilization of that fallow 90 percent of our mental capacity. There is only one thing that does in fact matter, and that is the development of our common sense.

If you want more quotations from The Logic of Failure

For who Dörner is and the basics about systems and systems thinking, click here. For all of the quotations from The Logic of Failure and these topics, click here:


For information or problems with this link, please email using the email address below.

WCJC Department:

History – Dr. Bibus

Contact Information:

281.239.1577 or cjb_classes@yahoo.com

Last Updated:

2012 06/04

WCJC Home: